Climate change less politicized among minority groups

ITHACA, N.Y. – Race and ethnicity as a function of climate-change attitudes is the subject of a recent study by Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and collaborator Adam Pearson, assistant professor of psychology at Pomona (Calif.) College.

Their work is documented in a paper, “The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: Evidence from a U.S. national survey experiment,” and is published online in the journal Climatic Change.

Schuldt and Pearson analyzed data from a 2012 survey that focused on the respondents’ opinions regarding climate change and their political partisanship. They then examined the role minority vs. majority status played in terms of respondents’ views on the issue.

The analysis revealed some key insights. Although a person’s politics (as a liberal or a conservative) is normally a strong predictor of their climate opinions, Schuldt and Pearson find that when it comes to the opinions of non-whites, politics matters less than it does for whites. Non-whites were also less likely to consider themselves “environmentalists,” even though their climate opinions largely matched those of whites.

The main takeaway for Schuldt? Non-whites care as much, or more, about the environment as do whites, and oftentimes are more directly affected by the negative effects of climate change, but are underrepresented among those addressing the issue.

“We think about this in terms of social barriers to engagement,” Schuldt said. “We’re seeing high levels of concern, and less politicized attitudes, among some groups that are nevertheless not at the table. And so the question is, why are they not at the table? Unfortunately, some in the past have said, ‘Well, if they’re not there, it’s because they don’t prioritize it.’ But the data don’t bear that out.”

“You think of the prototypical environmentalist or you look at some environmental organizations,” Schuldt said, “and many who we need in the movement might think, ‘They don’t look like me, therefore maybe I’m not welcome.’”

Schuldt thinks socio-economic realities are also factors in why some members of minority groups don’t officially join the cause.

“It’s possible that for many non-whites, it’s not so much some abstract political issue as it is a real-life-impacts issue,” Schuldt said. “There’s work showing that minority groups are more likely to suffer disproportionate climate impacts, and are highly aware and more attuned to those unfair negative impacts.”

Schuldt and Pearson, with their colleague Rainer Romero-Canyas of the Environmental Defense Fund in Manhattan, are already working on a new national-level survey to further “unpack these social factors,” Schuldt said. As Hispanics make up the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., the new study will have a particular focus on that group, he said.

“If you want to project what climate change attitudes are going to be like 30 years from now, this is a group that you want to understand,” he said.

The original survey, of 2,041 U.S. adults from Aug. 25-Sept. 5, 2012, was conducted by GfK Knowledge Networks. Data analysis was conducted by Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.


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