Stuff White People Like: Denying Climate Change

While I’m on vacation, I’m cross-posting some of my favorite writers.  Here is Dave Roberts from Grist.

There’s a study running soon in the journal Global Environmental Change called “Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States.” It analyzes poll and survey data from the last 10 years and finds that … are you sitting down? … conservative white men are far more likely to deny the threat of climate change than other people.

OK, that’s no surprise to anyone who’s been awake over the last decade. But the paper goes beyond that to put forward some theories about why conservative white men (CWM) are so loathe to accept climate change. The explanation is some mix of the following, all of which overlap in various ways:

  • First there’s the “white male effect” — generally speaking, white males are less concerned with a variety of risks. This probably has to do with the fact that they are less exposed to risk than other demographics, what with running things and all.
  • Then, as Chris Mooney notes, there’s the “social dominance orientation” of conservatives, who see social life as following the law of the jungle. One’s choice is to dominate or be dominated; that is the natural order of things. Such folk are leery of climate change solutions premised on fairness or egalitarianism.
  • Then there are the well-understood “system-justifying tendencies” of conservatives. The authors explain that conservatives …

    … strongly display tendencies to justify and defend the current social and economic system. Conservatives dislike change and uncertainty and attempt to simplify complexity. Further, conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.

  • Finally, there’s “identity-protective cognition,” a notion borrowed from Dan Kahan at Yale. (See this PDF.) Here’s how Kahan and colleagues sum it up:

    We propose that variance in risk perceptions — across persons generally, and across race and gender in particular — reflects a form of motivated cognition through which people seek to deflect threats to identities they hold, and roles they occupy, by virtue of contested cultural norms.

    “Motivated cognition” refers to reasoning done in service of justifying an already held belief or goal. It helps explain why the CWM who know the most about climate science are the most likely to reject it; they learn about it in order to reject it. See Chris Mooney’s great piece on that. Point being: when facts (or the implications of those facts) threaten people’s social identities, they tend to dismiss the facts rather than the identity.

To all these reasons, I’d add “epistemic closure,” the extraordinary way that the modern right has constructed a self-contained, hermetically sealed media environment in which conservatives can be protected from ever encountering a contrary view. It’s an accelerant to all the tendencies described above.

Anyway, as you can see, the rejection of climate science among CWM is basically overdetermined. Climate change threatens their values, their privileges, and their worldview. They are reacting as one would expect them to react.

So what? What follows from this? I’ll address that in my next post.

— David Roberts, staff writer for Grist, in a cross post.

JR:  For those not online 24/7, “Stuff White People Like” is the name of an actual satirical blog.


Below are old comments from the earlier Facebook commenting system:

The original post at Grist generated 80 comments to date. One of the best was MimiK’s:

“Left out from both the study and the article is the fear factor among Conservatives. Harvard (was it?) Did a study on the different qualities of the brains (i.e., cognitive psychology) of Conservatives and Liberals, and the results showed that Conservatives collectively share a tendency toward fear, alertness to attack, enemies etc., whereas Liberals were more creative and welcoming of new ideas, diversity, and receptive to facts.

Add to their tendency toward fear how authentically terrifying the implications of climate change are, and denial among CWMs is all but inevitable.
…See More

10 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 9:39am

Bart Laws · Top Commenter · Assistant Professor at Brown University

Many studies, in fact, have found that white males generally are less concerned about all sorts of environmental risks than are other demographics; and that this is mediated by what is called “high grid” (endorsement of social inequality as appropriate) and “low group” (individualist as opposed to communal orientation) scores. So that’s another succinct way of framing much of what is stated in the post. Bottom line, it’s not just climate change where we see this effect.

All white men are scum, I say. (Please ignore the man in the picture.)

10 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 9:56am

Leif Erik Knutsen · Top Commenter · Friends with Joseph Romm

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

Bertrand Russell.

4 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 1:35pm

Jeffery Green

I particularly enjoyed the link epistemic closure. There is this insulated society of conservatives talking to each other keeping the drum beat going.

Consider what the Limbaugh/Morano crowd is saying about climate: not only that that the world’s scientists and scientific institutions are systematically wrong, but that they are purposefully perpetrating a deception. Virtually all the world’s governments, scientific academies, and media are either in on it or duped by it.

We have this large core group of people only accepting what the conservative drumbeaters are saying. The distrust of authority is high enough, this group can pretty much be steered in some ridiculous directions. Take for instance the debt ceiling. Some of us may not realize just how bizar this really was. Tea partiers were quite willing to wreck the economy now for the debt issue.

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 11:35am

Lamont Granquist

I’d add that a lot of them are simply dicks, and they gravitate towards political views where they can rationalize being a dick as being good. this is sort of the same thing as “social dominance orientation”, but I think you’re missing the point where its not just that they’re leery of egalitarian solutions (that suggests a level of consideration of policy effects outside of only considering selfish effects on themselves — which they do not have), its that they construct and entire worldview where being dick is explicitly okay in order to feel better about themselves.

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 11:41am

Timothy Hughbanks · Top Commenter · Professor at Texas A&M University

To be fair, they don’t have to construct such a world view; Ayn Rand prefabricated it for them.

1 · Like · Reply · August 7 at 10:48am

mountainlogic (signed in using Yahoo)

Perhaps, the best way to reach CWMs is to hit the greed button. Talk about “business opportunity.” I’ve seen a bit of a gold rush mentality by many high tech and ex dot-comers to become eco-preneurs. No small number of these dot-comers only started to learn about the science after they saw the business opportunity. Ask the CWMs why they are in buggy whip businesses, why they are leaving so much money on the table and being left behind in the race to get rich. Failure to work within their cultural models is bound to failure. That is the takeaway from the article.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 1:16pm

shaheercassim (signed in using Yahoo)

GW needs to be rebranded from an “environmental issue” to an issue “threatening the american way of life”. We know CWMs don’t care about environmental issues, and we know that by adopting GW as a green issue, CWMs are less likely to care about it, especially when people dance about in bear suits. The focus needs to be on food security, child security, national security, and humanitarian.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 5:34pm

George Ennis · Top Commenter · University of Toronto

“….when facts (or the implications of those facts) threaten people’s social identities, they tend to dismiss the facts rather than the identity.”

This neatly summarizes the challenge. For those who think one more study, or additional attempts to explain the facts are going to move these people away from their identity are going to be disappointed.

I look forward to the next post that answers the so what and what follows.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 9:30am

chsavage94 (signed in using Yahoo)

My god, can you be any more racist in the title of this piece?
This is simply more ruminating about why the ‘communication’ of CAGW is failing. Could it be that people just don’t believe the doomsday predictions anymore?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 7 at 7:07pm

Mike twotwo · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

“It helps explain why the CWM who know the most about climate science are the most likely to reject it; they learn about it in order to reject it.” These are the types one usually sees at Prof Anthony’s. (cont

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 10:10am

  • Mike twotwo · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

inued) The thing is, there is still another mystery here. These CWMs are not actually learning the science, they are learning anti science. It is really weird that there is a whole segment of society who can’t sort out a few basic facts about what CO2 does in the atmosphere. This is junior high school science. It is nice to see this phenomena well documented, but what goes here anyway?

Like · Reply · August 6 at 10:10am

Jeffery Green

I have made this point over and over to the deniers I talk to. WHy aren’t you learning what you detest the most? Combined with 97% science consensus, what gives?

Like · Reply · August 6 at 11:23am

Jeffery Green

Take the junior high school science one step further. Any science taught that conflicts with their antiscience, is a liberal plot. Science in schools is being blocked by the conservatives because it conflicts with their ideology.

2 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 11:44am

James Newberry · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

Anyone thought about the so-called ideology of white conservative males being founded on an entire military-industrial fuels and finance establishment that runs the US federal government?

Perhaps, since the military is based on uranium (atomic) and fossil fuels, money is partially based on fossil fuels, stock valuations are substantially linked to mineral reserves (commodities) and mining, therefore, these materials are so intertwined with physical and political power (including creation of perceived “wealth” and purchase of influence) that the western financial system would collapse if these materials became substantially devalued. It may be impossible to tell if that would be good or bad in the longer term.

Oh wait, there seems to be some kind of devaluation thing-a-ma-jig going on now, even as we all discuss melting planetary ice caps and collapsing ecosystems. Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 7 at 10:06pm

Marc Ferguson

I found Roberts article to be among the most intellectually clear headed analysis I can remember reading. He nailed it! But I beleive his point was to argue for a change of strategy. A radical reorientation of how we (progressives) address our adversary. I kept imagining the war protests of the ’70s, or the civil rights activism of the ’60s. Our way of life if under siege. If we don’t fight, are we any less responsible for the coming debacle? We, after all, know, with clarity what will happen. What catalyzed the mostly peaceful, yet deadly serious, activism of the past? And how were they different from both the pacifism of Earth Day and the anarchal vandalism of the Earth Liberation Front. Missing from the formula is a central figure to organize the message, the strategy and a negotiated solution. Obama – no, regretably. McKibben, maybe. Romm, possibly. Given the right leadership and a strategy that refuses to accept anything less than a start toward a real solution, we may yet have time to act.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 2:56pm

Ernest Szeto

From a broader framework, this opens up a very interesting question, almost as archetypal as “masculine” and “feminine”, of two modes of relating to the world called “conservative” and “liberal”.

(Perhaps arguing in terms that fits into the values of the right such as security, independence, self sufficiency, has a better chance of being successful. For e.g., something like Quadrennial Defense Review citing climate change as a “threat multiplier”, the military “going green” to deal with their supply lines. Perhaps self sufficient local communities, self sufficient in their power generation, food and water supplies, security, waste handling would have appeal to libertarians. “Jobs” has appeal to everyone, no matter “left” or “right”.)

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 5:43pm

Barry Saxifrage · Top Commenter

In BC a CWM premier created an economy wide carbon price along conservative political policy lines. The BC Carbon Tax required no new bureaucracy, put no money into government hands and allowed for a series of tax cuts to corporations, individuals and small businesses. Voters rewarded him at the polls and support has grown stronger over time. The CWM-effect in USA is different somehow than in other parts of the world where it is possible to find a lot of CWMs that support climate science and conservative policy solutions to the problem.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 12:55pm

Barry Saxifrage · Top Commenter

Conservative policy aspects of the economy-wide BC Carbon Tax:
1) no new bureaucracy
2) no money into government hands
3) enables income tax cuts for corporate, small biz and individuals
4) carbon price predictability favored by businesses (vs cap-trade)
…See More

1 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 1:21pm

Neil Gillies

I think the core difference is that CWMs in the USA tend to live entirely within their own media universe (epistemic closure) to a much greater extent than those outside the USA. I am remembering that Canada refused to grant Fox “news” a license because they lie too much.

Like · Reply · August 7 at 10:23am

Geo Hernandez · Top Commenter · Los Angeles, California

“To all these reasons, I’d add “epistemic closure,” the extraordinary way that the modern right has constructed a self-contained, hermetically sealed media environment in which conservatives can be protected from ever encountering a contrary view.”

Gee, how many words do you need to say, “They live in their minds”? :-)

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 8:08pm

Rini Hara · Robert Wood Johnson University of medicine and dentistry of New Jersey

Interesting. Sadly, the biggest problem is a refusal to adopt a new paradigm. You would think that three or four decades would be enough, though… :-(

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 5:48pm

Nick Mears · Bookstore Employee at Western Michigan University

You’re an absolute humiliation to the human race.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 6 at 9:33am

Bart Laws · Top Commenter · Assistant Professor at Brown University

To whom sir, is your remark addressed?

1 · Like · Reply · August 6 at 11:48am

  • james_benison (signed in using Yahoo)

Bookstore employees are the intelligence that should run the world?
Those scientists are all know nothing liars!!!!
Pat yourself with a pack of smokes.

Like · Reply · August 8 at 5:06am

R Kevin McHugh · San Diego, California

you are an absolute idiot.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 7 at 1:19pm

Comments are closed.