Adam Pearson

Professor Adam Pearson

Non-whites and low-income people report the highest levels of concern about the environment in new research co-authored by Pomona College Professor Adam Pearson. But the same study shows that public perception is just the opposite, with most people associating environmentalism with those who are white and affluent. That applies even to non-white and low-income people.

In addition, most Americans associate the term “environmentalist” with whites and the well-educated. According to the study, “Diverse Segments of the U.S. Public Underestimate the Environmental Concerns of Minority and Low-Income Americans,” which came out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these stereotypes are in contradiction to what national opinion polls reveal about people of color: that they have a high awareness of environmental risks and strongly support environmental protections.

For Pearson, the findings from this survey experiment are important for a number of reasons: “Misperceiving others’ opinions can affect us in powerful ways – failing to see consensus in our positions may cause us to fail to take action, even for issues we care about.”

Co-author Jonathon Schuldt of Cornell University adds, “What really surprised us was just how paradoxical the results were,” he said. “We found a very consistent pattern that if the American public thought a group was very low in concern, in fact that same group was reporting high levels of concern.”

These stereotypes may pose a barrier to broadening public engagement with environmental initiatives, specifically with low-income communities and communities of color – those most vulnerable to negative environmental impacts, says the study.

“Many groups that are among the most vulnerable in society also remain significantly underrepresented in environmental decision making. Failing to view these groups as concerned may lead to their being excluded from decision making,” says Pearson.

The research team asked a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Americans about their levels of concern for the environment, whether they identified as an environmentalist, and the age, socioeconomic class and race they associated with the term “environmentalist.”

The researchers also showed study participants either a diverse or a nondiverse hypothetical environmental organization, with different photos and recruitment messaging. Those who saw the diverse organization were less likely to show a difference between their perception of whites’ and nonwhites’ environmental concerns.

“These findings suggest that these perceptions aren’t fixed, and point to the role that media images may play in shaping these beliefs,” says Pearson.

The findings could have practical implications for environmental advocacy and policy. If policymakers, scholars and practitioners endorse similar views, these misperceptions may influence which groups’ perspectives get prioritized and may contribute to the historical marginalization of minority and lower-income populations, the study said.

Co-authors on the paper include Pearson, Schuldt, Rainer Romero-Canyas of the Environmental Defense Fund and Columbia University, Matthew Ballew of Yale University and Dylan Larson-Konar of the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Florida, Gainesville. The research was funded in part by a grant from Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Environmental Defense Fund. Pearson was supported by the David L. Hirsch III and Susan H. Hirsch Research Initiation Grant at Pomona College.