A new study highlights a disturbing correlation: people who don’t believe in man-made climate change are also more likely to be racists.
The parallel between climate change denial and slavery has been drawn several times in the past — just like it was wrong to keep other people enslaved, just like it was wrong to deny women the vote, so too it is wrong to simply refuse a verifiable scientific fact, with vast consequences for the entire world.
But what if the correlation isn’t only abstract, but also has a concrete component?
A new study analyzed the connection between climate change denial and racism, two seemingly unrelated things, which do however share a strong correlation.
Climate change deniers as a group have been shown to share certain similarities in the past: they’re more likely to be old, they’re more likely to be white, and they’re more likely to lean towards the political right. According to this new research, they also share a nasty attitude towards other races.
Denial is skin-deep
“I’m not trying to make a claim in the study that race is the single most important or necessarily a massive component of all environmental attitudes” the researcher behind the study, political scientist Salil Benegal from DePauw University, told Sierra.
“But it’s a significant thing that we should be looking out for.”
Benegal analyzed two collections of data: Pew data and data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), which interviews a national sample of voters before and after each presidential election. The ANES has collected racial information since the 1960s, by asking respondents how much they agree with the following statements, on a scale of 1 to 5:
- Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
- Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
- It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough. If Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.
When Benegal correlated the two datasets during the Obama administration, he found that white Republicans who scored highest for racial resentment were 300% more likely to also be climate change deniers.
Obama himself was a strong polarization element — being a black president and very interested in environmental issues, he gained the popularity and respect of some voters, while antagonizing others (particularly the ones mentioned above). Benegal also wanted to assess whether the polarization on the climate change issue was exacerbated by Obama himself (i.e. people who disliked Obama were against his environmental reforms just because they were against him).
“There has been increasing polarisation on this issue,” Benegal told Think Progress, “and this is one thing my own research has been examining for a while – trying to figure out what are some of the root causes of this polarisation.”
Benegal found that white voters became 18 percent less likely than black voters to see climate change as a very serious problem over the course of Obama’s presidency — even after controlling for factors such as political partisanship, ideology, and education,
Ultimately, the more racial resentment people harbor, the more likely they are to disagree with the scientific consensus on climate change.
“I found that the racial resentment scale was incredibly significant in predicting whether or not people agreed with the scientific consensus,” Benegal said.
This seems to further suggest the idea that climate change denial isn’t necessarily based on a scientific reality, but on a personal belief. Which makes a lot of sense if you’ve been following the discussions around this hot topic.
Benegal underlines that political partisanship and racial attitudes go strongly together, with consequences that are hard to foresee.
“There is the tendency to just read something like this and say, ‘Oh well, maybe it’s not partisanship; it’s race,’” Benegal says. “But I think the important thing is to understand that racial attitudes and partisan identity are becoming more closely aligned and go hand-in-hand for an increasing number of issues.”
“We’re noticing the interactions between these factors more frequently. It’s important to understand how race and partisanship are tied together on so many issues.”
Journal Reference: Salil D. Bengal — “The spillover of race and racial attitudes into public opinion about climate change”. Environmental Politics, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2018.1457287