Concerned about climate change – probably left-leaning; Climate sceptic – likely a conservative. Except, new research says these often assumed political alignments are not so clear cut.
Data from the U.S. General Social Survey – the vast social attitudes survey conducted at the University of Chicago since 1972 – bring some surprising nuance to assumptions of where the climate sceptics and environmentalists find their political homes.
Sociologist Jeremiah Bohr, who based his analysis on the 2010 social survey, found that among those who leaned Republican, the poor were more likely to care about climate change and the wealthy were more likely to dismiss the dangers of global warming.
Bohr found the reverse to be true for Democrats. Of those who leaned Democratic, the poor were less worried about climate change and the wealthy often ranked the issue as the most important environmental problem.
Bohr’s findings, published in July in the journal Climatic Change, build on research that looked at ties between education and beliefs about the climate. Again, the results were not exactly as commonly thought. Only for liberals or Democrats did environmental concerns, and in particular acceptance of humankind’s role in climate change, increase with more education. For conservatives or Republicans concern about climate change remained level, or even dropped, the higher the level of education attained.
A similar relationship was seen between the level of scientific knowledge and concern about climate change. University of New Hampshire sociologist Lawrence Hamilton reported in a 2012 paper that for liberal, moderate or even slightly conservative respondents, scientific knowledge led to greater concern about climate change, but for the most conservative Americans, or about ten percent, as science literacy increased climate concern stayed the same or even slightly declined.
Bohr’s analysis found even more ties between income and differences in views on environmental issues.
The GSS survey looked first at the perception of risk associated with climate change, and second at the ranking of climate change as an important environmental problem. Beyond global warming, respondents were asked about air pollution, chemicals and pesticides, water shortage, water pollution, nuclear waste, domestic waste disposal, genetically modified foods, and using up our natural resources.
Bohr found a stark difference among Republicans on the first issue where 17.7 percent of the poorest were unconcerned about climate change but 51.2 percent of the wealthiest dismissed the risks. For independents wealth did matter somewhat – 18.9 percent of the poorest dismissed climate risks but 22.5 percent of the wealthiest did so. For Democrats income differences did not have much effect, although the very wealthiest did show the highest level of concern about the dangers of climate change.
On the second issue, Republicans in the top 60 percent of income were less likely than Democrats at the same level to rank climate as the most important environmental concern. Curiously, for the poorest folks – those in the bottom 20 percent – Republican respondents were the most likely to say that climate change was the most important environmental issue, followed by Democrats and then independents.
But the big question is why would wealth and poverty have this effect?
Bohr hypothesises that the gap in climate beliefs between rich and poor Republicans is “the outcome of a conservative movement seeking to defend a political order of industrial capitalist relations” due to their advantageous position within the economic system.
“Perhaps to validate their economic interests, these individuals are more likely to process information on climate science through political filters that result in denying the risks produced by climate change,” he said.
Meanwhile, for Democrats and those at the other end of the income spectrum, it may simply be the case that poorer, liberal-leaning voters are more likely to be confronted with environmental concerns such as water or air pollution that are concrete and even experienced on a daily basis than the more abstract and distant concept of climate change, and so are more likely to rank these as greater concerns.
A conclusion that can be drawn from this for scientists, climate science communicators and policymakers is that if the threat from climate change can be managed so as to address economic insecurity at the same time, then while political polarization will remain intense in the upper income brackets, it will be less sharp among lower income voters of whatever political inclination.
Whether these differences in climate beliefs hold true elsewhere, particularly in Canada and Australia, two other high-income states with sharp apparent distinctions regarding climate change between right and left, will require further research.