PORTRAIT OF A CLIMATE DENIER: Sociologists have found that conservative white males are more likely to question the validity of climate change science. Image: U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works
When it comes to climate change denial, not all human beings are created equal. As a recent study shows, conservative white males are less likely to believe in climate change.
"It's not surprising," said Aaron McCright, sociology professor at Michigan State University, who is a white male himself. But anecdotal evidence is not scientific, he said. "You really don't know what's going on until you crunch the numbers and find out."
Besides the trend amongst skeptics, the study also found that conservative white men who self-report a high understanding of global warming -- dubbed "confident" conservative males -- are even more likely to express climate change denial.
McCright's study, "Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States," was published online in July and printed in the October 2011 issue of Global Environmental Change, which ranks first out of 77 journals on environmental studies.
The study has created somewhat of a buzz, said Riley Dunlap, co-author and professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University. The paper was well received in academic circles, but he admitted he was concerned about a backlash from the conservative movement. While there have not been any major outcries, the study appears to have raised a few temperatures in Chicago.
"This paper is a transparent effort to take the focus off the actual scientific debate and instead engage in race baiting, class baiting and other sociological devices to win a science argument," said James Taylor, senior fellow for environment policy at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute.
But from McCright's perspective it was important to find out to what extent the sharp debate over climate change at the elite level had trickled down into the general public in recent decades. "Within the ranks of elites, climate change denialists are overwhelmingly conservative white males," reads the report, pointing to figures like talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Marshall Institute CEO, William O'Keefe. "Does a similar pattern exist in the American public?"
'Cool Dudes,' a bloc that stands out in the crowd
McCright and Dunlap's analysis used polling data on climate change denial from 10 Gallup surveys from 2001 to 2010. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72.4 percent of the American population reported as white in 2010, and 77.1 percent in the year 2000. This majority made it difficult to draw conclusions about the relationship between other races and climate change, said McCright, because the Gallup survey sample size was so small.
To test for the trend amongst conservative white males, the researchers compared the demographic to "all other adults." Results showed, for instance, that 29.6 percent of conservative white males believe the effects of global warming will never happen, versus 7.4 percent of other adults. In holding for "confident" conservative white males, the study showed 48.4 percent believe global warming won't happen, versus 8.6 percent of other adults.
As a point of comparison, McCright also tested the beliefs of conservative white females. He found 14.9 percent believe the effects of global warming will never happen to 29.6 percent of their male counterparts. McCright said the finding is due more to the women's political stance than their gender or race. The data on conservative white females was not published in the "Cool dudes" study.
To understand why there is a trend amongst conservative white males, the Gallup data was cross-examined with research about the "white male effect" -- the idea that white males were either more accepting of risk or less risk averse than the rest of the public.
The white male effect could stem from the notion that, historically, white males have faced fewer obstacles in life, said McCright. But another school of thought sees the adoption of risk tied to personal values. "It has to do with their identity as an in-group," he said. "Something that would challenge the status quo is something [conservative white males] want to shun."