The Denial Demographic: White Conservative Males and Climate Change
In the past two decades, the existence of climate change, and humans’ direct contribution to its development, have been strongly established through scientific facts. Yet, despite many well-respected scientists and research journals releasing more and more information supporting the facts, climate change denial has been on the rise. In past studies, it has been found that amongst the elite in the United States, white conservative males have been found to disproportionately deny climate change. A 2011 study done by Michigan and Oklahoma State University set out to examine if this demographic in the general public also disproportionately denied climate change (1).
To conduct this experiment, the scientists at these Universities used the results of 10 annual environmental questionnaires that were presented to nationally symbolic groups of 1000-1060 Americans each year. To assess opinions on climate change, all participants had to give their opinion on the below questions:
1) When will global warming happen?
2) What is the primary cause of global warming?
3) Is there scientific agreement on global warming?
4) How seriously do you perceive global warming to be?
5) How worried about global warming are you?
The results showed that the data collected on the elite in the US translated to the general public (1). Specifically, 26.9% of white conservative males were found to think that global warming would never happen whereas only 7.4% of the rest of the general public held the same opinion. As well, 58.5% of white conservative males did not believe that humans were a major contributing factor to climate change while only 31.5% of the rest of the adults surveyed held the same beliefs. Moreover, 58.8% of the same demographic in question denied that there was scientific agreement on climate change whereas only 35.5% of the rest of the population also thought so. Additionally, double the percentage of white conservative males compared to the rest of the study believed that the seriousness of climate change is exaggerated. Lastly, 31% of white conservative males compared to 14.4% of the remaining adults worry about climate change. What was quite interesting in the study was that a disproportionate number of white conservative males compared to the rest of the population (30.4% vs. 18%) believed they had a good understanding of climate change. Further, the study showed that the denial in climate change is stronger among white conservatives who believe they have a good understanding of climate change compared to white conservative males who did not believe they had a good understanding (1).
In addition to obtaining these results, the paper mentioned multiple reasons as to why this trend exists. One reason the paper suggests is that belief in climate change challenges a social perspective that has benefited that demographic for so long. White conservative males try to minimize the risk of climate change in order to maintain a way of life that continues to benefit them. Another explanation suggests that white conservative males might hold their opinions through simply taking on and buying into the general persona and opinions of the specific social group they identify with. Lastly, the article also suggests that their beliefs may exist because they are protecting large fossil fuel and oil companies that have historically served them well in the past (1).
Although this article examines a specific subgroup of individuals living in the United States, it can be used to help us more clearly think about the opinions of others and ourselves when it comes to topics surrounding climate change. We know all too well that these trends are not foreign to Canada, in particular with the influence of the oil industry in the West and conservative government think-tanks directed to distribute misinformation about climate change. Indeed, recent research has shown though a higher percentage of Canadians than Americans believe in climate change, a large number of us still deny that humans are the cause. The majority of skepticism is concentrated in Saskatchewan and Alberta, heavily conservative and oil rich provinces (2).
What the American study tells us is that it is always important to always ask oneself why we hold certain beliefs, who or what might have influenced those thoughts, and how we can look outside ourselves to understand why others act and think the way they do. The voices present in the media today regarding climate change are vast and varying and a critical lens will always be helpful while informing yourself and developing your own understandings.
1. McCright AM & Dunlap RE. Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change. 2011, 21(4): 1163-1172. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.06.003
2. Mildenberger M, Howe P, Lachapelle E, Stokes L, Marlon J, Gravelle T. The Distribution of Climate Change Public Opinion in Canada. Plos One 2016;11. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159774.