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Conservative White Males More Likely To Deny Climate Change, Report Finds

Climate Change Men

First Posted: 08/03/11 05:36 PM ET Updated: 09/27/11 06:12 AM ET

Conservative white males are more likely to endorse climate change denial than the rest of the American public, says a new study published in the July issue of the Journal of Global Environmental Change.

The results were based on data from 10,000 respondents in ten annual polls on environmental issues conducted by Gallup from 2001 to 2010.

The study included five indicators of climate change denial taken from Gallup's annual phone interviews throughout that 10-year period, explained researcher Riley E. Dunlap, who co-authored "Cool Dudes: The Denial Of Climate Change Among Conservative White Males In The United States" with Aaron M. McCright.

The climate change denial indicators that the researchers honed in on included:

1) When the effects of global warming will happen
2) Whether climate change is attributed to human activities or natural change
3) Whether they believe global warming occurs
4) How much they personally worry about climate change
5) Whether they believe in the scientific evidence on global warming, and how much they think they know about climate change

29.6 percent of conservative white males said they believed that the effects of global warming will never happen, and only 7.4 percent of all other U.S. adults agreed with that view.

The results also showed that 58.5 percent of conservative white males denied that recent temperature increases are primarily caused by human activities, compared to only 31.5 percent of all other adults.

Dunlap and McCright noted the results show that conservative white males "are more likely than other adults to reject the scientific consensus on climate change," and this might explain why 58.8 percent of this group "deny the existence of a scientific consensus," compared to 35.5 percent of other adults.

Conservative white males (65.1 percent) were also more than twice as likely to say the media exaggerated the seriousness of climate change compared to other adults (29.9 percent). Furthermore, 39.1 percent of conservative white males said they did not worry at all about global warming, compared to 14.4 percent of all other adults.

While the overall finding of Dunlap and McCright's conservative white male study might not be exceptionally surprising, the cultural and psychological reasons for the group's position on global warming is notable.

Dunlap and McCright reference Yale University's Dan Kahan, who researched the so-called "white male effect" in a study finding that white men fear various risks less than women and minorities. Kahan's theory of identity-protective cognition can be applied to Dunlap and McCright's study to show that accepting climate change risk is really no different than fearing other risks, Dunlap said. And because conservative white men tend to benefit from the current socio-economic system and subscribe to a hierarchical and individualistic worldview, recognizing climate change would be against the current status quo, explained Dunlap.

The other finding to come out of the study showed that climate change denial has increased over the past decade, according to Dunlap.

What is most sobering, especially for the scientific community and climate change communicators, is that climate change denial has actually increased in the U.S. general public between 2001 and 2010 (Newport, 2010), although primarily due to a significant increase in the past two years, which may prove abnormal in the long run (Leiserowitz et al., forthcoming).

Dunlap told The Huffington Post this is largely thanks to the growing climate change denial lobby. "Large corporations and conservative think thanks began to deny the reality of global warming in the 1980s, when climate scientists began to bring it to the attention of the general public," he said.

Dunlap referenced another study on the politicization of climate change and explained that "climate change denial is linked to conservative philanthropists and conservative think tanks."

On a specific level, conservative white male elites in the conservative movement and the fossil fuels industry have sent a consistent message -- via conservative talk radio, television news, newspapers, and web- sites -- to the American public for approximately twenty years: climate change is not real and thus does not warrant ameliorative action.

But perhaps this isn't a simple case of "white male effect" climate change denial, and has more to do with a question about disagreement over data.

Climate scientist Dr. Roy Spencer, a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Earth System Science Center, told The Huffington Post about his new research published in Remote Sensing. The research shows that the Earth’s atmosphere releases more heat into space than predicted by the computer climate models programmed for the purpose.

Though Spencer did not comment on Dunlap and McCright's study, he did explain that his results show climate forecasts based on models from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are warming substantially faster than the actual atmosphere.

When asked about whether his findings support the climate change denial camp, he explained it depends on what you mean by "denial."

"I don't know anyone who denies that climate has changed ... only that we know how much of that change has been human-caused versus due to various natural cycles," Spencer said.

"I would indeed 'deny' that our current observations of the climate system are more supportive of anthropogenic global warming being a serious problem," he added.

But Spencer said he doesn't believe we should stop using climate models, as they are absolutely necessary for understanding the climate system.

"I am in no way against models per se," he said. "What bothers me as a scientist is that they are tuned to produce warming consistent with the modelers' preconceived notions of how sensitive the climate system is."

Overall, 97 percent of scientists adhere to the view that human activity is a significant contributor in changing mean global temperatures, according to a study published by the American Geophysical Union on the scientific consensus on climate change.

A lack of consensus on this issue demonstrates how difficult it will be to find a solution for dealing with global warming.

As Dunlap said, "What this study tells us is that it is going to make any effective policy making of climate change very difficult, because it will be difficult to build a consensus on this polarized issue."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Riley E. Dunlap on climate change denial among large corporations and conservative think tanks.
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