How Race Can Change Opinions on Climate Politics

The environmental movement’s lack of diversity could threaten support from minority groups.
(Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Mar 11, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Alex Reed is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at the University of Southern California.

Seventy percent of Americans agree that climate change is real and needs to be addressed, but a new report finds that whether they reach that conclusion and whether they act on it can depend on which racial group they belong to.

The report, published in Climatic Change, examined how people of different races developed their attitudes toward climate science. In looking at data from a 2012 national survey of more than 2,000 Americans, lead authors Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, and Adam Pearson, an assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College, observed that the politics of whites were a strong indicator for their beliefs on climate change.

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For minority groups, however, there was no clear correlation between political leanings and attitudes toward climate change. Instead, the report’s authors suggested, socioeconomic status plays a part in how they view climate science.

“It’s possible that for many nonwhites, it’s not some abstract political issue as it is a real-life-impacts issue,” Schuldt said in a statement. “Minority groups are more likely to suffer disproportionate climate impacts and are highly aware and more attuned to those unfair negative impacts.”

Carbon emissions are closely correlated with toxic pollutants, and childhood asthma among African Americans increased by 50 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to the environmental group Green for All, while 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

Despite displaying roughly equal levels of concern over climate change as whites, the report also observed, people of color are less likely to identify as “environmentalists.” The authors attribute this to a persistent lack of diversity in the environmental movement. Many of the national environmental organizations find membership mainly in white, affluent communities.

“You think of the prototypical environmentalist or you look at some environmental organizations, and many who we need in the movement might think, ‘They don’t look like me. Therefore, maybe I’m not welcome,’ ” Schuldt said.

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It was concern over such thinking that inspired activist Van Jones in 2008 to found Green for All, an organization dedicated to combating climate change and bringing people from the communities most affected by pollution into the conversation.

“Major environmental groups have been viewed as not giving sufficient attention to the concerns of communities of color in the past, and they are becoming much better and more focused on correcting this. But there’s still more work to do,” Julian McQueen, director of education and outreach at Green for All, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Last year, Green for All and the National Resource Defense Council released the results of a poll that found roughly two-thirds of African Americans think climate change is a serious problem and believe action needs to be taken.

As the country moves toward becoming majority minority, diversity in the environmental movement will be crucial to its success. “If you want to project what climate change attitudes are going to be like 30 years from now, this is a group that you want to understand,” Schuldt said.