Culture, Carbon, and Climate Change: A Class Analysis of Climate Change Belief, Lifestyle Lock-In, and Personal Carbon Footprints

Jean Boucher

Advisor: James Witte, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Gregory Guagnano, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf

The Hub, Meeting Room 5
April 19, 2016, 11:00 AM to 08:00 AM


In light of the imminent crisis of climate change, there is a body of literature which establishes that greenhouse gases are not equally emitted by all persons but are socially stratified with higher emissive levels concentrated amongst those with higher incomes. This relationship is evidenced in a significant positive correlation between household income and carbon emissions, and this evidence is found at both inter- and intra-national levels. Scholars explain that one of the root causes of this “income-carbon” relationship is “lifestyle lock-in”: the inability to change one’s lifestyle, even if one has the desire to do so. This inability is also related to what researchers refer to as the attitude-behavior gap: where behaviors do not align with attitudes. Specifically, my research explores these phenomena by testing whether climate change beliefs moderate the income-carbon relationship.

Due to the complexity of this study, I took a mixed methods approach: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitatively, I used a secondary source of nationally representative data (N=2107) to calculate and compare household income, climate change attitudes, and individual carbon footprints (I only examine emissions for personal mobility and dietary carbon footprints). For the qualitative portion of this research, I conducted (N=28) in-depth interviews of climate change activists with high household incomes. I identified these activists by using a screener questionnaire in the Washington, DC, area. I found that only extreme climate believers are able to moderate the income-carbon relationship and that the majority of my interview respondents had preexisting cognitive structures (they already partook in some other forms of justice related behaviors) upon which climate change beliefs were grafted.