Class and Culture are Key to Understanding Climate Issues

A paper that analyses the differences in opinion about climate change from a cultural, socio-economic and class perspective. 


Social science generally argues that environmental attitudes have permeated across American society, but this paper argues that the issue of climate change is the exception to the rule because of cultural and economic inequality.


Class and economic inequality need to be taken into account when looking at solutions to climate change, because there are equity issues associated with calling for costlier fossil fuels through carbon prices and austerity measures.

‘Climate consciousness’ is closely linked with political ideology and a moral framework; is culturally desirable for some to consume ‘eco consciously’ but not for others.

Through a series of interviews in the Boston area (which was chosen for it’s high levels of inequality) the researchers tried to determine how economic and cultural capital influenced opinions on climate change.

They found that:

  • Low-income, low cultural capital respondents discussed responding to climate change with more simple behavioural actions that reflected the economic necessity and immediacy of dealing with poverty. While aware of the detrimental effects of pollution and climate change, mitigation was seen as expensive and difficult as well as secondary to general material necessity.
  • Low-income, high cultural capital respondents had higher levels of overall concern, but were critical of consumption-based strategies for mitigation as the costs were not feasible for them to bear. They were the only respondents who criticized the consumerist ethos of the United States today and saw a need for mitigation to be structural rather than personal.
  • Being able to buy green or organic products and engage with climate change was seen as an ‘upper-class thing’.
  • Both high-income, low cultural capital and high-income, high cultural capital respondents were more likely to emphasise saving money through reducing emissions.
  • For low-income, low cultural capital respondents, calls for austerity were viewed as material deprivation and backfired when linked with environmental issues.
  • High-income, high cultural capital respondents saw climate change as a series of rational economic choices based around incentives and disincentives that didn’t require overt Government intervention, but rather market choice.
  • Across all groups, climate change was rarely a topic of everyday conversation. Most respondents cited fear of an argument or disagreement as the reason. 
Date: 2013
Strategic Approach: Audiences, Evaluation, Other
Strategic Approach: Audiences, Evaluation, Other

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