Focusing on the negative impacts of climate change may heighten racist beliefs
Uenal, F., Sidanius, J., Roozenbeek, J., & Van der Linden, S. (2021). Climate change threats increase modern racism as a function of social dominance orientation and ingroup identification. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 97, 104228.
Headlines about global warming are often negative, highlighting various harmful impacts of climate change, such as increased drought and heat-related deaths. Such information is often thought to be useful because people who feel threatened by climate change generally support pro-environmental policies. However, communicating about global warming in a manner that focuses exclusively on its threatening aspects can have unintended consequences. Recent research conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States demonstrates one such repercussion: emphasizing climate change threats can increase racist attitudes. Because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by global warming, it is important to understand the ways in which climate change communication exacerbates these inequalities.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University examined why discussing the threats of climate change can heighten racist beliefs. In two studies, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they show that perceiving a threat can heighten people’s perception of other, unrelated dangers. Consequently, learning about the negative consequences of climate change can make people feel more threatened by other social groups (in the case of this study, Muslim immigrants). This effect is greater for individuals who believe that some social groups should dominate others.
As part of a separate study, American participants first indicated to what extent they think that some social groups dominate others. Two years later, the same people were asked to read an article. Some read about the dangers of climate change, while others were given an article titled “The Islamic veil across the US”. People in the control condition read about the TV show “Friends”. Subsequently, all participants indicated the extent to which they held racist attitudes and the extent to which they viewed climate change and immigration as threats. Compared to people who read about “Friends,” participants who received one of the two other articles viewed both climate change and immigration as greater threats. This was true regardless of which of the two articles they read. This tendency to see other social groups as a greater threat after learning about the negative consequences of climate change was particularly strong for participants who had previously stated that some social groups should dominate others.
The second study repeated this experiment with British (rather than American) participants. In this study, social dominance beliefs were assessed after participants read the articles. The results were similar to those of the U.S. study. Participants were also asked to engage in a pro-environmental behavior, namely, signing a petition. Notably, even though people judged climate change as a greater threat after reading about global warming or immigration issues, they were not more likely to sign a pro-environmental petition.
These findings have important implications. First, they show that learning about the impacts of climate change can unintentionally heighten racist beliefs. Second, they contradict the notion that an awareness of global warming’s impacts produces pro-environmental action. Previous studies have found that concern for climate change increases people’s intention to act pro-environmentally. Yet, the current research demonstrates that actual behavior is not affected. Consequently, communicating about global warming in a way that solely focuses on the negative consequences, especially when one’s audience believes that some social groups should dominate others, could have unintended side effects. Providing actionable suggestions on how to tackle climate change could mitigate this risk and help foster the cooperation between people required to create a large-scale push for climate action.