years, the American public has grown increasingly skeptical of the existence of
man-made climate change. Although pundits and scholars have suggested several
reasons for this trend, a new study by the University of Connecticut
shows that the recent Great Recession has been a major factor.
associate professor of political science in UConn’s College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences, suggests that this shift in opinion is related primarily to the
public’s concern about the economy.
economy impacts the way people prioritize the problem of climate change is
uncontroversial,” says Scruggs. “What is more puzzling is why support for basic
climate science has declined dramatically during this period.
believe that part of the solution to climate change is suppression of economic
activity,” which is an unpopular viewpoint when the economy is bad, Scruggs
continues. “So it’s easier for people to disbelieve in climate change, than to
accept that it is real but that little should be done about it right now.”
UConn political science graduate student Salil Benegal published their findings
online in Global Environmental Change.
relies primarily on information drawn from a number of national and
international public opinion surveys dating to the late 1980s.
researchers found significant drops in public climate change beliefs in the
late 2000s: For example, the Gallup 2008 poll reported that between 60% and 65%
of people agreed with statements of opinion that global warming is imminent, it
is not exaggerated, and the theory is agreed upon by scientists. By 2010, those
numbers had dropped to about 50%.
also found a strong relationship between jobs and people’s prioritization of
climate change. When the unemployment rate was 4.5%, an average 60% of people
surveyed said that climate change had already begun happening. But when the
jobless rate reached 10%, that number dropped to about 50%.
also evaluated three other explanations for the crisis in public confidence: Political
partisanship, negative media coverage, and short-term weather conditions.
that this is the first study to consider the economy and these explanations at
the same time,” says Scruggs.
Of these, the
authors found that faith in climate change dropped across political parties,
among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. They also found that that the “Climategate” email hacking controversy and reported errors in the 2010
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which both occurred
after public faith in climate change began to drop, were not factors.
did find that if people had experienced a recent change in short-term weather,
they were more likely to believe that climate is changing over the long-term.
But when the study controlled for these effects, the economy mattered more than
the weather, says Scruggs.
also marshaled international evidence showing that European opinion points in
the same direction.
probably a stronger overall ‘pro-climate’ ethos in Europe,”
says Scruggs. “Still, even in Europe,
countries experiencing more severe national recessions saw larger declines in
beliefs that global warming was occurring.”
researchers speculate that cognitive dissonance, which arises when people
experience conflicting thoughts and behaviors, could explain this pattern. Most
people view economic growth and environmental protection to be in conflict, so
admitting that climate change is real but should be ignored in favor of
economic growth leads to an internal philosophical clash.
people have to evaluate economic imperatives in the recession, and that can
create conflicting concerns,” Scruggs says.
confronted with a desire to boost the economy, he continues, people seem to
convince themselves that climate change might not really be happening.
Now that the
economy is beginning to bounce back and the unemployment rate is shrinking,
Scruggs says it makes sense that belief in global warming has begin to rebound.
“We would expect such a rebound to continue as the economy improves,” he
says. “You wouldn’t make that prediction if you think something else, like
political rhetoric, is the issue.”