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Race, class, gender and climate change communication

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  • Opinion Dynamics

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Interest in the audience factors that shape the processing of climate change messaging has risen over the past decade, as evidenced by dozens of studies demonstrating message effects that are contingent on audiences’ political values, ideological worldviews, and cultural mindsets. Complementing these efforts is a growing interest in understanding the role of non-partisan social factors— including racial and ethnic identities, social class, and gender—that have received comparably less attention but are critical for understanding how the challenges posed by climate change can be effectively communicated in pluralistic societies. Research and theory on effects of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (education and income), and gender on climate change perceptions suggests that each of these factors can independently and systematically shape people’s attitudes and beliefs about climate change, as well as both individual and collective motivations to address it. Moreover, the literature suggests that these factors often interact with political orientation (ideology and party affiliation) such that climate change beliefs and risk perceptions are typically more polarized for members of advantaged relative to disadvantaged groups. Notably, differential polarization in the perceived dangers posed by climate change has increased on some group dimensions (e.g., race and income) from 2000 to 2010. Groups for whom the issue of climate change may be less politically charged, such as racial and ethnic minorities and members of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, may thus represent critical audiences for bridging growing partisan disagreements and building policy consensus. Nevertheless, critical knowledge gaps remain. In particular, few studies have examined effects of race or ethnicity beyond the U.S. context, or explored ways in which race, ethnicity, class, and gender may interact to influence climate change engagement. Increasing attention to these factors, and the role of diversity more generally in environmental communication, can enhance understanding of key barriers to broadening public participation in climate discourse and decision making.
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Summary and Keywords
Interest in the audience factors that shape the processing of climate change messaging
has risen over the past decade, as evidenced by dozens of studies demonstrating message
effects that are contingent on audiences’ political values, ideological worldviews, and
cultural mindsets. Complementing these efforts is a growing interest in understanding
the role of nonpartisan social factors—including racial and ethnic identities, social class,
and gender—that have received comparably less attention but are critical for
understanding how the challenges posed by climate change can be effectively
communicated in pluralistic societies. Research and theory on the effects of race,
ethnicity, socioeconomic status (education and income), and gender on climate change
perceptions suggest that each of these factors can independently and systematically
shape people’s attitudes and beliefs about climate change, as well as both individual and
collective motivations to address it. Moreover, the literature suggests that these factors
often interact with political orientation (ideology and party affiliation) such that climate
change beliefs and risk perceptions are typically more polarized for members of
advantaged groups than disadvantaged groups. Notably, differential polarization in the
perceived dangers posed by climate change has increased in some group dimensions
(e.g., race and income) from 2000 to 2010. Groups for whom the issue of climate change
may be less politically charged, such as racial and ethnic minorities and members of
socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, thus represent critical audiences for bridging
growing partisan divides and building policy consensus. Nevertheless, critical knowledge
gaps remain. In particular, few studies have examined effects of race or ethnicity beyond
the U.S. context or explored ways in which race, ethnicity, class, and gender may interact
to influence climate change engagement. Increasing attention to these factors, as well as
the role of diversity more generally in environmental communication, can enhance
understanding of key barriers to broadening public participation in climate discourse and
decision-making.
Climate Change Communication in Relation to Race,
Class, and Gender
Adam R. Pearson, Matthew T. Ballew, Sarah Naiman, and Jonathon P. Schuldt
Subject: Climate Change Communication Online Publication Date: Apr 2017
DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.412
Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science
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Keywords: diversity, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, social identity, acculturation, group processes,
intergroup relations
Perhaps more than any contemporary social issue, climate change presents a host of
challenges that require broad and sustained cooperation across diverse groups with
often-competing interests. Beyond physical changes to the environment, these challenges
include serious social obstacles, from threats to public health and community
infrastructure to threats to social and political institutions and livelihoods (Doherty &
Clayton, 2011; IPCC, 2014; Swim et al., 2011). Moreover, disparities in these impacts have
grown increasingly apparent. Current models suggest that economically developing
nations in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—the world’s poorest and fastest-growing
regions that are least equipped to respond to climate change—will experience its most
severe effects (Burke, Hsiang, & Miguel, 2015). Within nations, women, communities of
color, and members of other socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are substantially
more vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change than members of advantaged
groups (Bullard, Johnson, & Torres, 2011; United Nations Development Programme, 2007;
ISSC and UNESCO, 2013).
Because socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are not only more vulnerable to effects
of climate change, but also lack key influence in environmental policymaking and access
to green jobs that are fundamental to a clean energy economy, diversity has traditionally
been viewed within the environmental sector through the lens of equity (e.g., as a matter
of environmental justice; see Harper-Anderson, 2012). However, declining public interest in
climate change globally over the past decade and a persistent gap between public and
scientific consensus on climate change in pluralistic societies like the United States
underscore an added significance of research and advocacy aimed at broadening public
engagement on climate issues (Anderegg & Goldsmith, 2014; Brulle, Carmichael, &
Jenkins, 2012). With growing diversity and transnational migration within the United
States, Europe, and Australasia, many industrialized nations will soon have a more
diverse demographic makeup than ever before (United Nations Development Programme,
2007). As the world’s nations work to meet commitments from the 2015 Paris Agreement,
cooperation to address climate threats both within and between nations is paramount.
Understanding how social identities shape public engagement on climate change will be
critical to this cooperation. To date, however, research on identity processes in climate
change communication has primarily focused on effects of political orientation (e.g.,
partisan affiliations and political ideology) and individual-level factors (e.g., science
literacy and environmental attitudes) that influence the processing of climate-related
messages. Considerably less attention has been paid to how nonpartisan identities and
group memberships, such as those related to race, ethnicity, class, and gender, influence
public responses to the climate crisis (Moser, 2016; Pearson & Schuldt, 2015; Pearson,
Schuldt, & Romero-Canyas, 2016). Attention to these factors can help researchers,
organizations, and policymakers better understand what brings diverse stakeholders to
Climate Change Communication in Relation to Race, Class, and Gender
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the table and can inform efforts to build public consensus and motivate collective action
to address climate change.
In this article, we review extant research on public opinion, as well as theoretical
perspectives and empirical findings within psychology and communication, to examine
how race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (income and education), and gender can
influence the processing of climate-related messaging and issue engagement. Throughout
the article, we identify consensus findings and key knowledge gaps and highlight
potential applications for developing more effective, inclusive, and informed climate
advocacy.
Race, Ethnicity, and Climate Change
In their review of public opinion work on climate change, Wolf and Moser (2011; see also
Moser, 2016) distinguish between understanding (acquiring and using accurate knowledge
and information about climate change), perception (e.g., subjective experience and
interpretations of others’ beliefs and understandings), and engagement (personal
connections that include cognitive, affective, and/or behavioral dimensions) as distinct
but complementary ways that individuals respond to climate change. Next, we summarize
existing research (where available) and theory that examines group differences (i.e.,
comparing the responses of two or more racial/ethnic groups) for each of these
dimensions, focusing on empirical findings published since 2000.
Opinion polls over the past several decades reveal a racial/ethnic gap in environmental
concern, including concerns about climate change, with non-White minorities in the
United States expressing consistently higher levels of concern than Whites (e.g., Dietz,
Dan, & Shwom, 2007; Guber, 2013; Leiserowitz & Akerlof, 2010; Macias, 2016A; McCright &
Dunlap, 2011B; Speiser & Krygsman, 2014; Whittaker, Segura, & Bowler, 2005; Williams &
Florez, 2002). Blacks and Latinos also typically express higher levels of support for
national and international climate and energy policies than Whites. This includes
proportionally higher support for regulating carbon emissions, improving fuel economy
and household energy efficiency standards, and increasing taxes to mitigate climate
change (see Figure 1, showing findings from Leiserowitz & Akerlof, 2010; also Dietz et al.,
2007; Leiserowitz, 2006; and Krygsman, Speiser, & Lake, 2016).
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Other research conducted
in the United States
examining race and
ethnicity in the context of
climate change has
documented group
differences relative to
climate beliefs and risk
perceptions. For instance,
a 2014 national probability
survey that used a two-
item index of concern,
assessing whether
respondents perceive
climate change to be a
crisis and whether
respondents believe that it
will negatively affect them
personally, found that 71%
of Hispanic Americans and
57% of Black Americans
indicated that they were
very or somewhat
concerned about climate
change, compared to 43%
of White Americans (Jones,
Cox, & Navarro-Rivera,
2014). In an analysis of 10
nationally representative
Gallup polls between 2001 and 2010, McCright and Dunlap (2011A) found that non-Whites
in the United States reported greater worry about global warming and concern that it will
pose “a serious threat to you and your way of life in your lifetime” than Whites. Moreover,
this racial/ethnic gap in concern remained when controlling for other sociodemographic
variables often found to correlate with global warming beliefs and attitudes, including
gender, age, annual income, education, political orientation, and religiosity. Similarly, in a
cross-sectional analysis of Gallup survey responses from 1990, 2000, and 2010, Guber
(2013) found that respondent race/ethnicity (White versus non-White) and political ideology
(conservatism versus liberalism) independently tracked environmental concern level,
including about global warming—effects that have grown simultaneously over time (see
also Macias, 2016A). Compared to other environmental issues, such as concern over air and
water pollution, climate change also typically ranks higher in importance for U.S. racial
and ethnic minorities than for Whites.
Click to view larger
Figure 1. Percentage of U.S. respondents supporting
climate and energy policies by race/ethnicity, from
Leiserowitz and Akerlof (2010). Items include support
or opposition to regulating carbon (“Regulating
carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) as a
pollutant”); a household tax (“Provide a government
subsidy to replace old water heaters, air
conditioners, light bulbs, and insulation. This subsidy
would cost the average household $5 a month in
higher taxes. Those who took advantage of the
program would save money on their utility bills”); an
energy tax (“Establish a special fund to help make
buildings more energy efficient and teach Americans
how to reduce their energy use. This would add a
$2.50 surcharge to the average household’s monthly
electric bill”); and a gas tax (“Increase taxes on
gasoline by 25 cents per gallon and return the
revenues to taxpayers by reducing the federal
income tax”). Results are aggregated from
Leiserowitz and Akerlof (2010) and based on a
nationally representative survey of 2,164 U.S. adults
conducted in 2008. Racial/ethnic categories include
Hispanics (13%), Blacks (11%), Other race/ethnicity
(6%), and Whites (69%). See Leiserowitz and Akerlof
(2010) for additional survey items and methodology.
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Macias (2016A) examined levels of perceived environmental risks among nine U.S. race and
ethnic categories using data from the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), comparing
perceptions of climate change risk to those of air and water pollution, agricultural
chemicals, and nuclear power generation. Over and above the effects of age, gender,
household income, education, rural/urban place of residence, and political ideology
(liberalism versus conservatism), racial and ethnic minority identification was found to be
a consistently strong and independent positive predictor of perceived environmental risk,
including risk posed by climate change, with non-Whites generally showing greater
concern for climate change than U.S.-born Whites. Moreover, among non-Whites, concern
for climate change was greater than concern for more localized issues, such as air
pollution from cars and industry.
Other studies report significant differences among different racial and ethnic minority
groups on environmental priorities. Jones and colleagues (2014) report that 39% of Black
Americans rank climate change as the most important environmental issue, compared to
21% of Hispanics and 24% of White Americans. Hispanics, in turn, were more likely
(46%) than Blacks (29%) and Whites (24%) to identify pollution as the country’s most
serious environmental problem.
Despite these higher perceptions of environmental risks among minorities, there is some
evidence of an inverse concern gap between U.S. Whites and non-Whites in response to
questions that require participants to prioritize economic versus environmental concerns.
An analysis of 2010 GSS data found that Blacks and foreign-born Latinos expressed
greater support for prioritizing economic progress over environmental protection than do
Whites, and that Blacks indicated less willingness to accept a lower standard of living to
protect the environment than Whites (Macias, 2016B). Nevertheless, both U.S.-born Blacks
and foreign-born Latinos perceived higher levels of environmental risks, including global
warming, than U.S. Whites, controlling for a wide range of other demographic variables,
including education, income, urban versus rural residence, and political ideology
(liberalism versus conservatism).
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Theoretical Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Differences
Issues of equity are critical to understanding differences in climate change risk
perceptions and environmental engagement between Whites and non-Whites. Early
studies looked to explain disparities in pro-environmental attitudes on the basis of
differing concerns about the environment, documenting ostensibly lower levels of
concern among non-Whites relative to Whites. [For reviews of the political, social, and
methodological factors contributing to these findings, see Mohai (2008), Macias (2016B), and
Taylor (1989).] However, these early studies often conflated concern with frequency of
outdoor recreation (e.g., visits to natural parks), membership in environmental
organizations, and charitable donations, rather than linking concerns to group-specific
risk factors, such as greater health risks associated with exposure to industrial pollution
among African American and Latino communities (Arp & Kenny, 1996; Bullard et al., 2011;
Jones & Rainey, 2006; Macias, 2016A; Mohai & Bryant, 1998). Spurred largely by work within
the field of environmental justice, a notable shift from assessing environmental concern
based primarily on attitudes toward conservation (e.g., protection of natural spaces) to
incorporating measures of environmental risk (particularly perceived exposure to
environmental hazards) has afforded a more nuanced picture of group differences in
environmental concern (see Mohai, 2008).
Differences in risk perceptions observed across racial and ethnic groups mirror a reality
that minority communities in many industrialized nations suffer disproportionately from a
wide range of environmental hazards compared to equivalent-income Whites. According
to environmental deprivation theory, exposure to environmental hazards and harm leads
to greater concern about the environment and increased support for protective behaviors
(Whittaker, Segura, & Bowler, 2005). Due to persistent racial segregation and
discrimination in real estate and insurance markets, housing, and infrastructure
development, U.S. Blacks and Latinos are substantially more likely to live near hazardous
industrial sites and high-pollution-emitting power plants than Whites (Bolin, 2006; Jones &
Rainey, 2006; Mohai, 2008; Bullard et al., 2011). As a result, people of color in the United
States experience up to 20 times the level of smog exposure as equivalent-income Whites
(Clark, Millet, & Marshall, 2014). U.S. racial and ethnic minorities are also more likely to
live in poverty and in hazard-prone areas than Whites, as illustrated by the devastating
effects of Hurricane Katrina on minority communities in Louisiana (Laska & Morrow,
2006).
These differential vulnerabilities extend to climate-specific impacts (for reviews, see
Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003; Cutter, Emrich, Webb, & Morath, 2009). For instance,
California, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse U.S. states, also faces a wide
range of severe environmental hazards due to climate change, including increases in
wildfires, coastal flooding, erosion, and extreme heat. A 2012 study of the impacts of
climate change on different populations across California found that four factors—lacking
a high school diploma, being of low income, not speaking English, and being a person of
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color—were the strongest predictors of vulnerability; each was a stronger factor than
being elderly, pregnant, or unemployed (Cooley, Moore, Heberger, & Allen, 2012).
Consistent with environmental deprivation theory, differential exposure to the effects of
climate change thus may help to explain why non-Whites show higher levels of
environmental concern and support for risk-mitigating policies compared to Whites.
According to the differential vulnerability hypothesis, non-Whites in the United States
may also feel more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than Whites, in part
because of their less privileged position in society (Flynn, Slovic, & Mertz, 1994;
Satterfield, Mertz, & Slovic, 2004). Indeed, in the United States, White males are
significantly more likely than are members of other demographic groups to endorse
denialist views of climate change, and also perceive fewer environmental risks generally,
than women and non-Whites (McCright & Dunlap, 2011B; Satterfield et al., 2004). Support
for the vulnerability hypothesis comes from a national probability sample in which the
racial/ethnic gap in environmental concern was partially accounted for by non-Whites’
greater awareness of disproportionate environmental hazards and greater perceived
personal vulnerability, independent of effects of income, education, and political
orientation (Satterfield et al., 2004).
Additional survey findings lend further support to the vulnerability hypothesis. In a
multiyear analysis of GSS data, Adeola (2004) found that disproportionate exposure to
environmental hazards predicted Blacks’ greater perception of a wide range of
environmental risks, including those associated with industrial air pollution. Similarly, a
2014 nationally representative survey of U.S. adults found that the impacts of climate
change may resonate more personally with African Americans than other racial and
ethnic groups. Specifically, 62% of African Americans reported being personally affected
by extreme weather, and only 21% reported believing that climate change would not
personally affect them in their lifetime (versus 51% and 28% for the general American
public) (Speiser & Krygsman, 2014). Moreover, a greater percentage of African Americans
attributed increased severity of allergies (59%) and breathing problems (56%) to climate
change than did the broader U.S. public (49% and 46%, respectively).
Non-Whites’ risk perceptions appear to reflect long-standing environmental disparities
rather than sensitivity to more acute hazards. For instance, a comparison of U.S. Blacks’
concerns expressed in the 2000 and 2010 GSS suggests that their greater concern about
climate change compared to Whites has remained relatively stable over time, rather than
shifting in relation to high-profile disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that
disproportionately affected Black communities. In 2000, 56.4% of Blacks and 45.4% of
Whites reported believing that the temperature rise caused by climate change was “very”
or “extremely” dangerous in 2000, whereas 55.1% of Blacks and 42.3% of Whites
reported the same in 2010 (Macias, 2016A).
Greater vulnerability to environmental risks may also heighten concerns about climate
change by strengthening pro-ecological values more generally. Kellstedt, Zahran, and
Vedlitz (2008) found that climate risk perceptions were greater among non-Whites relative
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to Whites. However, when controlling for responses on the most widely used measure of
ecological values [the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) scale, which assesses perceptions
of resource scarcity, human negative impacts on nature, and ethical responsibility toward
nonhuman life; Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, & Jones, 2000], non-White identification
predicted lower climate risk perception.
Finally, work on the “White male effect” in risk perception has highlighted the ways that
gender, race, and political orientation can intersect to predict beliefs about climate
change and support for mitigation policy. For instance, conservative White males are
significantly more likely than other groups in the United States to deny the existence of
climate change (Finucane, Slovic, Mertz, Flynn, & Satterfield, 2000; McCright & Dunlap,
2013). Environmental protections often entail governmental intervention into markets and
restrictions on individual rights, which may conflict with conservative values, whereas
regulations that emphasize collective rights and protection of minority populations often
resonate with liberals (McCright, Dunlap, & Marquart-Pyatt, 2016; McCright & Dunlap,
2011B). Some scholars have argued that environmental beliefs, including skepticism about
climate change, can serve an “identity-protective” function to protect the status afforded
by advantaged group memberships (Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic, & Mertz, 2007).
Consistent with the identity-protective hypothesis, individuals from high-status groups, as
well as those who are more likely to perceive prevailing group hierarchies as just and fair
(e.g., conservative White males), are more likely to resist policies aimed at regulating
environmental risks and to perceive them as threatening established social, economic,
and political systems (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010; McCright & Dunlap, 2011B).
Nevertheless, the precise mechanisms through which racial/ethnic minority status
enhances support for climate regulatory policies remain unclear. Dietz and colleagues
(2007) found direct effects of race/ethnic minority identification on enhanced mitigation
policy support, even when controlling for political ideology, education, income, and pro-
ecological values (as assessed by the NEP scale). Whereas political orientation was
strongly (if indirectly) associated with policy support and was not a significant predictor
of policy support when accounting for ecological values and trust in environmental
groups, non-White racial/ethnic identification remained a robust predictor of policy
support when controlling for these as well as variety of other potential explanatory
variables, including altruistic (versus egoistic/individualistic) orientation, future
orientation, awareness of the negative impacts of climate change, and reported media
exposure to climate-related information .
Ethnicity, Acculturation, and Climate Change Beliefs
Beyond effects of race, emerging research on the role of acculturation processes and
well-documented effects of cultural values on pro-environmental behavior suggests a
unique role of ethnic identity in climate change engagement. For instance, Asians and
1
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Latinos, the fastest-growing minority groups within the United States, consistently show
among the highest levels of environmental concern of all U.S. racial and ethnic groups
(e.g., Jones et al., 2014; Leiserowitz & Akerlof, 2010; Macias, 2016A, 2016B).
Macias (2016B) examined whether risk perception among U.S. immigrant groups shifts
toward those of the majority group (e.g., Whites) as a result of cultural assimilation.
Although higher risk perceptions were generally observed among non-Whites relative to
Whites, evidence for environmental attitude assimilation was observed among those of
Mexican origin. First-generation Mexican immigrants were over three times as likely as
U.S.-born Whites to report a higher willingness to pay (including through higher taxes) to
protect the environment. These effects were weaker, although still significant, for U.S.-
born Latinos relative to U.S.-born Whites. Overall, these findings complement prior
research documenting a pattern of ecological assimilation whereby U.S. immigrant
groups become less concerned about the environment with greater assimilation (e.g.,
Schultz, Unipan, & Gamba, 2000). Nevertheless, some studies beyond the U.S. context
(e.g., Lovelock, Jellum, Thompson, & Lovelock, 2013, which looked at New Zealanders)
have found no differences in environmental attitudes among immigrants compared to
nonimmigrants, pointing to the need for additional research on the potential role of
acculturation processes in public perceptions of climate change.
Psychological research has also identified distinct cultural orientations among Latinos in
the United States, such as a strong, interdependent relational orientation that
emphasizes social harmony, respect, and concern for the welfare of one’s family and
community (Holloway, Waldrip, & Ickes, 2009). These findings highlight the need for
research aimed at better understanding Latinos’ environmental engagement in order to
develop culturally informed environmental advocacy. For instance, limited research has
explored the role of trust as a possible conduit and barrier to minorities’ environmental
engagement, which may be particularly salient among historically disenfranchised groups
and immigrant groups who have emigrated from regions with high levels of government
corruption. Additional research has suggested that environmental attitudes of Latinos
may be rooted in familial concerns and motivations to leave a sustainable world to future
generations (Speiser & Krygsman, 2014). How might such concerns be leveraged into
commensurate levels of environmental action—both in terms of consumer behaviors, such
as “green” purchasing, and political action, such as voting and volunteering? These
remain important questions for future research.
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Future Directions: What Do We Need to Know About Racial and
Ethnic Differences?
Despite growing interest in understanding how race and ethnicity shape public
perceptions of climate change risk, few studies have looked beyond simplified White/non-
White dichotomies or beyond the U.S. context. Indeed, our analysis of empirical studies
published since 2000 that included one or more racial or ethnic group comparisons (as
opposed to single-population or case studies) revealed a dearth of non-U.S. studies and
few empirical studies focusing on race and ethnicity, generally, relative to the sizable
literature on political partisanship. Moreover, many studies that do examine race or
ethnicity treat racial and ethnic identification as statistical control variables, rather than
as variables of primary theoretical interest, and only one published study (Schuldt &
Pearson, 2016) reported formal tests of interaction effects of race or ethnicity with other
key predictors of climate beliefs, such as political orientation (but see McCright &
Dunlap, 2011A, for other work examining intersections of race and ideology).
Given their differential vulnerability and awareness of general inequities (Satterfield et
al., 2004), members of minority groups may be motivated by concerns that are less rooted
in political partisanship or ideology when it comes to climate change. Consistent with this
reasoning, in a large, nationally representative survey, Schuldt and Pearson (2016) found
that U.S. public opinion about climate change is less politically polarized for racial and
ethnic minorities than for Whites. Most strikingly, political ideology, a variable that
strongly predicts climate polarization in the United States, was substantially less
predictive of the climate beliefs of non-Whites than of Whites. This same pattern held for
other opinion metrics examined, including belief in scientific consensus and support for
mitigation efforts (regulating greenhouse gases). An examination of Whites’ and non-
Whites’ climate risk perceptions in the 2000 and 2010 GSS (see Figures 2A and 2B) further
illustrates differential polarization, whereby U.S. Whites generally show stronger partisan
effects relative to non-Whites—and this finding suggests that differential polarization has
increased over time (for similar effects for income, discussed in more detail later in this
article, see Figures 3A and 3B). These findings point to the importance of considering
interactive effects of race/ethnicity and other sociocultural predictors of climate change
perceptions and public engagement.
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Due to sample size
constraints, a majority of
empirical studies collapse
racial and ethnic minority
group memberships to
examine White/non-White
dichotomies, potentially
masking factors that may
differentially shape climate
change engagement both
within and between
different racial and ethnic
minority groups. For
instance, despite being the
fastest-growing minority
group in the United States,
few studies have examined
climate-related attitudes
and beliefs of Asians and
Asian Americans. Asian
Americans have the
highest average income
and education level of all
minority groups within the
United States. Yet, they
also show the highest
levels of concern for
climate change and
support for policies aimed at mitigating climate change of all racial and ethnic subgroups
(Speiser & Krygsman, 2014), presenting a challenge to current theoretical perspectives
that emphasize higher economic status and group advantage as motivating resistance to
environmental regulations.
In a national-level survey that oversampled Asian, African, and Hispanic/Latino American
populations, 83% of Asian Americans indicated that they were convinced that climate
change is happening, and 50% believed that humans can make a difference in slowing or
reducing climate change, compared to 71% and 40% of the U.S. public, respectively
(Speiser & Krygsman, 2014). Whether these differences can be explained by unique
acculturation experiences, differential exposure to environmental hazards, or specific
cultural orientations, such as greater collectivism and interdependence among East
Asians compared to those originating from Europe and other Western nations (e.g.,
Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991) remains an important question for
future inquiry.
Click to view larger
Figure 2. Weighted percentage of U.S. respondents
indicating the “rise in the world’s temperature” is
“extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” by race
and party affiliation, in 2000 (a) and 2010 (b). Error
bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
Note: Question wording referenced the greenhouse
effect in 2000 and climate change in 2010.
Source: GSS.
Click to view larger
Figure 3. Weighted percentage of U.S. respondents
indicating the “rise in the world’s temperature” is
“extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” by total
household income and party affiliation, in 2000 (a)
and 2010 (b). Income categories correspond to the
bottom and top quintiles (see Bohr, 2014). Error bars
represent 95% confidence intervals.
Note: Question wording referenced the greenhouse
effect in 2000 and climate change in 2010.
Source: GSS.
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From Public Understanding to Public Engagement
To date, existing research has largely focused on public understanding and perceptions of
climate change, and to a lesser extent on how members of different racial and ethnic
groups collectively engage with the issue of climate change (Moser, 2016; Wolf & Moser,
2011). Understanding how different groups engage with environmental organizations and
initiatives remains a critical question for future research. Barriers to racial and ethnic
minority participation in mainstream environmental organizations and professions are
well documented (Mohai, 1985, 2003; Taylor, 2014). A 1992 study found that nearly one-third
of U.S. environmental organizations had no minorities on their staff (Taylor, 2010).
Although diversity has increased in mainstream environmental organizations over the
past two decades, it remains far below national levels. A recent survey of 293 U.S.
environmental government agencies, nonprofits, and foundations found that non-White
minorities comprised no more than 16% of staff in all three types of institutions, despite
constituting 38% of the U.S. population and 29% of the overall U.S. science and
engineering workforce (Taylor, 2014). Clean energy jobs are among the most promising
areas for addressing economic inequality within and between nations, as they include
high-paying jobs with relatively low educational requirements (Bivens, Irons, & Pollack,
2009; Harper-Anderson, 2012; Pinderhughes, 2006; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010).
Nevertheless, employment statistics for science, technology, engineering, and math
(STEM) professions within the United States paint a grim picture for racial and ethnic
diversity within environmental STEM. An analysis of U.S. occupational disparities across
16 fields revealed lower levels of non-White representation in environmental and
conservation professions than in other STEM fields, with 50%–60% less minority
representation within these fields, on average, than the national STEM average (Pearson
& Schuldt, 2014).
Scholars have pointed to the historical low priority given to the concerns of communities
of color by environmental organizations as one factor contributing to these disparities
(e.g., Mohai, 1985). Although these and other structural barriers, such as insular hiring
practices and historically limited outreach among national organizations (Taylor, 2014),
may substantially undermine minority engagement in the environmental sector, other
hidden motivational barriers, such as prevalent racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes
associated with the term environmentalist and a lack of visible representation in the
environmental sector generally, may also contribute to these disparities (Gibson-Wood &
Wakefield, 2013; Jones, 2002; Mohai, 2003; Naiman, 2014; Pearson & Schuldt, 2014; Schelhas,
2002).
Social psychological research suggests that people are motivated to behave in ways that
are congruent with the actions of other in-group members, including members of one’s
own racial/ethnic group (i.e., identity-based motivation; Oyserman, 2009; Oyserman,
Fryberg, & Yoder, 2007). For instance, despite their generally higher levels of concern,
African Americans and U.S. Latinos are less likely to speak out on their views about
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climate change when they are perceived to deviate from those of family and friends.
Whereas 53% of White Americans and 44% of Asian Americans reported feeling
comfortable discussing differing views on climate change in a recent national-level
survey, only 26% of African Americans and 34% of Latinos reported feeling comfortable
doing the same (Speiser & Krygsman, 2014). Thus, factors beyond awareness of climate
change and its differential impacts, such as perceptions of how one’s racial/ethnic in-
group perceives and engages with environmental problems, may influence how members
of underrepresented groups respond to environmental advocacy efforts and engage with
environmental causes (Pearson et al., 2016).
Summary
Research on the role of race and ethnicity in climate change engagement has critical
implications for outreach and advocacy. Given that environmental risks, including those
posed by climate change, are unequally distributed across groups in society, and many
communities of color are acutely aware of these disparities, messages that address these
inequities are likely to be substantially more effective in engaging these communities
than are those aimed at heightening awareness of climate change in general or of its
distal effects (e.g., loss of sea ice). Moreover, messages that seek to bridge political
disagreements may be relatively ineffective for groups whose views on the issue may be
less rooted in political beliefs (Schuldt & Pearson, 2016). Finally, engagement with
environmental organizations may be shaped, in no small part, by one’s perceived
similarity to individuals within these groups, as well as by perceptions of how responsive
these organizations are to the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities. Thus, advocacy
messages that are sensitive to the unique concerns of minority communities—and
particularly those historically underrepresented in the environmental movement—may be
particularly effective for enhancing public engagement on climate change within
pluralistic societies.
Social Class and Climate Change
Compared to race and ethnicity, class and gender have received substantially more
attention in public opinion research on climate change, particularly outside the U.S.
context. Racial and ethnic differences often coincide with socioeconomic factors;
however, there are empirical, conceptual, and practical reasons for distinguishing them.
In this section, we review research examining how two forms of class differences—
income and education level—relate to public perceptions of climate change, as well as
how understanding these differences can inform organizational advocacy and public
outreach.
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Economic projections suggest that unmitigated climate change will disproportionately
affect the world’s poor (Burke et al., 2015; Gheytanchi et al., 2007; IPCC, 2014; Sterner, 2015;
Swim et al., 2009). Moreover, analyses of public opinion data over that past three decades
suggest that economic insecurity contributed to declining concern about global warming
in the United States after the Great Recession of 2008 (Scruggs & Benegal, 2012).
Awareness of inequities between groups can exacerbate hostility within and between
nations and undermine the ability of communities to adapt to climate impacts (Agyeman,
Bullard, & Evans, 2003). In addition, some scholars (Nisbet, 2009) have suggested that
partisan disagreement over climate issues may be rooted in part in differing economic
values. Thus, understanding socioeconomic status and class relations between groups
may help inform our understanding of how the public understands the risks associated
with climate change and which groups are viewed as responsible for both causing and
helping to mitigate its effects.
Income
Evidence for differences in climate change understanding and risk perceptions across
income levels remains mixed (McCright, Dunlap, & Xiao, 2014). Several studies have found
that when accounting for effects of other demographic variables (e.g., race, education,
and political orientation), income remains a weak positive predictor of both the belief that
anthropogenic climate change is occurring (for cross-national meta-analytic evidence, see
Hornsey, Harris, Bain, & Fielding, 2016; McCright & Dunlap, 2011B) and knowledge about
climate change (e.g., McCright, 2010). For example, an analysis of U.S. public opinion polls
from 2001 to 2008 (McCright, 2010) revealed a positive association between income and
belief in the scientific consensus regarding climate change, that climate change is already
happening, and that humans are the primary cause of it.
Although higher-income respondents may show enhanced scientific understanding of
climate change, other studies have found that lower-income respondents are nevertheless
more concerned about climate change and perceive it as a greater risk (Bohr, 2014;
Macias, 2016A; McCright & Dunlap, 2011B; Semenza et al., 2008; Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015;
Xiao & McCright, 2012). For instance, a 2015 Pew Research Center study (Stokes et al.,
2015) found that Americans who make less than $50,000 a year were more likely than
those making more than $50,000 to believe that climate change is a very serious problem
(49% versus 41%, respectively). These differences were even greater for perceptions of
personal harm. Whereas 37% of those making less than $50,000 were very concerned
that climate change would harm them personally, only 21% of those making more than
$50,000 were very concerned. These results are consistent with the notion that greater
income is associated with decreased perceptions of climate risks (e.g., Macias, 2016B;
McCright & Dunlap, 2011B; for similar evidence in cross-national comparisons of public
concern in poorer versus wealthier nations, see Sandvik, 2008).
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Theoretical approaches to understanding group differences in relation to socioeconomic
status have primarily emphasized differential vulnerability and sensitivity to effects of
climate change among individuals of lower socioeconomic status compared to individuals
of higher socioeconomic status. For instance, wealthier individuals may have lower risk
perceptions related to climate change because they have the economic means to address
threats posed by climate change (e.g., Semenza et al., 2008). Conversely, poorer people
might feel a heightened sense of vulnerability to negative impacts of climate change
because they lack the financial means to address such threats and may live and work in
areas that are more vulnerable to climate impacts (Crona, Wutich, Brewis, & Gartin, 2013;
Mirza, 2003; Swim et al., 2009).
In contrast to research on perceived vulnerability to climate change, early research
hypothesized a positive relationship between felt financial security and support for
policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reasoning that less wealthy
individuals might be equally or more concerned about climate change as wealthier
individuals, but they may be less willing to support economically costly policies, such as
new or higher taxes (see O’Connor, Bord, Yarnal, & Wiefek, 2002). Nevertheless, empirical
support for this account is weak. For instance, among residents in central Pennsylvania—
a region heavily dependent on coal—income was unrelated to support for government
regulations (including higher taxes) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or willingness to
purchase energy-efficient products. However, income was a strong negative predictor of
support for two voluntary actions “to slow global warming,” which included driving less
and using less heating or cooling at home. When accounting for effects of education and
political orientation, lower-income respondents indicated a greater willingness to drive
less, carpool, and use mass transit, as well as reduce energy use for heating and cooling
to slow climate change, than higher-income respondents (O’Connor et al., 2002). Thus,
lower-income individuals may be more likely to support voluntary actions to help mitigate
climate change when those actions have minimal short-term costs and may reap longer-
term economic benefits.
As with race and ethnicity, recent studies have begun to explore interactive effects
between income and political partisanship in predicting climate change beliefs in the
United States (see Figures 3A and 3B). Using data from the 2010 GSS that controlled for
other sociodemographic variables, including race, gender, age, and education, Bohr (2014)
found that higher income predicted a greater likelihood of dismissing climate dangers
and a lower likelihood of ranking climate change as the most important environmental
problem facing the United States among Republican-leaning individuals, but not among
Democrats or independents (who showed consistently greater perceptions of the dangers
of climate change). Notably, at the bottom quintile of income, party affiliation was not a
significant predictor of the perceived danger of climate change. In contrast, income
predicted a greater likelihood of ranking climate change as the most important
environmental problem among Democrats and independents. Thus, income appears to
have divergent effects on climate change beliefs as a function of political orientation, with
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lower-income individuals generally showing less political polarization for key climate
change beliefs.
Attitudes toward inequality and group hierarchies may also influence how people process
climate risks and their support for mitigation policies. For instance, individuals who are
high on social dominance orientation (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994), an
ideology reflecting a preference for social hierarchies, generally perceive lower
environmental and climate change risks (Kahan et al., 2012). Similarly, right-wing
authoritarianism, a tendency to submit to authority and support existing power
structures, predicts opposition to environmental protection policies, which may be viewed
as a threat to national sovereignty (Altemeyer, 2003; Schultz & Stone, 1994). Generally,
individuals with a more advantaged position in society may be motivated to maintain their
relative position and thus may be more likely to dismiss the dangers of climate change or
perceive climate regulations as threatening advantageous social and economic systems
(Bohr, 2014; Jacquet, Dietrich, & Jost, 2014).
In sum, research suggests that wealthier people may report a greater understanding of
climate change, yet perceive the risks posed by climate change to be relatively low. In
addition, individuals with higher incomes show stronger political polarization of climate
change beliefs than do those with lower incomes. Few studies have examined
explanations for differences across income levels; however, differential access to
resources, differential status, and differing vulnerability to the effects of climate change
appear to be important mechanisms that warrant further research.
Education
In a cross-national study via the Gallup World Poll of 119 countries in 2007 and 2008,
representing 90% of the world’s population, Lee, Markowitz, Howe, Ko, and Leiserowitz
(2015) found that educational attainment was the strongest predictor of awareness of
climate change across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Australia, and Latin America.
Similarly, an examination of climate change perceptions in six countries (including
Ecuador, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom) found that education was
positively associated with common awareness of global climate problems across all
cultures (Crona et al., 2013).
Additional empirical studies lend further support for the notion that education predicts
greater awareness of climate change (Crona et al., 2013; Lee et al., 2015; McCright et al.,
2014), belief that climate change is occurring (Hornsey et al., 2016; McCright & Dunlap,
2011B), and knowledge about climate change (e.g., believing that humans are the main
cause; McCright, 2010), as well as support for mitigation efforts and particularly support
for government programs (e.g., O’Connor et al., 2002).
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Nevertheless, education does not always predict stronger belief in climate change or
greater risk perceptions. In a representative sample of U.S. adults, those with the highest
degree of science literacy and quantitative reasoning ability were not the most concerned
about climate change; rather, they were the ones among whom polarization on other
cultural dimensions was greatest. Specifically, differences between those with more
hierarchical and individualistic (as opposed to egalitarian and communal) worldviews—
cultural orientations predicting greater skepticism of environmental risks—were greatest
among those with higher science literacy and quantitative ability (Kahan et al., 2012).
Additional studies have found that education level also interacts with political orientation
to predict climate change–related beliefs. For example, an analysis of Gallup data from
2010 to 2015 (Newport & Dugan, 2015) found that as education increased among U.S.
Democrats, the belief that the dangers of climate changes are exaggerated decreased.
Specifically, only 15% of those with a graduate degree believed that the dangers were
exaggerated, compared to 27% with a high school education or less. However, the
opposite trend was found among U.S. Republicans: as education increased, Republicans
were more likely to believe that the threat of climate change is exaggerated (74% versus
57% endorsement of this idea, respectively).
This interaction between education and party affiliation was also evident in respondents’
expressed worry about climate change, knowledge about climate change (that it is
human-caused), and thinking that climate change will seriously threaten our way of life.
Similar interactions between education and political orientation have been documented
for the belief that climate change is occurring (McCright & Dunlap, 2011A), general climate
change skepticism (Tranter & Booth, 2015), and concern about climate change (Hamilton,
2011; Hamilton & Keim, 2009; McCright & Dunlap, 2011B), as well as general environmental
risk perceptions (e.g., Macias, 2016A). Moreover, using national-level U.S. survey data,
McCright and Dunlap (2011A) found that both party identification and political ideology
interacted with educational attainment to predict concern and beliefs about global
warming. Generally, whereas education level positively predicts the beliefs and climate
concerns of Democrats and liberals, Republicans and conservatives are more likely to
express skepticism and less concern about climate change as education increases.
In short, existing research indicates that education can reify cultural and political
positions. Several theoretical accounts have been posited to account for these effects,
including information processing theory (Wood & Vedlitz, 2007) and the elite cues
hypothesis (e.g., Lupia & McCubbins, 1998). That is, people process information through a
filter related to their background (such as their race, gender, income, education, political
ideology, and cultural values), and rely selectively on information from elite sources that
they trust. In this way, people may perceive themselves as increasingly informed on
scientific issues even if they do not expose themselves to differing viewpoints (see
McCright, 2011B). Moreover, according to information processing theory, the more
uncertain the information environment surrounding an issue is, the more likely
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individuals are to rely on background factors in messages, rather than objective
information, to evaluate the issue.
Psychological research on motivated reasoning has also been used to explain the effects
of education and information literacy on political polarization. In particular, work on
motivated cognition posits that people are motivated to interpret and process information
in ways that bolster their worldviews (Kunda, 1990; Taber & Lodge, 2006). Exposure to
politically divisive issues like climate change may activate people’s political propensities,
as well as their tendency to make more extreme decisions that align with the perceived
views of their group (i.e., group polarization; Mutz, 2006; also Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, &
Braman, 2011). Thus, as people become more educated about climate change, their beliefs
may diverge in ways that align with the ostensible views of other group members as they
seek information validating their ideological position. Approaches that seek to merely fill
gaps in knowledge (“knowledge deficit” approaches) may thus be minimally effective for
motivating concern about the risks posed by climate change and mobilizing action
(Moser, 2010), and they may even impede engagement among more ideologically
conservative groups and those with more hierarchical and individualistic worldviews.
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Future Directions: What Do We Need to Know About Class
Differences?
Taken together, although beliefs and awareness of climate change generally increase with
education and income level, political ideology and partisan affiliations systematically
interact with these variables (e.g., Bohr, 2014; Hamilton, 2011; McCright & Dunlap, 2011A).
Specifically, socioeconomic status—including both income and educational attainment—
tends to predict stronger partisan divides on climate change beliefs and risk perceptions.
These interactive effects may help to partially explain why class differences can
sometimes appear small or inconsistent in their effects (e.g., McCright et al., 2014). In
addition, there is evidence of increased risk perceptions of climate change among the
world’s poor (e.g., Stokes et al., 2015). Individuals who lack access to financial resources
have a heightened sense of vulnerability and concern about the negative impacts of
climate change.
Cross-national public opinion surveys point to an urgent need to promote climate literacy
globally to increase fundamental awareness of climate change (Lee et al., 2015).
Nevertheless, assuming that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups lack knowledge
regarding climate change can be problematic (Moser, 2010). For instance, taking a purely
knowledge-deficit approach to climate advocacy can backfire among individuals, such as
U.S. conservatives, for whom scientific information about the issue and its dissemination
may be filtered in ways that align with prior ideological views (Bohr, 2014). A failure to
attend to issues of class in climate messaging, particularly the concerns of disadvantaged
groups, can also inadvertently perpetuate class-based stereotypes that associate being an
environmentalist with being affluent and highly educated (Mohai, 2008; Jones, 2002; Pearson
& Schuldt, 2014), which may suppress engagement among lower-income and less-educated
individuals. Thus, messaging that accurately reflects and portrays diversity in income and
education levels among those concerned about climate change may enhance the
effectiveness of outreach initiatives, particularly within communities of lower
socioeconomic status.
Studies on social class relations and public perceptions of changing economic conditions
have been surprisingly overlooked in climate change communication research. Within the
United States, class conflict now ranks ahead of other leading sources of perceived
conflict (e.g., between immigrants and native-born citizens, between Blacks and Whites),
with over two-thirds of Americans endorsing the view that there are “strong” or “very
strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor (Morin, 2012). Beyond the United States,
growing global economic inequality may shape how people—and particularly poorer
individuals—engage with climate change (United Nations Development Programme, 2007).
Studies on civic engagement suggest that economic inequality can undermine trust and
cooperation by attenuating optimism about the future and reducing a sense of shared fate
across economic strata (Uslaner & Brown, 2005). Nevertheless, perceptions of group
disadvantage can also evoke collective anger, which can motivate people from
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disadvantaged groups to take collective action on behalf of their groups (van Zomeren,
Postmes, & Spears, 2008). Thus, understanding whether public awareness and concern
about economic inequality enhance or impede collective action to address climate change
remains a critical question for future research.
To date, few empirical studies have explored how class affects risk perceptions and
collective engagement. Understanding the mechanisms through which class influences
climate change perceptions and beliefs can inform outreach efforts that might capitalize
on these pathways. For instance, a vulnerability perspective can help to explain why
members of economically disadvantaged groups may be likely to perceive greater risks
associated with climate change, and why members of more advantaged groups may be
motivated to minimize these risks. Climate change communicators might better employ
this pathway by focusing on how individuals across levels of socioeconomic status (e.g.,
both the wealthy and the poor) are vulnerable to climate impacts. Future research should
also look beyond objective measures of income and education to include the perceived
stability of political and economic institutions and perceptions of potential threats that
environmental actions may pose to these systems.
Finally, differentiating between objective (e.g., reported income) and subjective measures
of class (e.g., perceived class rank) may also be fruitful. Studies examining social class
disparities in health demonstrate that subjective social class rank predicts physical health
and well-being, even after accounting for objective measures of class (e.g., income and
educational attainment) (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo, & Ickovics, 2000; Cohen et al., 2008).
Moreover, both objective and subjective class have been found to predict cooperation and
pro-social behavior. For instance, in a series of experiments, Piff, Kraus, Côté, Cheng, and
Keltner (2010) found that compared to people from higher-social-class backgrounds, those
from lower-social-class backgrounds—measured both in terms of resources and perceived
class rank—were more charitable toward others. Thus, above and beyond objective
indicators of social class, people’s perceptions of their relative position in a social
hierarchy, as well as subjective perceptions of resource scarcity and diminished rank,
predict psychological motives, behaviors, and important life outcomes (Kraus & Stephens,
2012; Mullainathan & Shafir, 2014). Assessing both types of metrics, thus, may be fruitful for
understanding the complex ways in which class may influence how and when people
collectively respond to climate challenges.
Gender and Climate Change
A sizable body of literature has documented a small but persistent gender gap in
environmental concern, such that women typically express greater levels of concern than
men (e.g., Finucane, Slovic, Mertz, Flynn, & Satterfield, 2000) and demonstrate heightened
perceptions of risks across a broad range of environmental hazards (Arnocky & Stroink,
2011; Dietz, Stern, & Guagnano, 1998; McCright & Dunlap, 2013; Satterfield et al., 2004; for
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reviews of gender effects on environmental-risk perceptions more generally, see Davidson
& Freudenburg, 1996; Finucane et al., 2000; Kahan, Braman, Gastil, Slovic, & Mertz, 2005).
Some researchers note that the strongest differences are generally observed when
worrying about specific environmental issues, especially localized problems with obvious
health risks (Xiao & McCright, 2012).
With respect to climate change, women are typically more likely than men to believe that
climate change is happening (e.g., Hornsey et al., 2016; McCright, Dunlap, & Xiao, 2013);
worry about its effects (e.g., McCright, 2010; McCright & Sundström, 2013); perceive more
climate change risks (e.g., Brody, Zahran, Vedlitz, & Grover, 2008; Hamilton, 2011; van der
Linden, 2015); express more knowledge about climate change (e.g., McCright, 2010); and
perceive global warming as posing a threat within their lifetime (Hamilton, 2011).
Moreover, women are less likely than men to endorse denialist beliefs about climate
change (e.g., Feygina et al., 2010; McCright & Dunlap, 2011A) and express skepticism about
its existence on social media (Holmberg & Hellsten, 2015). As discussed earlier, research
on the “White male effect” suggests that White men in particular, and especially
conservatives, report less concern about climate change and endorse more denialist
beliefs than women and members of other racial and ethnic groups (McCright & Dunlap,
2011A).
Gender effects have been consistently demonstrated cross-nationally. For example,
according to the Pew Research Center (Stokes et al., 2015), in 2015, U.S. women were
more likely than men to report believing that climate change is a very serious problem
(51% versus 39%, respectively) and that it is already harming people (45% versus 36%),
and being very concerned that it will harm them personally (36% versus 23%). Women
were also more likely than men in a number of economically wealthier countries (e.g.,
United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and Italy) to endorse the view that
people will need to make major changes in their lifestyles to reduce the effects of climate
change (gender differences between women and men ranged from 6% to 18% across
nations).
In another study examining Gallup data from 2001 to 2008 (McCright, 2010), women
showed greater knowledge of climate change (i.e., believing scientific consensus,
believing that effects are already happening, and believing that humans are primary
causes of it) than men, and also expressed greater concern about climate change (i.e.,
worrying about it and thinking that it will threaten their way of life and that the
seriousness is underestimated). However, women underestimated their subjective
understanding of climate change, perceiving themselves to be significantly less
knowledgeable than men, even after accounting for objective knowledge.
Several theoretical explanations for the consistent gender gap on climate change and
environmental perceptions, more broadly, have been proposed, including gender
socialization (e.g., McCright, 2010; McCright & Xiao, 2014; Zelezny, Chua, & Aldrich, 2000),
the vulnerability hypothesis (e.g., Finucane et al., 2000; Kalof, Dietz, Guagnano, & Stern,
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2002; Satterfield et al., 2004), and differences in feminist beliefs (e.g., Somma & Tolleson-
Rinehart, 1997), as well as gender differences in system-justifying beliefs (e.g., Feygina et
al., 2010; Goldsmith, Feygina, & Jost, 2013). We discuss these perspectives in more detail
next.
Theoretical Perspectives on Gender Differences
According to socialization perspectives, women have a greater propensity to show
compassion and express an “ethic of care” (Zelezny et al., 2000, p. 445), consistent with a
socialization to be more nurturing and cooperative—more “other” oriented—than men,
which may partially account for women’s greater concerns for the needs of the
environment. Moreover, in part due to their economically disadvantaged position relative
to men, women are typically more vulnerable to a broad range of environmental hazards
(Finucane et al., 2000; Satterfield et al., 2004). These differences in socialization and relative
group status are theorized to lead to disparate value orientations (e.g., more altruistic
values among women relative to men; Dietz et al., 2007; Stern, Dietz, & Kalof, 1993), health
and safety concerns (e.g., Blocker & Eckberg, 1997; Xiao & McCright, 2012), and differing
risk perceptions, generally (e.g., Bord & O’Connor, 1997; Xiao & McCright 2012), which
have received relatively consistent support from the literature (McCright & Sundström,
2013).
Consistent with the socialization and gendered risk perception hypotheses, an analysis of
Gallup data from 2001 to 2008 revealed that women expressed consistently greater risk
perceptions of climate change, which was predictive of greater concern about global
environmental issues more generally (Xiao & McCright, 2012). In contrast, weaker support
for the health and safety explanation was obtained: Women were only slightly more
worried about global health-related environmental problems, leading the authors to
conclude that gender differences are likely “due to differentially perceived vulnerability
to risk” (Xiao & McCright, 2012, p. 1082). Finally, no support was obtained for parenthood
and differential family roles (e.g., Davidson & Freudenburg, 1996), suggesting that these
gender differences may stem more from differing socialization experiences of men and
women, rather than the different roles that men and women occupy in many societies.
Further supportive of this notion, analyses of a nationally representative sample of U.S.
adults revealed that value orientations about social roles (e.g. “ethic of care”)—but not
social roles themselves—predict environmental concern, including concerns about
climate change (Strapko, Hempel, MacIlroy, & Smith, 2016).
Complementing these perspectives, feminist perspectives suggest that due to a history of
oppression, women may identify more with vulnerability related to the exploitation of the
natural environment, and thus feel compelled to take action to prevent it (Goldsmith et
al., 2013; Shiva, 1989). In one study, awareness of gender inequality and commitment to
egalitarian ideals (i.e., having feminist consciousness; Conover & Sapiro, 1993) were
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associated with greater support for environmental issues among both men and women
(Gupte, 2002). In contrast, right-wing authoritarianism predicts opposition to
environmental protection policies among both men and women (Altemeyer, 1998).
Psychological research on system justification may also help to explain gendered
responses to climate policies. System justification refers to a tendency to defend the
status quo and extant economic, social, and political systems as fair, desirable, and
legitimate (e.g., Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004; Jost & Hunyady, 2005). In particular, research
suggests that stronger tendencies of men to support prevailing social and political
institutions, particularly institutions that are perceived to be under threat, may also fuel
resistance to regulatory policies aimed at mitigating climate change. As previously noted,
individuals from higher status groups (e.g., White males) are especially likely to resist
regulatory policies aimed at reducing environmental risks and perceive them as
challenges to established social, economic, and political institutions (Feygina et al., 2010;
McCright & Dunlap, 2011A). Policies aimed at mitigating climate change can represent a
challenge to the status quo, which in turn can prompt responses to defend and legitimize
those systems (e.g., minimizing or denying climate change, its human causes, or both).
Consistent with this perspective, in one study, men were significantly more likely than
women to deny the reality of environmental problems, a difference attributable in part to
men’s stronger system justification tendencies (Feygina et al., 2010). In addition, men
(particularly White men), reported greater understanding of climate change than other
groups, and this subjective understanding was positively associated with denialist views.
Thus, advocacy efforts focusing only on enhancing understanding of climate change and
its impacts are likely to be ineffective (or may even backfire) among those who perceive
both climate change and climate policies as threatening existing social hierarchies.
Future Directions: What Do We Need to Know About Gender
Differences?
In sum, gender differences in beliefs about climate change, as well as perceptions of
environmental risks more generally, have been consistently documented cross-nationally.
Compared to men, women are more likely to express greater concern about climate
change, believe more strongly that climate change is happening, hold more objective
knowledge about climate change (but also a tendency to underestimate their knowledge),
and report greater perceptions of vulnerability to climate change. Differential
vulnerability (e.g., Xiao & McCright, 2012), socialization experiences (e.g., Stern et al.,
1993), differences in acceptance of feminist values (e.g., Goldsmith et al., 2013), and a
differential endorsement of system-justifying beliefs (e.g., Feygina et al., 2010) may also
help to account for gender differences in concern about (and perhaps belief in) climate
change.
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With regard to outreach focused on men, messages highlighting how pro-environmental
actions enhance social stability and security (e.g., “Being pro-environmental allows us to
protect and preserve the American way of life,” “It is patriotic to conserve the country’s
natural resources,” Goldsmith et al., 2013, p. 167) may be particularly effective in
enhancing support for climate action, especially among higher-status groups (e.g., White
men). In one study, this type of messaging reversed the typical negative relationship
between system justification tendencies and environmental attitudes and behavior, such
that those with greater system justification tendencies were more likely to express
intentions to help the environment and sign environmental petitions than those not
exposed to the message (Feygina et al., 2010). Thus, it is possible to capitalize on people’s
system-justifying motives to enhance pro-environmental actions by encouraging people to
regard pro-environmental actions as protecting the status quo (i.e., as “system-sanctioned
change”; see Feygina et al., 2010).
Although women may express greater concern about climate change, they remain
substantially underrepresented in climate policymaking (e.g., Downey & Hawkins, 2008;
Joireman & Liu, 2014; Scannell & Gifford, 2013). A comparison of 130 countries found that
national parliaments with greater representation of women also had higher rates of
ratification of environmental treaties (Goldsmith et al., 2013; Norgaard & York, 2005). Thus,
outreach would do well to focus on increasing the representation of women in the
environmental policy domain and consider social and cultural barriers to increasing
women’s engagement.
Finally, stereotypes associated with masculinity and femininity may influence how both
men and women perceive and respond to climate change—another promising area for
future climate communication research. Common portrayals of the natural environment
as something that must be “cared for” and “nurtured” reflect common stereotypes
associated with femininity. Such depictions might resonate more with women than men
due to different socialization experiences. In contrast, “battle” metaphors (e.g., “fighting”
global warming) linked to climate activism, and more stereotypically masculine traits,
may resonate more strongly with male audiences (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
Understanding how these gendered metaphors affect public engagement is an important
domain for future communication research.
Conclusion
Climate change is increasingly recognized by scientists and policymakers as a
fundamentally social problem, highlighting the need for research that illuminates social
factors that promote and impede public engagement with the issue. Political polarization
has increased within the United States and some European nations over the past two
decades (Capstick, Whitmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015); however,
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disproportionate attention to the partisan gap by advocacy groups and the scientific
community masks key nonpartisan factors that can also influence how different segments
of the public engage with the issue of climate change (Pearson & Schuldt, 2015).
Social and behavioral science research from multiple disciplines, including psychology,
communication, and sociology, has yielded a number of valuable insights into the ways
that race, ethnicity, class, and gender systematically shape public engagement with
climate change and can interact with partisan and other sociocultural factors (e.g.,
individualistic and hierarchical worldviews) to influence how people perceive climate
risks. However, our review highlights an urgent need for research that goes beyond
descriptive analyses to explore the underlying complex social processes that these
differences may reflect and that can help to enrich our understanding of key social
conduits and barriers to climate action. In addition, given substantial demographic shifts
currently underway within the United States and many other nations within Europe and
Australasia, the present review points to the need for additional research examining how
public perceptions of diversity and economic inequality within nations may also shape
collective actions on climate change.
Understanding factors that enhance social diversity in climate decision-making and
environmental organizations may also help speed the development of innovative
technological and policy solutions urgently needed to meet key carbon reduction targets.
Social science research suggests that more diverse teams are better able to generate
innovative and effective solutions to a wide range of complex problems (Hong & Page,
2004; Levine et al., 2014; Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010)—precisely the
kind of solutions needed to avert the worst effects of climate change. Groups for whom
the issue of climate change may be less politically charged, such as racial and ethnic
minorities and members of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, represent critical
audiences for bridging partisan disagreements and building consensus on policy.
More generally, those tasked with communicating about climate change to the public
should consider framing messages to better resonate with the cognitive, social, and
motivational dimensions that differ between groups. At the same time, additional
research into the factors that underpin racial, ethnic, class, and gender differences in
climate change public opinion can help communicators fine-tune their messaging and
circumvent biased modes of information-processing on the part of audiences, in order to
enhance public outreach and ultimately adopt more effective approaches to addressing
climate change.
Suggested Readings
Flynn, J., Slovic, P., & Mertz, C. K. (1994). Gender, race, and perception of environmental
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Leiserowitz, A., & Akerlof, K. (2010). Race, ethnicity and public responses to climate
change. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on
Climate Change. Available at http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/
uploads/2016/02/2010_04_Race-Ethnicity-and-Public-Responses-to-Climate-
Change.pdf.
Macias, T. (2016a). Environmental risk perception among race and ethnic groups in the
United States. Ethnicities, 16, 111–129.
Pearson, A. R., Schuldt, J. P., & Romero-Canyas, R. (2016). Social climate science: A new
vista for psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 632–650.
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Notes:
(1.) Indeed, non-White racial/ethnic identification was the only variable to show a direct
effect on mitigation policy support among all sociodemographic variables measured,
including gender, income, education, age, geographic location, and political ideology.
Adam R. Pearson
Department of Psychology, Pomona College
Matthew T. Ballew
School of Social Science, Policy, and Evaluation, Claremont Graduate University
Sarah Naiman
Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University
Jonathon P. Schuldt
Department of Communication, Cornell University
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... In line with prior research interested in children's voices (Chitakunye, 2012;Kerrane et al., 2012), we sought children's perspectives on and experiences with environmental issues to highlight their level of engagement with environmental issues, what it meant to them, and the factors that might foster or constrain this engagement. Twenty children from 14 families from all over France were recruited (for a summary profile of families and children, see Appendix A. The families were upper-middle class families, and their socioeconomic status might have had an effect on their children's environmental engagement (Eom et al., 2018;Pearson et al., 2017). The families were recruited through the use of personal contacts and through a snowballing approach. ...
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... Inequities in access to resources (e.g., time, money) may also drive different expressions of environmentalism, limiting some resource-intensive forms of participation, such as charitable giving or volunteerism, among some socioeconomically disadvantaged groups (see . Nevertheless, opinion polls reveal strong support for a wide range of BUILDING DIVERSE CLIMATE COALITIONS 3 environmental protections (e.g., regulating carbon emissions) among communities of color in the United States Pearson et al., 2017) and a greater willingness to personally engage in civil disobedience and other forms of activism to address climate change, relative to U.S. Whites Campbell et al., 2022). Similar heightened environmental concerns are reflected among elected officials, with Hispanic and African American members of Congress more likely than White members to vote proenvironmentally (Ard & Mohai, 2011). ...
... Jordan names Spanish as an example of a non-English language that would increase the accessibility of climate communication, remarking that even when Spanish speakers understand English as well, they may prefer to be addressed in Spanish. The lack of Spanish-language accessibility is a problem given that Latine people are disproportionately affected by climate change (Shonkoff et al., 2011;Méndez et al., 2020;Castillo et al., 2021;US EPA, 2021) yet are more concerned about the environment (Pearson et al., 2017) and more active in climate organizing than White people (Ballew et al., 2019). From a strategic perspective, in areas where many Latine people live, conducting climate outreach in Spanish can mean the difference between achieving policy change or not: for instance, Grosse (2022) describes how an anti-fracking measure in Santa Barbara failed to pass because it did not garner the support of the Latine community. ...
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... With respect to social class, Godfrey [128], Pearson et al. [129], and Laidley [130] indicated that the variable affected attitudes toward climate change, perception, willingness to participate, and role of participation. The impact of perceived severity on climate change-related behavior has already been demonstrated in numerous studies, including Xie et al. [34], Sun and Han [35], and Van der Linden [131]. ...
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... These underlying vulnerabilities may intersect with other factors. Populations of migrants (Chu and Michael 2019), refugees or internally-displaced persons, and peopleThe State of the Environment in Cities 57 from ethnic or religious minorities(Pearson et al. 2017; Illingworth et al. 2018) may all face barriers in accessing relevant information about climate change, pollution or other environmental stressors, and may lack the resources to take the necessary coping or adaptation measures. Women may face a disproportionate care burden (Chauhan and Kumar 2016) that threatens their potential to earn income, while home-based workers may face a double impact if their homes and assets are damaged or destroyed by environmental hazards (Alber, Cahoon and Röhr 2017). ...
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