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Why Conservative White Males Are More Likely to Be Climate Skeptics

By Julia Pyper (The New York Times) - October 6, 2011

When it comes to climate change denial, not all human beings are created equal. As a recent study shows, conservative white males are less likely to believe in climate change.

“It’s not surprising,” said Aaron McCright, sociology professor at Michigan State University, who is a white male himself. But anecdotal evidence is not scientific, he said. “You really don’t know what’s going on until you crunch the numbers and find out.”

Besides the trend amongst skeptics, the study also found that conservative white men who self-report a high understanding of global warming — dubbed “confident” conservative males — are even more likely to express climate change denial.

McCright’s study, “Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States,” was published online in July and printed in the October 2011 issue of Global Environmental Change, which ranks first out of 77 journals on environmental studies.

The study has created somewhat of a buzz, said Riley Dunlap, co-author and professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University. The paper was well received in academic circles, but he admitted he was concerned about a backlash from the conservative movement. While there have not been any major outcries, the study appears to have raised a few temperatures in Chicago.

“This paper is a transparent effort to take the focus off the actual scientific debate and instead engage in race baiting, class baiting and other sociological devices to win a science argument,” said James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.

But from McCright’s perspective it was important to find out to what extent the sharp debate over climate change at the elite level had trickled down into the general public in recent decades. “Within the ranks of elites, climate change denialists are overwhelmingly conservative white males,” reads the report, pointing to figures like talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Marshall Institute CEO, William O’Keefe. “Does a similar pattern exist in the American public?”

‘Cool Dudes,’ a bloc that stands out in the crowd

McCright and Dunlap’s analysis used polling data on climate change denial from 10 Gallup surveys from 2001 to 2010. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72.4 percent of the American population reported as white in 2010, and 77.1 percent in the year 2000. This majority made it difficult to draw conclusions about the relationship between other races and climate change, said McCright, because the Gallup survey sample size was so small.

To test for the trend amongst conservative white males, the researchers compared the demographic to “all other adults.” Results showed, for instance, that 29.6 percent of conservative white males believe the effects of global warming will never happen, versus 7.4 percent of other adults. In holding for “confident” conservative white males, the study showed 48.4 percent believe global warming won’t happen, versus 8.6 percent of other adults.

As a point of comparison, McCright also tested the beliefs of conservative white females. He found 14.9 percent believe the effects of global warming will never happen to 29.6 percent of their male counterparts. McCright said the finding is due more to the women’s political stance than their gender or race. The data on conservative white females was not published in the “Cool dudes” study.

To understand why there is a trend amongst conservative white males, the Gallup data was cross-examined with research about the “white male effect” — the idea that white males were either more accepting of risk or less risk averse than the rest of the public.

The white male effect could stem from the notion that, historically, white males have faced fewer obstacles in life, said McCright. But another school of thought sees the adoption of risk tied to personal values. “It has to do with their identity as an in-group,” he said. “Something that would challenge the status quo is something [conservative white males] want to shun.”

Climate change, a challenge to identity?

According to the literature on “identity protective cognition,” people believe messages coming from the people they identify with most and ignore messages that are contrarian, Dunlap said. While all groups have a tendency to do this, he said, in the case the climate change, conservative white males are especially likely to exhibit this self-protecting characteristic.

McCright says, up to 40 percent of all white males in the study sample believe in hierarchy, are more trusting of authority and are more conservative. Conservative white males’ motivation to ignore a certain risk — the risk of climate change in this case — therefore, has to do with defending the status of their identity tied to the white male establishment.

This result is bolstered by the Yale University “Global Warming’s Six Americas” report for May. The study found that none of the “dismissive” group — those who don’t think the climate is changing or want legislation — believe global warming will harm the United States in 50 years. The dismissive group also skews male and conservative, said “Six Americas” co-author, Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

But for Donald Braman, associate professor of law at George Washington University, who works on risk perception studies, the focus on white males and climate change could be somewhat misleading. “My worry is that [McCright's paper] might suggest to people that there is something distinctive about the way conservatives and officially, conservative white men, deal with new information,” he said. “The truth is that those same cognitive mechanisms push all of our buttons.”

Braman says a similar effect reveals itself amongst progressives when it comes to concerns about nuclear power, for instance. In the Yale Law School “Second National Risk & Culture Study” researchers found that despite expert opinions espousing the relative safety of certain forms of nuclear energy, progressives are still concerned about it, Braman said.

Values shape factual beliefs across an array of phenomenon, he said. “If it’s conservative white males on global warming, pick a different issue and you’ll find another group that has trouble thinking in a way that agrees with experts.”

‘A very receptive audience’

The political divide on climate change was concentrated in the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, McCright said. At that time most global warming skepticism came from public figures, he said. But in 2000, climate change beliefs held predominantly by conservative white elites started to spread.

“Conservative think tanks, conservative media, corporations, and industry associations (especially for the fossil fuels industry) — domains dominated by conservative white males — have spearheaded the attacks on climate science and policy from the late 1980s to the present,” McCright and Dunlap concluded in their study. “The results presented here show that conservative white males in the general public have become a very receptive audience for these efforts.”

But Taylor of the Heartland Institute said it should not come as a surprise that the subject of human induced global warming would become more contested as it moved out of the realm of pure science into the realm of policy. The proposed solutions to climate change will “in very substantial ways rearrange our economy and the structure of our society. Of course this is going to capture the attention of interested citizens beyond the mere elites,” said Taylor.

Taylor also argues that the paper’s claim that “the most prominent denialists are conservative white males,” overlooks the other side of the political equation. “Here’s a news flash: The most prominent alarmists are liberal white males. So clearly race and gender has nothing to do with prominent alarmism or skepticism,” he said.

Know thy enemy

McCright actually agrees that the study reveals more about politics than any other personal attributes. “It’s not a biological or gender thing,” he said. “It’s a political thing.” Liberal white males are more accepting of government regulations and challenges to the status quo because it fits in their political ideology, he said.

“When you start talking about climate change and the need for major changes, carbon taxes and lifestyle changes, [conservatives] see this as a threat to capitalism and future prosperity,” said McCright. “So conservatives tend to be very negative towards climate change.”

So what does McCright and Dunlap’s research mean for climate regulation? Climate change denial has increased across all sectors of the American general public over the last decade, write the authors. And as they conclude in another recent study on the politicization of climate change published earlier this year in the journal Sociology Quarterly, “we expect that the political divide within the general public may further inhibit the creation of effective climate policy.”

Perhaps, like the trend of denial among conservative white males, there is nothing too surprising about that conclusion. But for Maibach of George Mason University, McCright and Dunlap’s findings do bring something new to the bargaining table.

“If you are advocating for climate legislation is helps to understand your opponents. Or if you have opponents, it’s good to understand them to effectively engage with them,” he said. “One [approach] is more combative, the other is more about conflict resolution. In either case it helps to know who you’re dealing with.”