Climate change less politicized among minority groups

March 9, 2016 by Tom Fleischman, Cornell University

Picture someone who identifies as an "environmentalist," and you've probably got one of several images in your head – a hippie from the 1960s or the child/grandchild of one, maybe a celebrity who has famously taken up the cause, or perhaps a Gen Xer or millennial with liberal leanings.

No matter what mental picture you conjure, it's probably got one thing in common with others: whiteness.

Non-white minorities statistically are as concerned with climate change as are whites but are less likely to self-identify as environmentalists. This suggests that racial and ethnic representation, in areas of outreach and climate science advocacy, can shape core climate change beliefs in previously overlooked ways. That's of major importance for a nation that, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, is on track to become a majority-minority nation by the year 2050.

Race and ethnicity as a function of climate-change attitudes is the subject of a recent study by Jonathan Schuldt '04, assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and collaborator Adam Pearson '03, 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 final sample broke down as 75.6 percent white, and 24.4 percent non-white.

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 almost as a social barrier 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.'"

The Sierra Club made strides in that area last May when it elected Aaron Mair of Schenectady as its first African-American president. Mair is an epidemiological-spatial analyst with the New York State Department of Health and a longtime environmental activist.

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 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 attitudes are going to be like 30 years from now, this is a group that you want to understand," he said.

Explore further: Commentary calls for new 'science of climate diversity'

More information: Jonathon P. Schuldt et al. The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a U.S. national survey experiment, Climatic Change (2016). DOI: 10.1007/s10584-016-1631-3

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