Here's What Americans Think About the Environment - Pacific Standard

Here's What Americans Think About the Environment

It's a little more complicated than "for" and "against."
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Protesters march outside the White House in Washington, D.C., during a climate change rally on November 29, 2015. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters march outside the White House in Washington, D.C., during a climate change rally on November 29, 2015. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

Climate change politics are pretty simple, some would have us believe: There are those who think we have to do something about climate change, those who think we don't, and those who doubt it's even happening. But, a new study finds, it's not that simple—in fact, politics, religion, and nature itself converge to form a more nuanced reality when it comes to opinions on the environment.

The study was conducted online by researchers from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It asked 1,576 Americans a set of fairly ordinary questions about the environment—for example, whether humans were to blame for global warming. Some of the responses were interesting in their own right—it may come as a surprise, for example, that 60 percent of those surveyed thought that working to protect the planet would be good for the economy.

Politics, religion, and nature converge to form a more nuanced reality when it comes to opinions on the environment.

But rather than assume environmentalism to be a one-dimensional construct, with "rabid environmentalist" on one end and "climate change denier" on the other, the team instead looked to the data itself to understand what types of people were out there. Specifically, they constructed a hypothetical distance between each pair of people, corresponding to how similar those two survey takers' responses were to each other. Then, they gathered groups of people into clusters, such that the members of each cluster were more similar to each other than to those in other clusters.

The result was nine different clusters, including some that seem at first glance fairly obvious. There are Liberal Greens, for example, who are among the most worried about and interested in environmental issues—but who, defying stereotypes, are not very likely to spend much time in nature. There are also the Religious Browns, who, according to the report, "feel the most separated from nature of any group. They do not like to spend time outdoors, and they express strongly anti-environmental views."

The other categories included Outdoor and Religious Greens, Outdoor and Conservative Browns, Middle of the Roaders, Homebodies, and the Disengaged. Middle of the Roaders "like things the way they are and believe technology can solve our environmental problems," while Homebodies "do not feel connected to nature and do not consider themselves to be environmentalists, and more often than not are apathetic when it comes to environmental issues." The Disengaged are pretty much what you'd assume.

Unsurprisingly, Greens were more likely to oppose nuclear power and support carbon dioxide regulations. But, the report argues, the results also show a great deal more nuance. For example, 47 percent of Outdoor Browns and 38 percent of Religious Browns supported regulations on carbon emissions, compared to 24 percent of Conservative Browns, 57 percent of Homebodies, and just 14 percent of the Disengaged. Meanwhile, substantial numbers of people who'd ordinarily be labeled anti-environmentalist say they buy only energy-efficient lightbulbs—in fact, more Conservative Browns report doing so than the Disengaged, and as many Middle-of-the-Roaders do as Religious Greens.

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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