Rich white people are ruining the planet: How the donor class prevents action on climate change

Research indicates wealthy white Republicans are less likely to support policy proposals to reduce carbon emissions

Published December 26, 2015 4:00PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Volt Collection</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Volt Collection via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on Demos.

DemosAlthough the Paris Climate Deal certainly represents a step forward for the international community, there are still many potential pitfalls to addressing climate change. New data suggest that the overwhelmingly white donor class may be one such obstacle.

Recently, political scientist Brian Schaffner and I wrote a piece in Mother Jones showing that the GOP donor class is both far more likely to deny the reality of climate change and far less likely to support policy proposals to reduce emissions. However, beyond being more conservative than the population in general, the data so far available suggest that the donor class is far whiter than the general population. CCES data suggest that that may well have a major impact on policy.

Using 2012 and 2014 CCES, we can examine divides between white and non-white donors. These divides are large and consistent: white donors are more likely to deny climate change and oppose action to remedy it. CCES asks a series of questions on climate change, and two of them ("Global Climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action is necessary" and "There is enough evidence that climate change is taking place and some action should be taken”) meet scientific muster. However, while 55% of white donors agree, a whopping 71% of non-white donors do. In addition, non-white donors are more supportive of the EPA strengthening enforcement, even it costs jobs (58% to 49%).

The gap on whether states should adopt minimum fuel requirements for renewables is too small to be statistically significant, thought it points in the same direction, however, the gap on car fuel economy standards is larger (70% to 65%). Finally, on the question of whether the EPA should regulate CO2 emissions, there is also a wide divide (71% to 58%).

As Demos has noted before, the donor class is overwhelmingly white. In 2012, more than 90% of federal contributions came from majority white neighborhoods. A recent study by Alex Kotch finds, “95 percent of the largest North Carolina donors to key federal races in the 2014-2016 election cycles were white, while non-Hispanic whites make up 65 percent of the state population.” A study of Seattle’s 2013 election suggests that while Seattle is 67 percent non-Hispanic white, the neighborhoods from which more than half of contributions came from were 80 percent white.

On the other hand, as a recent Ben & Jerry’s post shows, climate change will disproportionately impact people of color. As Lew Daly, the director of Policy and Research at Demos notes, “Currently, public policy in support of residential solar mainly takes the form of tax benefits for homeowners who install solar panels on their homes, as well as net metering policies in some states and cities. But less than half of black Americans and even fewer Latinos own their homes, which means that localized renewable energy for many people of color will require shared energy production or ‘community solar,’ where community-owned installations or small neighborhood power plants serve multiple customers in a community.” The United States faces an enormous challenge fighting global warming: the goal must be to ensure that our policy response doesn’t entrench racial inequity.

The overwhelmingly white donor class shares preferences that diverge widely from non-donors. The increasing power of the donor class entrenches racial inequality, and makes progressive change more difficult. Without political equality, racial equality and climate justice are far more difficult to achieve.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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Climate Change Demos Donor Class Environment Racial Inequality