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The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a U.S. national survey experiment

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Research suggests that public divides on climate change may often be rooted in identity processes, driven in part by a motivation to associate with others with similar political and ideological views. In a large split-ballot national survey experiment of 2041 U.S. adults, we explored the role of a non-partisan identity—racial/ethnic majority and minority status—in climate change opinion, in addition to respondents’ political orientation (i.e., ideology and party affiliation). Specifically, we examined respondents’ climate beliefs and policy support, identification with groups that support environmental causes (“environmentalists”), and the sensitivity of these beliefs to other factors known to predict issue polarization (political orientation and issue framing). Results revealed that across all opinion metrics, non-Whites’ views were less politically polarized than those of Whites and were unaffected by exposure to different ways of framing the issue (as “global warming” versus “climate change”). Moreover, non-Whites were reliably less likely to self-identify as environmentalists compared to Whites, despite expressing existence beliefs and support for regulating greenhouse gases at levels comparable to Whites. These findings suggest that racial and ethnic identities can shape core climate change beliefs in previously overlooked ways. We consider implications for public outreach and climate science advocacy.

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  1. All interactive effects of race/ethnicity and political ideology on climate beliefs remain significant when controlling for party affiliation (Republican, Democrat) and other background variables known to predict environmental beliefs (i.e., gender, education, and income). Moreover, they emerge despite comparable variability in political ideology within both groups (SD = 1.47 vs. SD = 1.55, respectively; Range: 1–7 for both groups) (see Table 1 and Table 2).

  2. We note that other researchers have similarly focused on effects of political ideology in the context of race (e.g., McCright and Dunlap 2011a and McCright and Dunlap 2011b). However, these studies did not examine interaction effects between race and political orientation among non-Whites (a direct test of differential political polarization), and importantly, they did not examine support for climate policies, indirect effects (e.g., via scientific consensus), or experimental effects of different issue frames – the focus of the present study.


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The authors thank Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) (Jeremy Freese and James Druckman, Principal Investigators) for supporting this data collection. TESS is supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant SES-1227179).

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Correspondence to Jonathon P. Schuldt.

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Schuldt, J.P., Pearson, A.R. The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a U.S. national survey experiment. Climatic Change 136, 495–505 (2016).

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