In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress and states to take steps to reduce carbon pollution while also improving our ability to manage the climate impacts that are already being felt at home. With limited prospects for action in Congress, however, Obama is likely to pursue administrative action, with the Environmental Protection Agency implementing rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

In the coming months, Obama will be taking to the road, talking about climate and energy along with other policy priorities. At his New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin suggests to the President: “Most Americans, even many unconcerned by global warming, want energy thrift, safe gas drilling, more science and resilience to climate extremes, whatever the cause. Why not tour the nation to enlist this force and overcome edge-driven politics?”

Revkin’s focus for Obama is the right one — a strategy that attempts to blur and blend discourses about a set of interconnected issues that matter to a broader diversity of Americans, making these issues both national and local.

But there is another element to Obama’s engagement strategy that is needed, an element that should also be deployed by the many organizations that want to recruit more Americans to work together on the issue. The strategy starts with making the moral case for why climate change matters.

Research suggests that efforts to motivate and empower Americans to get involved will ultimately depend on appealing to a greater diversity of moral intuitions and values.

Rather than identify climate change as an issue that involves considerations of right and wrong, blame and responsibility, most Americans still view climate change as a politically gridlocked, partisan fight and a highly technical and complex problem that has limited bearing on their daily lives.

If they do perceive a moral dimension to climate change, it is relative to care and stewardship of the environment — an intuition, however, that is easily overlooked in the context of economic concerns, limited job choices or feelings of insecurity relative to health care costs and gun violence.

Recently, Ezra Markowitz, a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University; Jon Kotcher, a doctoral student at George Mason University; and I took a closer look at what research could tell us about strategies for overcoming the many barriers that prevent more Americans from becoming involved in their communities and in the political debate over climate change.

Among relevant work in the social sciences, research suggests that efforts to motivate and empower Americans to get involved will ultimately depend on appealing to a greater diversity of moral intuitions and values. In his research, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt draws on surveys of tens of thousands of individuals to develop and validate a typology of six commonly held “moral foundations” that structure and guide feelings, opinions and policy preferences.

Haidt’s typology offers a valuable diagnostic and planning tool for understanding the limits to past efforts at public engagement on climate change and to identify several paths forward. These commonly held moral foundations include:

  • care/harm – concerns about the caring for and protection of others
  • fairness/cheating – concerns about treating others fairly and upholding justice
  • loyalty/betrayal – concerns about group membership; loyalty to one’s nation and community
  • authority/subversion – concerns about legitimacy, leadership and tradition
  • liberty/oppression– concerns about personal freedom and control by others
  • sanctity/degradation – concerns about purity, sanctity and contamination

Liberals and many environmental leaders tend to communicate about issues in ways that mostly activate the moral foundations of care/harm and fairness/cheating. This reflects their own intuitive mechanisms for making sense of issues and the vocabulary they share with like-minded colleagues, friends and supporters.

For example, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth appealed to liberal intuitions of care/harm, but focused mostly on the harm to the environment, rather than on threats to human security and well-being. Later, during the debate over cap-and-trade legislation, Gore’s We Can Solve It campaign and the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cap = Jobs campaign lacked an obvious moral call to action, focusing instead on economic benefits.

As I’ve previously written, in the context of the recession, this emphasis turned the debate into one over ”some economic benefits” as claimed by advocates for action versus “dramatic economic costs” as claimed by opponents. Given the economic context, the balance favored the opposition.

In response to the failure of the cap-and-trade bill, environmental leaders called for new approaches to communication, asserting that it was time to invest in building networks and partnerships in the Midwest and other regions. “We will have to reach out to new partners, make new allies and engage new constituencies,” wrote the Environmental Defense Fund’s Fred Krupp in 2010 in The Huffington Post