New Study Finds People of Color Are Less Polarized About Climate Change Than Whites


A new study has found that people of color are less politically polarized over the issue of climate change than white people.

This study, published last week by Jonathon P. Schuldt and Adam R. Pearson of Cornell University and Pomona College, analyzed data from a national survey of of 2,041 Americans to illuminate the connections between race, political polarization, and opinions on climate change. Specifically, Schuldt and Pearson examined “respondents’ climate beliefs and policy support, identification with groups that support environmental causes (environmentalists), and the sensitivity of these beliefs to other factors known to predict issue polarization (political orientation and issue framing).”

From their research, Schuldt and Pearson came to some key conclusions. They found that while political persuasions are strong predictors of climate beliefs in white people — i.e. conservatives are often less likely to accept climate science than liberals — the correlation does not hold for non-white communities. Dr. Jonathon P. Schuldt, one of the authors of the study, told ThinkProgress in an email that “for the large and growing segment of the American public that identifies as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, climate change attitudes may be less driven by politics than is the case among whites.”

Schuldt told ThinkProgress that “it is possible that attitudes among these groups are rooted more strongly in concerns about group harm as compared to more abstract political values,” since minority communities are especially vulnerable to negative environmental impacts. Research has shown that low-income people of color, for instance, are more likely to live near high-polluting facilities and breathe in more polluted air.

Furthermore, people of color are less likely to identify as “environmentalists” than whites, even though their climate beliefs were nearly identical those of white communities. Schudlt observed that “despite their equal or greater levels of concern about climate change, members of minority groups may feel less connected to the individuals and organizations that work to address environmental issues.”

Climate change is a highly important issue for many minority communities. A 2010 Yale poll found that “often the strongest supporters of climate and energy policies and were also more likely to support these policies even if they incurred greater cost.” The poll results showed that 89 percent of black respondents said they would strongly or somewhat support regulating carbon as a pollutant, compared to 78 percent of white Americans. And climate change and environmental issues are among the top concerns for the Latino community, with one poll showing that reducing smog ranks above reforming immigration policies for Latinos.

Despite the large foundation of support coming from minority communities, many leading environmental groups have a diversity problem. A 2009 New York Times report profiled the historical tendencies of large environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, to draw most of their membership from people from white, affluent backgrounds.

Understanding this, environmental groups have been making strides in their efforts to recruit more people of color to their organizations. For example, the Sierra Club named Aaron Mair, an African American epidemiological-spatial analyst, its new president last May — the first African American president in Sierra Club’s history. The NRDC’s president, who assumed office in 2015, also cites diversity as one of her priorities.

On the connection between race and environmental beliefs, Schuldt and his team are striving to learn more. “We are planning a new national-level opinion survey that will look more deeply into the social factors that shape climate opinions and engagement among different subgroups,” said Schuldt. That survey is slated to be fielded during the coming months.

Bryan Dewan is an intern at ThinkProgress.