The Role of Gender in Climate Politics

Climate change is proven – the vast majority of the scientific community, along with many major businesses and nearly every major insurance provider, all agree that climate change is having real impacts on the world today. Most also believe that those impacts are the result of anthropogenic activity. However, the facts about climate change are not being translated into political action. This is in large part because the facts are not driving the discussion.

Despite the fact that the latest IPCC report states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” and that “human influence on the climate system is clear,” somehow 18% of the US population still does not believe global warming is occurring, and 35% does not believe that it is caused by human activity. Even worse, the 114th Congress includes 162 climate deniers (approximately 30% of Congress) with only eight states represented exclusively by individuals who believe that addressing climate change is a priority.

Sen. James Inhofe

Sen. James Inhofe

Who are all of these climate deniers? Many Americans, if asked to picture a climate denier, would likely picture a figure like Rush Limbaugh or Senator James Inhofe. It turns out that there is more to this assumption than mere stereotyping. Several studies have been published over the past five years, building on existing bodies of research, which all indicate that climate skeptics are most likely to be white, conservative men. I took a closer look at three psychology and sociology studies from three different continents, all of which came to this same conclusion.

A study out of Cardiff University indicated that men are more skeptical of climate change than women, and that “political affiliation is a strong determinant of skepticism, with Conservative voters amongst the most skeptical.” An American study out of Michigan State University was one of the first to explicitly categorize “conservative white males” as the most skeptical of climate change. This study went a step further to analyze conservative white men who self-reported an above average understanding of global warming (considered “confident conservative white men”). By isolating these individuals, the study found that 48.4% of confident conservative white men believe the effects of global warming will never happen, compared to only 8.6% of all other respondents. Additionally, it found that while 71.6% of confident conservative white men believed that recent temperature increases are not primarily due to human activities, only 34.2% of all other respondents feel that way. Finally, a 2015 study published in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology supported and extended the “conservative white male” effect based on a sample of over 6,000 New Zealanders. This study confirmed that conservative white males (along with older individuals with high levels of socioeconomic status and less education) are disproportionately more likely to be skeptical of the reality of climate change and its anthropogenic cause.

These studies essentially just prove what most of us already knew or assumed. But the impact of the “conservative white man” syndrome is significant. Not only do the studies provide scientific evidence that conservative white men are the least likely to take action on climate change, it also indicates that “beliefs about climate change are fundamentally linked to existing values and worldviews,” and “are not a result of knowledge deficit or misunderstanding.” In other words, they are also least likely to be swayed by the overwhelming scientific consensus or by the urgency of environmental advocates.

Ms. Usha Nair, representative of the global south and current Co-Focal Point of the Women and Gender Constituency stakeholder group

Ms. Usha Nair, representative of the global south and current Co-Focal Point of the Women and Gender Constituency stakeholder group

None of this would matter so much if it were not for the fact that political decisions related to climate change are predominantly made by men. The UNFCCC Conference of the Parties is actually mandated to “improve the participation of women in bodies established under the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol.” However, progress is slow, and the involvement of women in recent Conferences of the Parties has been limited. Women only represented 36% of the Party delegates to COP20 last year, and only represented 26% of the heads of Party delegations. This year, women represent only 25% of the members of constituted bodies (which is a ~3% decline from last year) and represent only 23% of the regional groups and other Party groupings.

Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other Senate republicans

Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and other Senate republicans

Even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the Conference of the Parties and assume that the participants in the process are all committed to combating climate change, any international agreement that the Parties sign must still be approved by two thirds of the United States Senate for it to become legally binding on the U.S. (although there are alternative mechanisms for the country to deposit its “instrument of ratification” with the UNFCCC). At least one source indicates that 32% of the current Senators are climate deniers, creating a very narrow margin for the 66% approval of any international climate change agreement. The fact that the whole of the U.S. Senate is currently 54% republican, 94% white, and 80% male does not lend hope to the cause.

Now, none of this is to say that every climate denier is a conservative white male, nor is it to say that all conservative white males are climate deniers. It is my ardent hope that the current United States senators (republican, democrat, Caucasian, minority, male, and female alike) will vote to approve the agreement reached at Paris this year. But if they do not, it might be an additional incentive to diversify our elected officials.