Old man giving the thumbs up. I like denying climate change almost as much as I like Lynyrd Skynyrd.


There’s a study running soon in the journal Global Environmental Change called “Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States.” It analyzes poll and survey data from the last 10 years and finds that … are you sitting down? … conservative white men are far more likely to deny the threat of climate change than other people.

OK, that’s no surprise to anyone who’s been awake over the last decade. But the paper goes beyond that to put forward some theories about why conservative white men (CWM) are so loathe to accept climate change. The explanation is some mix of the following, all of which overlap in various ways:

  • 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.

To all these reasons, I’d add “epistemic closure,” the extraordinary way that the modern right has constructed a self-contained, hermetically sealed media environment in which conservatives can be protected from ever encountering a contrary view. It’s an accelerant to all the tendencies described above.

Anyway, as you can see, the rejection of climate science among CWM is basically overdetermined. Climate change threatens their values, their privileges, and their worldview. They are reacting as one would expect them to react.

So what? What follows from this? I’ll address that in my next post.