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Few in US Recognize Inequities of Climate Change

Research suggests that calling attention to on of the main factors that put people at risk may backfire

by Cornell University
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ITHACA, NY — Despite broad scientific consensus that climate change has more serious consequences for some groups—particularly those already socially or economically disadvantaged—a large swath of people in the US doesn’t see it that way.

A new national survey study found that just over one-third of US adults believe climate change is impacting some groups more than others. Nearly half feel that climate change impacts all groups about equally. And when the question referenced race in climate impacts, even fewer people believed some groups are more adversely affected than others.

"Our earlier research showed that the American public misperceives who is concerned about environmental issues, and we’re wondering why that’s the case,” said Jonathon Schuldt, associate professor of communication at Cornell University, and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

“And one thought we had was, ‘Is the American public even aware of the unequal impacts of environmental issues—specifically the unequal impacts of climate change?’” Schuldt said. “Our findings suggest many people might not be.”

Schuldt and Adam Pearson, associate professor and chair of psychological science at Pomona College, are co-authors of “Public Recognition of Climate Change Inequities Within the United States,” which published in Climatic Change.

For this study, Schuldt and Pearson analyzed data from two national surveys they conducted in May and August-September 2022.

Democrats were more likely than Republicans, and younger people more likely than older people, to believe climate change affected some groups more than others. Still, Schuldt said, the misperceptions exist across all groups.

“It’s still only a minority of Democrats who are choosing the ‘some more than others’ response, which is the correct response,” he said. “That’s a little surprising to us. It does seem like there is this sort of ‘common threat’ or ‘great equalizer’ perception when it comes to climate change, that may prevent people from seeing or acknowledging these inequities.”

The biggest surprise, he said, was that when race was included in the question, the belief that some groups were more affected than others was so much weaker.

“That’s remarkable to us, because race is a robust social predictor of exposure to climate-related hazards,” Schuldt said. “It suggests that calling attention to one of the main factors that puts people at risk might actually backfire.”

Schuldt is hoping that this and future research on climate justice leads to more awareness by the public and, consequently, legislation that can make a real difference.

“We know a lot about Americans’ climate change attitudes, but we know relatively little about their perceptions of climate injustice,” he said. “We think there’s a need for survey researchers to study these in more depth, so that we can track them over time and see how well they predict support for policy aimed at reducing climate inequities in the years to come.”

- This press release was originally published on the Cornell University website