In 2017, when interviewers asked Latino community members in San Antonio, Texas, about their top environmental concerns, the answers took researchers by surprise.

Poverty. Inequality. Education. Racism.

"They started bringing up things that don't typically come up in environmental studies," said Neil Lewis Jr., assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. "So, we decided to conduct a survey to see if this was something unique to the group in San Antonio, or if it's a broader phenomenon."

The survey—conducted among more than 1,100 U.S. residents—found that there were, in fact, demographic differences in how people viewed environmental issues, with racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income people more likely to consider human factors such as racism and poverty as environmental, in addition to more ecological issues like toxic fumes from factories or car exhaust.

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Hwanseok Song et al, What counts as an "environmental" issue? Differences in issue conceptualization by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, Journal of Environmental Psychology(2020).  DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101404


  • U.S. minority and lower-SES groups face disproportionate environmental risks.
  • Such inequities may shape what counts as an environmental issue across groups.
  • 1191 respondents rated their agreement that different issues were “environmental.”
  • Minority and lower-income respondents rated human-oriented issues as more environmental.
  • Results carry implications for environmental attitude measures and public engagement.

Abstract: Racial/ethnic minorities and lower-socioeconomic (SES) groups in the U.S. face disproportionate environmental risks, which may hold implications for how these groups construe environmental issues, relative to other segments of the public. We explored this possibility with a diverse sample of 1191 U.S. adults, hypothesizing that, relative to White and higher-SES respondents, non-White and lower-SES respondents would rate a greater number of pressing societal issues as also “environmental.” Across 18 issues, ranging from ecological issues more traditionally the focus of environmental advocacy and scholarship (e.g., pollution; eco-oriented issues) to issues that also constitute human social determinants and consequences of environmental risk (e.g., poverty; human-oriented issues), non-White and lower-income respondents rated human-oriented issues as more “environmental.” Environmental justice perceptions partially mediated group differences in issue conceptualization. Results hold implications for the measurement of environmental attitudes and efforts to broaden public engagement within racially and economically diverse communities.

Research data for this article: Environmental issue conceptualization by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES); Survey data from an mTurk sample to analyze how different social groups (race, ethnicity, SES) conceptualize what constitutes environmental issues.