why white men deny climate change.

4 Aug

It’s a sad reality of the conservative party that most of their most vocal media figures are stubborn, grumpy, intolerant, chauvinist, white men. At least that’s the impression I’ve always had. But I always figured it was my liberal bias; I mean, most conservatives seem crabby to me, especially when they’re arguing against my beliefs. But now two sociologists have taken a stab (a real, scholarly stab) at explaining why conservative white males (CWMs) are like this, particularly in the context of climate change. Yes, it has been experimentally shown that white men are more likely to deny climate change than any other group. Here are some explanations for why, put forth in the paper and paraphrased by David Roberts at Grist:

  • 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.

In short, CWMs have historically sat at the highest rung of the social ladder which gives them an incentive to uphold the status quo and their conservative views only reinforced that fear of change. Conservative ideology also holds a “dog-eat-dog” view of the world so they reject movements promoting equality. The last point means that people, particularly individualistic white males will not perceive something as risky if that behavior is critical to their way of life, in this case they cannot perceive the danger of global warming because then they would have to perceive that consumption, capitalism, and social inequality are contributors, and this would be an attack on the forces that keep white men at the top.

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