Although progress has been made in cleaning up the environment—less smog in Los Angeles, a smaller hole in the ozone layer, cleaner rivers in North America (the Cayahoga River no longer catches fire)—many major environmental problems persist: toxic chemicals percolate through products, the environment, and our bodies; species are going extinct around the globe at dizzying rates due to human activity (primarily habitat destruction through conversion to farms, suburbs, and cities); and, perhaps worst of all, Earth’s climate is changing in unpredictable and damaging ways due to our release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Such problems threaten human progress and wellbeing, and here are just a few examples: Flame retardants put into furniture in the United States get into our bodies and into human breast milk; they’ve been linked to various diseases including “thyroid disruption, memory, and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty, reduced fertility…and cancer.” Besides the moral problems of killing off species, we’re losing the advantages of some of the services and chemicals they produce—many pharmaceuticals are discovered in rainforest plants, for instance. Future generations may curse us for doing so little to prevent global climate change and its consequences: more frequent and severe droughts; loss of clean water sources; shrinking tropical forests; inundation of coastal cities; major reductions in agricultural production in many areas; and so on.
The stakes run high, and many people are frustrated by our society’s apparently lack of will to respond. In my book Invisible Nature, I explain how our separation from the consequences of our choices leads us to make more destructive ones.
Living and Dying in Denial
But in this context of inaction the most irksome phenomenon may be the legions of people who deny that problems such as global climate change even exist or that they matter. Why is it that they’re disproportionately white, male, American political conservatives?
Psychologists who specialize in how people perceive risks have documented that white men in the United States have significantly more tolerance than other Americans for various kinds of risks—technological, environmental, and health risks, for instance. Dan M. Kahan and colleagues set forth a new explanation, which they termed “identity-protective cognition,” which states basically that “individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their cultural identities.” And they tend to adopt the beliefs common to members of their in-groups.
For instance when activities deemed integral to their cultural identities are revealed to be harmful to society, white men wielding hierarchical and individualistic views tend to react with strong skepticism.
They identify with their in-group of other white men and protect that in-group by harboring higher levels of skepticism about environmental and other risks. Such risks imply the need for greater government regulation, which can be seen as a threat to the economic status quo that gives them more power than any other group.
This lower sensitivity to various risks shouldn’t be seen as fearlessness among white men. Just the opposite may be true: white men might reject the validity of risks (environmental, gun violence, etc.) out of the fear that accepting them would undermine the status and power of their in-group.
Of course these characteristics don’t apply to each individual white man (ahem!) but rather to them (us) as a whole. And of course some climate change deniers are not white or male or conservative. But CWMs as a group form the vanguard of environmental risk denial.
This “white male effect” is due at least in part to political conservatives in that subgroup (about 30 percent of American white males). Pushing deeper into the “Conservative White Male (CWM)” effect, the psychologists Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap found that CWMs worry less about environmental quality and various environmental problems. This effect is due in part to their “system-justifying” tendencies: the need to justify the current system by perpetuating it (rather than perpetuating it because it is justified). “Conservatives have much stronger system justiﬁcation tendencies…than do liberals.” The tendency to justify the current system is likely one of the roots of climate change denial—and the denial of a host of other problems that would require changes in governance and the economy (and thus implicit condemnation of the current system).
McCright and Dunlap write that CWMs in the general public identify with elite CWMs (think Rush Limbaugh, Senator James M. Inhofe, Roger Ailes) and “thus promote and defend this in-group’s antienvironmental worldview…[by]… disparaging evidence justifying environmental regulations.” They’re likely to deny environmental problems either exist or need to be addressed by changing the current system since that system has served them particularly well compared to other segments of society.
Dan M. Kahan finds that this “ideologically motivated cognition”—a way of thinking in which one forms and maintains beliefs that signify loyalty to important affinity groups, as a way of enhancing one’s own personal interests—is neither unique to conservatives (or CWMs) nor irrational in a general sense. It may be “individually rational” for people to be more predisposed to accept information that binds them to political positions that predominate in their identity-defining groups—even when collectively we are all worse off. The result is a “collective irrationality” that makes us unable to respond to climate change and other real problems.
Denial of important facts that challenge powerful in-groups is not a new phenomenon. McCright and Dunlap note that “CWMs in think tanks, industry associations, antiregulatory advocacy organizations, and conservative media outlets were denying or downplaying the risks of a wide range of environmental problems (e.g. DDT, acid rain, and ozone depletion) before the emergence of global warming as a major issue.” Indeed, denial of important facts and promotion of fallacies is a longstanding approach to political propaganda.
If you don't believe that there's a consensus about global climate change both as a reality and as a reality caused by human activity, please read these two sources:
The Upshot—Does Truth Have to Be a Victim?
The crux of these studies, I believe, is that the basic mental processes of perception and cognition by which we know and understand the world around us are susceptible to political, cultural, and ideological assumptions and culture-group identity. Not only do we block information that doesn’t conform well with our images of the world (as with the phenomenon of “confirmation bias,” which I discuss in my previous post), but we also block information, knowledge, and understandings of the world that may threaten our position in society or that contradict our favored ideas about how the political-economic system should work.
Of course all of us—not just CWMs—are affected by these psychological phenomena of confirmation bias, ideologically motivated cognition, and identity-protective cognition. But CWMs stand out because their particular commitment to and faith in the economic system that benefits them and their perceived in-group the most leads to a irrational denial of scientific consensus on climate change and other important problems. From their individualist perspective they’re making rational choices that benefit their own individual sense of self. But from a larger perspective grounded in climate science, the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and other authoritative sources, they’re leading the way to a damaged, degraded planet.
CWMs might reply that the pro-governmental attitudes of liberal white males lead them to an alarmist stance on climate change that demands more regulation. Perhaps there’s some truth to this notion, but the statement leaves CWMs again in the position of rejecting scientific consensus and leading us to further inaction when prudence would call for action—even in the face of some uncertainty (which is very little today)—because the risks to society are so great.
What Can be Done?
Dan M. Kahan argues that it’s not enough to communicate facts about environmental and other risks—this type of information must be framed, he writes, in a way that bears acceptable social meaning before people can accept the results of research. For instance conservatives are more apt to accept news about global climate change when presented also with information about engineering solutions such as reflecting sunlight away from Earth with giant mirrors in space. New engineering projects are not anathema to free-market principles (particularly if they’re carried out by private corporations).
In my view that approach is limited. I don’t want a world in which the only problems considered real and valid are those that have immediate technical solutions. Ultimately, the underlying assumptions that are leading to (socially) irrational results must be confronted head-on. People must learn about the vulnerabilities and limitations of their own models of reality. For instance American conservatives tend to support the exploitation of fossil fuels as a driver of economic progress and wellbeing. But burning coal, a major driver of climate change, costs more than it contributes to the economy because of health and other impacts.
CWMs and others who reject broad scientific consensus of environmental problems need to be shown not only the full range of social and environmental harms inflicted by this political-economic system that has apparently served them so well. They need also to see the ways in which the system hasn’t resulted in the best outcome for them or anyone. Wouldn’t everyone like to live in a world with fewer poor and destitute people and less environmental destruction—and to leave our descendants a planet they can thrive on?
Learn about my book: Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.
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 Liza Gross, “Flame Retardants in Consumer Products are Linked to Health and Cognitive Problems.” Washington Post online, April 15, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/flame-retardants-in-consumer-products-are-linked-to-health-and-cognitive-problems/2013/04/15/f5c7b2aa-8b34-11e2-9838-d62f083ba93f_story.html. (AccessedMarch 11, 2014)
 NASA: “Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet: The effects and future consequences of global change.” http://climate.nasa.gov/effects (accessed March 11, 2014).
 Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment(Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013). See http://invisiblenature.com.
 Aaron M. McCright & Riley E. Dunlap. 2012. Bringing ideology in: the conservative white male effect on worry about environmental problems in the USA, Journal of Risk Research, DOI:10.1080/13669877.2012.726242. See the list of studies on p. 12. McCright, A.M., and R.E. Dunlap. 2011. Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the US. Global Environmental Change 21: 1163–72.
 Dan M. Kahan, Donald Braman, John Gastil, Paul Slovic, and C. K. Mertz: Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Volume 4, Issue 3, 465–505, November 2007.
 Kahan, et al. (2007), p. 467.
 McCright & Dunlap (2012), p. 12.
 McCright & Dunlap (2012), p. 12.
 McCright & Dunlap (2012), p. 12.
 Dan M. Kahan: Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reﬂection. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013, pp. 407–424. See also http://e360.yale.edu/feature/dan_kahan_interview_better_message_risks_climate_change/2690/ (accessed March 11, 2014).
 McCright & Dunlap (2012), p. 2.
 Kahan, Braman, Gastil, et al., p. 497.
 See for example http://thinkprogress.org/green/2011/09/29/332378/economists-coal-is-incredibly-costly/ (accessed March 11, 2014).