Climate change, a challenge to identity?
According to the literature on "identity protective cognition," people believe messages coming from the people they identify with most and ignore messages that are contrarian, Dunlap said. While all groups have a tendency to do this, he said, in the case the climate change, conservative white males are especially likely to exhibit this self-protecting characteristic.
McCright says, up to 40 percent of all white males in the study sample believe in hierarchy, are more trusting of authority and are more conservative. Conservative white males' motivation to ignore a certain risk -- the risk of climate change in this case -- therefore, has to do with defending the status of their identity tied to the white male establishment.
This result is bolstered by the Yale University "Global Warming's Six Americas" report for May. The study found that none of the "dismissive" group -- those who don't think the climate is changing or want legislation -- believe global warming will harm the United States in 50 years. The dismissive group also skews male and conservative, said "Six Americas" co-author, Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
But for Donald Braman, associate professor of law at George Washington University, who works on risk perception studies, the focus on white males and climate change could be somewhat misleading. "My worry is that [McCright's paper] might suggest to people that there is something distinctive about the way conservatives and officially, conservative white men, deal with new information," he said. "The truth is that those same cognitive mechanisms push all of our buttons."
Braman says a similar effect reveals itself amongst progressives when it comes to concerns about nuclear power, for instance. In the Yale Law School "Second National Risk & Culture Study" researchers found that despite expert opinions espousing the relative safety of certain forms of nuclear energy, progressives are still concerned about it, Braman said.
Values shape factual beliefs across an array of phenomenon, he said. "If it's conservative white males on global warming, pick a different issue and you'll find another group that has trouble thinking in a way that agrees with experts."
'A very receptive audience'
The political divide on climate change was concentrated in the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, McCright said. At that time most global warming skepticism came from public figures, he said. But in 2000, climate change beliefs held predominantly by conservative white elites started to spread.
"Conservative think tanks, conservative media, corporations, and industry associations (especially for the fossil fuels industry) -- domains dominated by conservative white males -- have spearheaded the attacks on climate science and policy from the late 1980s to the present," McCright and Dunlap concluded in their study. "The results presented here show that conservative white males in the general public have become a very receptive audience for these efforts."
But Taylor of the Heartland Institute said it should not come as a surprise that the subject of human induced global warming would become more contested as it moved out of the realm of pure science into the realm of policy. The proposed solutions to climate change will "in very substantial ways rearrange our economy and the structure of our society. Of course this is going to capture the attention of interested citizens beyond the mere elites," said Taylor.
Taylor also argues that the paper's claim that "the most prominent denialists are conservative white males," overlooks the other side of the political equation. "Here's a news flash: The most prominent alarmists are liberal white males. So clearly race and gender has nothing to do with prominent alarmism or skepticism," he said.