If the term “climate change denier” conjures up an image for you of a conservative, white male, you may not be simply falling for a stereotype. Research by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, suggests that conservative white males are actually more likely than others to question the scientific consensus on climate change.
Their findings are based on a study of public opinion data from 10 years of Gallup surveys.
McCright and Dunlap tracked the responses of conservative white men to a series of five questions about climate change. Respondents were asked questions about climate science (such as whether they believe that climate chance is “primarily due to human activities”), their belief in the scientific consensus on climate change, and their level of personal concern about climate change (such as how much they “worry about global warming”). The researchers also examined respondents’ answers to a question about “how well they understand the issue of global warming.”
They found that conservative white men do indeed deny climate change more than the general public taken as a whole. For instance, “while 29.6% of conservative white males believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, only 7.4% of all other adults believe so,” the authors write. Conservative white men are also more likely to deny the scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, and to believe that the media is exaggerating the effects of climate change.
Conservative white men were also more likely than other adults to report that they understand the issue of climate change, despite the fact that their views are not supported by science. McCright and Dunlap suggest that this over-confidence may come from an increased belief in technology, as well as from a desire to protect the current economic system from what they see as unnecessary changes.
“[C]onservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system,” they explain. “Given the expansive capitalist economic challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist society, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”
Importantly, these beliefs may “lead [conservative white men] to reject information from groups (e.g. liberals and environmentalists) they see as threatening the economic system.” This suspicion of outside advocates, combined with conservative white men’s belief that they already understand climate change, means that communicators have their work cut out for them.
Aaron M. McCright, Michigan State University
Riley E. Dunlap, Oklahoma State University