A recent study published in Germany investigates the connection between environmentalism and compassion for other people. The psychologists performing the study found that people who feel more sympathy for human suffering are more likely to support environmental causes.
The study also investigated a causal relationship between the two. They had participants view pictures of human suffering, and instructed them to either be empathetic, or try and remain neutral towards the subjects of the photos, then asked them questions about environmental issues. Participants who were instructed to be empathetic felt stronger environmental intentions.
It’s not entirely clear why this is, although one answer might be that some environmental issues, such as global warming, affect everyone on the planet. It likely isn’t very hard for most environmentalists to understand this connection, especially as liberals tend to support both green and humanitarian issues.
But for conservatives, the connection might provide more proof that environmentalists are just sensitive “tree huggers” who base their decisions on emotion instead of rational thought. Other studies have found that liberals and conservatives choose their political leanings because they have different moral concerns. For example, liberals tend to be more concerned with the emotional impact of their actions, while conservatives care more about whether their actions are loyal to their country. This isn’t to say that liberals don’t care about loyalty, or that conservatives don’t care about emotional suffering, they just have different levels of concern for different issues.
From what we know about the motivations of oil companies and other serial polluters and their supporters, the idea that environmentalists and their opponents have much in common may come as a shock. The idea that liberals and conservatives care about the same issues to different degrees doesn’t seem to mesh. After all, it’s hard to argue that supporting Keystone XL is about the “greater good,” when it certainly seems to be about making as much money as possible at the expense of the environment.
Perhaps future studies will tell us more about why people don’t support environmental causes as well.