Winnifred Louis: What the Rise of Right-wing Populism Means for Transitions towards Sustainability?

Keynote by Winnifred R. Louis, University of Queensland, Australia, at the International Conference of Environmental Psychology ICEP-2017, A Coruña, 30, 31 August, 1st September 2017. 

Winnifred R. Louis (PhD McGill, 2001) is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research interests focus on the influence of identity and norms on social decision-making. She has studied this broad topic in contexts from politics and community activism to health and environmental choices. Winnifred is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals and book chapters, and she has been awarded over $1m of competitive grant funding. She also works with Green organisations, politicians, and conservation biologists to promote effective environmental advocacy.

Unprecedented Disasters and Environmental Emergencies: What the Rise of Right-wing Populism Means for Transitions towards Sustainability, and What We Should Do Next

The rise of right-wing populism has seen a vigorous destruction of institutions, regulations and programs to mitigate climate change and to promote sustainability. Around the world, the rise in power of new right-wing movements has provoked a sense of crisis among environmentalists. In this talk I will discuss what I think we did right, what we got wrong, and what we need to do next.

I will present environmental behaviour as a property of groups as well as individuals, and I will argue that many environmentalists have ignored group processes that are well known, predictable and fundamental. This neglect has greatly undermined our persuasive efforts with political opponents.

I approach the topic as a social psychologist who studies decision-making in conflict, and I argue that by employing tactics known to create backlashes in conflict, environmentalists co-create variants of reactionary partisanship. Partisanship on environmental issues means that climate scepticism and indifference to sustainability become badges of political ideology, with profound negative consequences for the planet whenever conservatives come to power. Yet this dynamic is not inevitable.

I present a series of studies linking decisions made by individuals with group identities and norms (groups’ standards or rules), and demonstrating particular forms of positive persuasion vs. toxic backlash. The key problem that I identify across the studies is that persuasive messages that work for true believers are ineffective or counter-productive with opponents.

I close with five key recommendations for change in our approach: now that we have built a sense of problem recognition and motivation on our side of the political fence, we must change tactics to foster those beliefs and motivations among other voters and citizens. The social psychology of group processes and intergroup relations provides tools for new bipartisan transitions towards sustainability.


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