Research update

From Polarisation to Policy: How to use Moral Foundations Theory in climate communications

A guest post by CONSTRAIN Research Assistant Amy Britten

In its final stages, CONSTRAIN has been reviewing how morals can be used in communication strategies to overcome political polarisation on climate change.

Our literature review shows how moral framing can be a useful tool in climate communication, appealing to the target audiences’ moral values and allowing people across the political spectrum to view climate change as a moral issue.

What is moral framing?

Moral framing is the act of including specific morals that appeal to the target audience in a message. The morals are based on Moral Foundations Theory (MFT; Graham et al., 2011), which hypothesises that there are five moral concerns, known as ‘moral foundations,’ that navigate our decisions about right or wrong.

These moral foundations are care/harm, which draws on compassion for others; fairness/cheating, a sense of justice; loyalty/betrayal, a sense of patriotism; authority/subversion, a sense of respect for leaders; and sanctity/degradation, a sense of purity.

Care/harm and fairness/cheating are known as individualising moral foundations, which focus on the needs of individual people, while loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation are known as binding moral foundations, which focus on the needs of the group.

The political right tends to prioritise binding moral foundations and the political left tends to prioritise individualising moral foundations (Graham et al., 2009).  This is supported by studies investigating the appeal of both types of moral foundations on increasing pro-environmental attitudes in conservatives and liberals (Feygina et al., 2009; Kidwell et al., 2013; Wolsko et al., 2016).

Recent research has suggested that all five moral foundations may be combined to form one, united message that engages both the political left and the political right simultaneously to overcome the political divide (Hurst & Stern, 2020).

Using all five moral foundations may be useful not only in overcoming political divides but also in motivating policymakers to engage in climate action. Recent qualitative analysis has found that policymakers are calling for less ‘impersonal’ data and instead, evidence should have an emotional aspect (Zampini, 2018). As long as this communication strategy is made clear to the audience, the communicator’s credibility (Kotcher et al., 2017) and trustworthiness (Cologna et al., 2021) should not be undermined.

How can this help us with communicating climate science?

CONSTRAIN could benefit from using moral framing in its Zero In reports. All five moral foundations could be included throughout the reports to ensure that both sides of the political spectrum are able to evaluate their attitudes towards climate change through a moral lens. Below are some examples of how CONSTRAIN’s 2020 Zero In report could include both individualising and binding moral foundations:

Every fraction of avoided warming matters. This is especially true at the regional scale with some countries more strongly affected, or less able to respond, than others (fairness/cheating). For instance, if temperatures increased by 1.7°C rather than 1.5°C by 2050, the additional warming of 0.2°C could increase the number of people exposed to heatwaves by around one-third in a number of different countries across the world, which may harm a person’s health (care/harm), and the purity of our lifestyles (sanctity/degradation). It would be a betrayal to our country (loyalty/betrayal) to not listen to our leaders in climate (authority/subversion).

These are overt examples, with each moral foundation being very explicit. However, this paragraph intends to demonstrate the basics of how moral framing may coincide with CONSTRAIN’s science so that professional communicators can use the core concepts in their development of messages.

The psychology research undertaken by CONSTRAIN could be used as a communication strategy in future climate projects. In practice, CONSTRAIN’s communicators could work with policymakers to encourage them to reflect on their own moral values when evaluating climate science. Making climate change morally clear will allow for deeper engagement and encourage reflection. The full literature review further elaborates on possible methods where climate science could be more effectively communicated through morals.


Cologna, V., Knutti, R., Oreskes, N., & Siegrist, M. (2021). Majority of German citizens, US citizens and climate scientists support policy advocacy by climate researchers and expect greater political engagement. Environmental Research Letters, 16(2).

CONSTRAIN (2022) ZERO IN ON The Critical Decade: Insights from the latest IPCC reports on the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C, and climate impacts. The CONSTRAIN Project Annual Report 2022, DOI:10.5281/zenodo.7117315

Feygina, I., Jost, J. T., & Goldsmith, R. E. (2009). System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “System-Sanctioned change.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 326–338.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5).

Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366–385.

Hurst, K., & Stern, M. J. (2020). Messaging for environmental action: The role of moral framing and message source. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 68.

Kidwell, B., Farmer, A., & Hardesty, D. M. (2013). Getting liberals and conservatives to go green: political ideology and congruent appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(2), 350–367.

Kotcher, J. E., Myers, T. A., Vraga, E. K., Stenhouse, N., & Maibach, E. W. (2017). Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication, 11(3), 415-429.

Wolsko, C., Ariceaga, H., & Seiden, J. (2016). Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 65, 7–19.

Zampini, G. F. (2018). Evidence and morality in harm-reduction debates: can we use value-neutral arguments to achieve value-driven goals? Palgrave Communications, 4(1).