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Why Many Americans Underestimate Who Is Most Concerned About The Environment

Lawmakers in Washington have spent months now negotiating legislation to address climate change and other environmental issues, and it is still not clear what they will end up doing or whether those actions will be enough given the significant environmental damage that has already been done. Meanwhile, just this year, Americans have experienced a series of extreme weather events that left millions in the cold, destroyed their homes and battered their communities and burned millions of acres of land around them.

But this is not an article about Washington’s inaction, polar vortexes, hurricanes, wildfires or any other particular environmental issue. Instead, it is an article about the people who are affected by these issues, and the perceptions and misperceptions Americans have about those people.


 

Earlier this year, I wrote about how the structure of American society makes it difficult for many people to understand the racial wealth gap that still exists between white and Black America. Many of those same social structures also matter for how Americans experience — and perceive — environmental issues.

Let’s start by how we, as a country, experience environmental issues. 

Decades of research has found that the risk of exposure to environmental hazards is unequally distributed by race and class in the United States. That is, racial and ethnic minorities and low-income Americans are more likely to live in what environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor calls “toxic communities” — places with higher levels of pollution, more hazardous waste sites and toxic facilities — and as a result, they are more likely to experience worse health and well-being outcomes than their white and more affluent peers.

These differences in exposure to risk are not accidental, either. 

Numerous scholars from both inside and outside of academia have studied how policy decisions over the previous several decades created these conditions. In one early study conducted in the 1980s, for instance, the U.S. Government Accountability Office1 found that a disproportionate number of waste sites were placed in African American communities in the South. A few years later, another study built on the GAO results and found that the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in a community was a large predictor of where commercial hazardous waste facilities were placed around the country.

By the early 1990s, those initial studies garnered enough attention that the Environmental Protection Agency began tracking disparities, using metrics such as lead exposure and air pollution exposure. Whether we look at individual studies or at meta-analyses of multiple studies, the research suggests that environmental disparities are based on racism, income inequality or some combination of both.

A stylized illustration of a profile view open head with a planet globe above it.

Related: How You View Climate Change Might Depend On Where You Live Read more. »

But it is not just our experiences with environmental issues that differ by race or socioeconomic status. How different groups of Americans perceive environmental issues also differs by race and class. 

For instance, in research that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that while participants largely agreed that “eco-oriented” issues like climate change and drought counted as environmental issues, they differed on whether more “human-oriented” issues like poverty and racism counted as environmental issues, with nonwhite and lower-income participants far more likely to rate those issues as environmental than their white and wealthier counterparts. This reflects how it is often easier for members of groups who regularly experience these risks to make these connections than it is for members of other groups who do not regularly experience poverty, racism or environmental risks.

If you live in a poor, predominantly minority-serving neighborhood, you may notice that not only are there issues with the air quality and water quality, but also there is not as much green space to get regular exercise. You may also notice that the people around you suffer from more health conditions. And seeing these things may lead you to conclude that they are all related — part of a larger, interconnected set of problems. On the other hand, if you live in a rich white neighborhood, you may not see many (if any) of these problems, and thus you would not know that they are related.

In fact, if you find yourself in that latter group, environmental issues may be more of an abstract political issue for you. Indeed, a recent paper examining how the American public has thought about climate change from 2008 through 2019 found that white people were far more likely than people of color to be politically polarized on climate change. For many white Americans, these issues were largely seen as political, but for Americans of color, they were viewed as issues of survival, with people of color far more likely to say that global warming poses a danger to them. 

That low-income people and people of color are more concerned than white people about environmental issues is important because it points to a glaring disconnect in what most Americans think.

In 2018, a team of environmental social scientists ran a study in which they asked Americans how concerned they thought a variety of groups were about environmental issues, in addition to how concerned they were individually. And they found that while most people thought white people, young people and women were the most concerned about the environment, it was actually people of color and poor people who reported the highest levels of environmental concern.

Because Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately exposed to environmental risks and bear the brunt of those risks, it makes sense that they would be more concerned. The striking part is that people starkly misperceive — and, specifically, underestimate — the environmental concerns of low-income, Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans. Why?

In part, it is related to the larger structural issues I mentioned before, and to how we make sense of the world around us. Our position in society either leads us to easily see some issues (like environmental injustices), or it makes those issues much harder to see. In my previous article, I also discussed how the segregated and stratified nature of American society affects things like who we’re friends with, which also affects what we learn about. But there are other factors at play here.

One factor is the media we consume. News coverage is also divided along racial lines, and that, in turn, affects the stories that get told. Many editors and producers at mainstream media outlets have white audiences in mind, which shapes the stories they create. And in the environmental realm, there has been the whitewashing of stories about climate and other environmental movements, which contributes to a perception that it is primarily white people who are concerned about environmental issues. The people who tend to get spotlighted in the environmental movement are also wealthy white people. Because of that, Americans end up thinking those are the people who care most about the environment.

It is not just the media, though, that overlooks the contributions of people of color to environmental movements. Environmental organizations are also overwhelmingly white. This is true not only in governmental and nongovernmental environmental organizations but also in the environmental sciences, which are less diverse than many other scientific disciplines.

This lack of diversity has real consequences, too. For instance, research on gender in climate change policies has found that men were more likely to positively evaluate climate arguments that were about science and business than about ethics and environmental justice. Consider, though, that it was a failure of ethics and environmental justice that led to something like the Flint water crisis — a decision-making process that at least one environmental scholar has described as “the most egregious example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history.

It’s why the omission of people of color in conversations and research about the environment is such a problem. When we make decisions about who gets to participate in environmental discussions, who gets to participate in environmental research, who gets to be featured in stories about environmental issues and who gets to work at environmental organizations, we are implicitly making decisions about whose lives and futures matter. And we have to remember that those decisions have important implications for what we learn about environmental issues, and for the policies and practices that get developed as a result of that knowledge.


I don’t buy that U.S. political forces are aligned on climate change: Silver

Footnotes

  1. Then known as the General Accounting Office.

Neil Lewis Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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