The educational divide in climate change attitudes: Understanding the role of scientific knowledge and subjective social status

Anneke Hoekstra, Kjell Noordzij*, Willem de Koster, Jeroen van der Waal

*Corresponding author for this work

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Research has frequently found that less-educated citizens are more skeptical about climate change and show less trust in climate science than their more-educated counterparts. We advance insights on why this educational divide exists by: 1) scrutinizing the relevance of the dominant knowledge-deficit explanation by uniquely using an objective measure of scientific knowledge; and 2) theorizing and empirically testing a novel explanation on the importance of subjective social status. Building on recent sociological insights, we theorize that less-educated citizens have a lower subjective social status and feel misrecognized by more-educated citizens, inciting frustration and opposition toward the attitudes and lifestyle of the latter. Because belief in and concern about climate change are predominantly embraced by more-educated citizens and have strong status connotations, less-educated citizens’ opposition to the lifestyle of more-educated citizens is likely also directed at the issue of climate change. We test hypotheses derived from both approaches by analyzing unique survey data gathered among members of a high-quality panel representative of the Dutch population. We focus on two outcome measures: climate change skepticism and distrust in climate science. We find that both the knowledge-deficit approach and the novel explanation involving subjective social status contribute to understanding the educational divide in climate change attitudes, in addition to other approaches covered by control variables such as income and political ideology. Our study concludes with a reflection on the theoretical implications of these findings and their practical implications for information campaigns, which our study suggests should be careful not to prime less-educated citizens’ perceived lower social standing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102851
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - May 2024

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© 2024 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.


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