Racial minorities are among the most vulnerable when it comes to climate impacts. But a new study finds they're often underrepresented in positions of environmental leadership and less likely to join green movements despite high levels of concern over the issue.
The report, published this month in the journal Climatic Change, found that while people of color are just as worried, if not more so, as their white counterparts, they often reject the label "environmentalist." About 50 percent of non-white respondents identified as environmentalists, compared to 56 percent of whites. The study says the difference “remained significant” across political ideologies, gender, education level and household income.
Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell and the study's co-author, said this lack of labeling among people of color can be tied to a shortage of diversity among environmental groups where, he said, it's often "an image of whiteness."
"When you look at who is among the ranks of leading environmental organizations ... and on the faculty of environmental departments at leading colleges and universities, non-whites are substantially underrepresented," Schuldt said. "You might look at them and say: 'Well, the people who are in these organizations don't look like me, and maybe my voice isn't welcome at the table.'"
The paper analyzed responses from 2,041 Americans that had already identified with a political party. The study found people of color are less likely than whites to use their political affiliation, namely being a Republican or Democrat, to guide their opinions about climate change.
Schuldt said the data counters traditional assumptions that one's political leanings determine whether he or she believes the (scientifically, unequivocally confirmed) fact that climate change is happening and is caused by humans. The paper asserts non-white communities could represent "key bridge audiences" to overcome partisan barriers that have made climate change a matter of politics rather than science.
As a whole, Americans have finally realized that humans do in fact cause climate change. A recent Gallup poll found 65 percent of respondents, an all-time high, believed humans caused climate change, up from just 55 percent last year. Most of that belief stems from Democrats, however, as only 38 percent of Republicans say humans are the cause.
Both Schuldt and co-author Adam Pearson questioned whether direct action -- or lack thereof -- on the part of racial minorities could be linked to so-called apocalypse fatigue, a notion that people only act on so many issues at any one time. Schuldt again pointed to statistics that show people of color are concerned, but there may be a "social barrier [to action] if you're a person of color."
Both authors plan to launch a more in-depth nationwide study that expands opinions beyond white vs. non-white distinctions to better understand different levels of environmental awareness throughout America.
"Environmental organizations and environmental faculty would do well to have the most diverse group that they can," he said. "We need better and more creative solutions to climate change, and more diverse groups are better groups."