The Biden administration launched a new mapping tool last week to combat environmental harm to overburdened and disadvantaged communities nationwide. Modeled after California’s screening tool, the White House’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool will help direct billions of dollars in federal investments to the most vulnerable communities and guide federal environmental policy for years to come.
While the new tool promises to help safeguard and rebuild frontline communities, it may not have the intended effect. That’s because simply informing the public about social disparities does not always enhance support for reducing disparities. In fact, it sometimes undermines it.
A climate justice blindspot
Decades of racist housing policies, exploitation by polluting industries, and neglect by elected officials mean that environmental disasters — from hurricanes and extreme heat to air pollution — strike low-income communities and communities of color hardest. Yet, few Americans are aware of these disparities.
In a 2019 survey, just 44 percent of U.S. young adults reported that climate change will impact people in poverty more than other groups, and only 27 percent indicated that it will disproportionately affect people of color. Similarly, in a October 2021 survey of Black and Latino voters in six battleground states, over two-thirds agreed that climate change “impacts all communities equally.”
To many, climate change — a problem with global reach — looks like an equal opportunity offender, harming wealthy and poor communities alike. This is why the Biden administration’s mapping tool is so critical: it has the potential to broaden public awareness about climate inequities within every community.
But its rollout also comes with hidden dangers.
Why facts aren’t enough
When it comes to combatting inequities, it’s tempting to believe that the data “speak for itself” — if only people knew about the outsized risks faced by certain communities, they would support efforts to reduce them. But social science research suggests otherwise. For instance, research has shown that informing people about racial disparities in incarceration can reinforce harmful stereotypes linking Black Americans with crime, which fuels more public support for policies that worsen disparities, like New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy and California’s three-strikes law.
The same may be true for environmental disparities. In a mock urban planning scenario, Americans judged majority Black (versus white) neighborhoods as more industrial and “blighted,” and showed less opposition to siting a new polluting facility near a Black versus white neighborhood, even when maps showed identical property values.
Learning about others’ hardships can also desensitize us to physical suffering. In a series of experiments, informing participants about another person’s financial and food insecurity led to perceiving them as less susceptible to emotional and physical trauma. This “thick skin” bias — the belief that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — was documented among both low and high-income Americans as well as teachers and mental health trainees.
Learning that some communities face chronic environmental threats may reinforce these beliefs — or worse, the perception that communities are responsible for their plight, further stigmatizing those in harm’s way.
To ensure these tools help rather than harm the communities they seek to protect, we also need to know how members of the public perceive these risks, their root causes, and what can be done to address them.
Fortunately, there are signs the Biden administration may recognize this need. In its Friday press release, the White House announced that the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine plan to study how the new mapping tool, and others like it, can be improved. This research should leverage the National Academies’ social science expertise to understand how people respond to this tool.
Federal funding should also be directed to gather much-needed public opinion data, including at the local level where climate risks are often felt. A useful model comes from the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, which depict public concerns about global warming down to the county-level. Similar tools should be developed to track public understanding of climate inequities and steps that communities can take to address them, from improving access to cooling centers to establishing volunteer networks to aid residents during extreme weather.
Too many Americans remain unaware of the unequal burdens posed by climate change. Biden’s new climate justice screening tool shines a welcome spotlight on this reality. But simply informing people about social inequities is unlikely to solve the problem. Understanding how people respond to the tool may be as important as the tool itself.
Adam Pearson is an associate professor of psychology at Pomona College and member of the graduate faculty at Claremont Graduate University.
Jonathon Schuldt is an associate professor of communication at Cornell University and interim executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.