Rich Country, Poor Country, Men or Women? When It Comes to Curbing Climate Change – Who Cares the Most?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Anntiana Maral Sabeti, covers the new article by Sarah Sunn Bush, Yale University, and Amanda Clayton, Vanderbilt University, “Facing Change: Gender and Climate Change Attitudes Worldwide”.

Why do women care more than men about climate change in wealthier countries and what makes gendered attitudes towards climate change so correlated with GDP? Sarah Bush and Amanda Clayton aim to answer this question in their recent APSR article.

In their investigation, Bush and Clayton explore existing theories that explain the different attitudes towards climate change when it comes to gender. More specifically, they consider why the gender gap grows so drastically as country income increases. The authors look at the effect of gender and GDP per capita to create a cohesive explanation for this multi-layered phenomenon.

Looking at attitudes towards climate change, research has shown that a gap emerges across gender lines. Notably, women tend to care about issues related to the environment more than men in wealthier countries like Canada and the United States. This divergence in attitudes has been attributed to socialization and political ideology where women are more inclined to care about group dynamics than individual freedoms. While this divergence in attitudes towards climate between the sexes is compelling on its own, an even more interesting pattern unfolds when considering how this relationship varies across countries. Research finds that the wealthier a country is, the greater this difference in attitudes towards climate change between men and women becomes. Puzzlingly, this amplification of the gap is not because women care more, but because men care much less.

But what causes this gender-based divergence in attitudes towards climate change within and between countries? Bush and Clayton use existing data from the Pew and AmericasBarometer databases. They test existing theories that might explain why an individual or society at large might have certain attitudes about climate action to find the most compelling explanations.  They then re-test these explanations with their own survey data from 10 countries and complement it with more detailed focus groups in the US and Peru.

Corresponding to existing popular theories, the authors find that the most significant and positive variables related to an increasing gap in attitudes are the sex of the respondent and GDP per capita. They theorize that these variables are important because of variations in the perceived costs vs. benefits of climate action, both between women and men, and richer and poorer countries. The authors first establish that climate preferences are based on material interests and values. State policies regarding climate change (for example, carbon taxes, subsidies, etc.) will create costs and benefits. Depending on their internal calculations, individuals will decide whether they will be relegated to the “winners” or “losers” camp of new climate conscious policies.

While women face the brunt of climate change and thus see a greater benefit to climate action, an interesting pattern takes place as country wealth varies. For example, men in mid-level income countries have a vested interest in preventing climate change. Employment in the agricultural sector and a dependence on the export of primary goods means their material interest is still somewhat affected by climate change. This vested interest means that overall, both men and women in poorer countries tend to perceive climate action as beneficial.

“Are the states adequately representing the interests of their domestic population or are they overrepresenting hyper-masculine preferences, and how does this impede our ability to curb climate change?” Yet, as the income level of a country increases, a gap in attitudes between the sexes towards the environment arises. Despite having higher levels of education, women in developed countries tend to care less about climate change than their counterparts in poorer countries. Women in developed countries would have to give up too many conveniences in their day-to-day lives to mitigate climate change and thus see climate action as more burdensome than their sisters in developing countries.

So, if women in wealthier countries don’t care more about the environment, what makes the gap in attitudes between men and women in wealthy countries so much bigger than that between men and women in mid-level income countries? The answer is that men in wealthier countries just care that much less. The authors find that both men and women in wealthier countries are more likely to perceive climate action as a net cost to their day-to-day lives, and that some men perceive it as a greater material cost and as a threat to their masculinity. After all, making adjustments to reduce climate change would require them to modify masculine habits of consumption that cause the highest rates of carbon emission, such as eating meat and driving (preferably big) cars.

The authors highlight a critical but underexplored factor to understanding attitudes towards climate change and greater foreign economic policy at large: gender. They show that by applying a gender lens, they can find a significant divergence in domestic attitudes towards climate change based on the sex of an individual. This finding contributes to a variety of fields within political science. For scholars of international political economy (IPE), this research emphasizes the importance of taking a comparative look at economic policy preferences. It also shows an overlap between IPE and gender research by pointing out the relevance of gender to understanding economic policy preferences.

The article raises the question of how the gender imbalance in the governments manipulates foreign policy. Are the states adequately representing the interests of their domestic population or are they overrepresenting hyper-masculine preferences, and how does this impede our ability to curb climate change? Will notions of colonizing Mars so permeate our conversations around climate change—because they fit better into the masculine and capitalist frameworks of the developed world—that they stop being absurd?


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