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Guest Blog: Communicating climate change with cosmopolitans and communitarians

By Helen Bower on March 12, 2018

A ‘new cultural divide’ has been increasingly used in the media to describe fault-lines across parties between those who are ‘open’ and’ closed’ to cultural diversity.

People crossing road in front of bus Oxford Street, London

Many articles have described how Brexit, Trump and populism show just how many voters are ‘closed’ and have their ‘drawbridges up’. The argument goes that people who are open to cultural diversity respond better to globalisation. This results in a backlash from those who are less comfortable with it or fare less well.

These differences can be labelled more neutrally as ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘communitarian’. These terms have long been used in philosophy, and latterly in the global ethics debate about how people respond to global issues, such as HIV, globalisation and climate change.  It is based on differences in people’s moral assumptions about the responsibility of the individual or society.

Cosmopolitans are defined as familiar and at ease in many different cultures, even seeing people as citizens of a world community. They are said to be often urban, socially liberal, ‘progressive’, ‘educated’ and mobile. Morality is assumed to be a universal human trait, emphasising human rights over those of a nation or group.

Communitarians, on the other hand, emphasise community over the individual and tend to be more rooted in a specific place or group. They have a more traditionalist, conservative outlook, placing less value on travel or education. Morality is assumed to be externally learnt from family, school, religion, culture etc.

The political scientist, Jonathan Wheatley, found in 2015 and 2016 that attitude differences on cultural issues (such as same-sex marriage, the ’threat of Islam’, British Values…) were represented on a cosmopolitan-communitarian (cos-com) axis. This correlated with English party support more than the Left-Right axis, which he found was losing relevance, especially for young people.

Cos-com differences overlap with the Left-Right divide, such that the Left is more cosmopolitan, and the Right, more communitarian, but were found by Wheatley to be significantly different dimensions. The cos-com divide is based more on cultural values, where the Left -Right divide has roots in economic differences, evident in attitudes to public and private ownership, and in historical divides between the Labour movement and Tory land-owners.

In my Masters dissertation research, I used responses to moral-cultural statements (from a voting advice app for the 2014 EU election – that Wheatley analysed) to divide people into cosmopolitan and communitarian groups. Then I asked the 180 participants about their willingness to take various environmental actions, such as changing to a green energy supplier or cutting down on car travel.

The group with cosmopolitan values were significantly more willing to act for the environment. Cosmopolitan values also correlated with voting ‘Remain’ in the EU Referendum, with communitarians more likely to vote ‘Leave’.

It seems significant that environmental attitudes could be predicted by seemingly unrelated cultural attitudes (e.g. on immigration, prison, foreign aid, etc.). The cos-com axis, as a potential marker of moral responses to local and international issues, certainly warrants further study in the field of environmental engagement.

If cosmopolitan attitudes create stronger environmental engagement, then a way to help increase action could be to encourage people to be more cosmopolitan. Whereas this may be possible to some degree, a more enlightened approach may be to understand and respect moral differences and use this to help generate action.

The use of un-biased labels for value divisions are helpful. The definitions of ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘communitarian’ can highlight positive features of both groups. Though a bit of a mouthful, they are not as historically complex as ‘Left’ and ‘Right; or as loaded as ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ or, ‘globalist’ and ‘patriotic’, as sometimes used.

Climate Outreach offers useful guidance in communicating environmental and policy messages across political divides. If there is, indeed, an increasingly meaningful ‘new cultural divide’ that cuts across these political divisions, then understanding its moral roots could deepen communication effectiveness.

Communications targeting cosmopolitans may be more effective if they appeal to human rights (such as climate impacts on marginal groups). If communitarians are the target group, obligations to their closer groups, communities and nation (such as what our schools, churches and families do and teach) may be most effective.  A national campaign needs to target both groups and balance the message to give hooks to each group to respond to.

Using labels that arise from moral, rather than political roots, may support the movement to understand and engage with difference, rather than reinforce polarisation.

Helen Bower has an academic background in psychology and anthropology, with a broad interest in how cultural values affect behaviour. Her Master thesis (on how engagement with climate change is affected by different moral relationships to the local and global level) inspired this blogpost.

9 responses to Guest Blog: Communicating climate change with cosmopolitans and communitarians

  1. Joy MacKeith says: says:

    This is a great blog and a really important message in this time in which we are getting more polarised. It is so easy to think “those other guys should realise how wrong they are and start agreeing with me” and so much harder, but so much more fruitful, to get curious about their moral framework and the values driving their views

  2. Daniel Espley says: says:

    Excellent article. Using language that bridges gaps is broadly useful in these times, not just for addressing climate change.

  3. Nice one Helen, an interesting and thought-provoking read. Many thoughts spring from this article to me, particularly with regard to the way we seek to classify to understand and engage with groups within an ever more diverse society… be good to catch up!

  4. Kay says: says:

    Great blog on the new cultural divide. Thanks Helen for explaining it so lucidly.

  5. John playfoot says: says:


  6. Lucy says: says:

    Thank you Helen, an interesting reframing ofperspectives. Language can hinder so easily as you have highlighted, but the beauty of language is it’s ability to change and morphed to become more dynamic and relevant to the now. By furthering Wheatley’s original research it sounds like some really constructive ways forward are being proposed.
    I hope your ideas reach a wide readership.

  7. Nick Naydler says: says:

    “non-biased label” souds like an oxymoron; it would have been interesting to have instances of how the cos/com paradigm has been useful in sociology or politics / policy.. The degree of overlap might illustrate the confusion in demographic entangledness. “Nos/acc” could be an equally useful new designation in the England context referring to “nostalgic” for imperial days versus “accepting” the need for a humbler and more collaborative place in the global field. Acc’s would be cosmopolitan communitarians and Nos’s would be insular fantasists. (coscoms’s and insfant’s).

    • Helen Bower replied: says:

      Thanks for your comments, Nick.
      I agree that a non-biased label is an oxymoron, but labels are hard to avoid and can be an improvement on other labels if grounded in an understanding of deeper, less-contentious differences, such as having a community or global orientation, Your Nos/acc divide is interesting but could imply a judgement that it is better to accept and be humble than be nostalgic or an insular fantasists.

      I agree it is useful to know more about how the cos-com paradigm is used in sociology and politics. I write a section about this in my full dissertation (section 1.5 Cosmopolitanism in empirical studies) found in the orange link ‘masters dissertation research’ in the blog.

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