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Accepting Climate Change an Economic Luxury

• March 20, 2012 • 4:05 PM

Shifts in opinion on climate change have had more to do with the state of the economy than the weather outside, partisan politics, or the media’s influence, according to new research.

Environmentalists, scientists, and pollsters have devoted a lot of ink and energy over the last few years assessing a curious trend in perceptions about climate change. Several years ago, the American public appeared to start rejecting the idea of climate change: poll after poll showed concern over the problem tailing off and suspicion of the science behind it rising.

What was going on here? Did opinion on climate reflect the partisan politics of the moment? Were people swayed by the weather outside, perhaps by that rash of crazy snowstorms in the winter of 2009-10? Were the dipping poll numbers simply the result of poor question wording? Or was it something more obvious?

“One of the things that was the most striking to me initially was that this just seemed to so obviously be correlated with the recession,” said Lyle Scruggs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. “Opinion drops off right about the time the recession started.”

Scruggs was surprised more analysis of all this poll data didn’t point to the economy. So he looked into the correlation himself. Examining four decades of opinion polling data on environmental policy, he found that shifts in opinion on climate change have had more to do with the state of the economy than the weather outside, partisan politics, or the media’s influence. His analysis recently was published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

All of this suggests that the downturn was a temporary one. And, as if on cue, new polling data has just come out revealing concern about the climate is on the rebound. And, wouldn’t you know it, the economy is starting to rebound, too.

On its face, this connection between the economy and the environment isn’t particularly surprising. The two are depicted as adversaries. This certainly has been the narrative around the Keystone XL pipeline, which divides advocates into those who want jobs and those who want a clean environment, as if they are mutually exclusive.

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But something more perplexing is at play here. Opinion poll numbers didn’t just fall among people who said they were concerned about climate change. They dropped as well among people who said they believed in it. In a rough economy, it makes sense that people who fear the economic impacts of environmental regulation would prioritize jobs over the climate. But why would people in a recession change their fundamental beliefs about whether the problem exists at all?

“If we really pushed them,” Scruggs said, “and said it’s completely illogical to say, ‘I need a job, therefore I stopped believing in something that’s scientifically true,’ they might admit to the contradiction.”

But where does this contradiction come from? Are these people being dishonest with polltakers — or with themselves?

Scruggs believes that people here are exhibiting what psychologists call “motivated inference.” If I believe that helping the climate will hurt the economy — and the people I know all really need jobs right now — it’s easier for me to simply deny that climate change exists than to admit that I’m willing to contribute to it for the sake of employment. Maybe, when it’s more convenient, I’ll go back to believing in climate change again.

“It is illogical in a certain sense,” Scruggs said. “But our opinions, it turns out, are often not as logically connected and coherent as we like to think they are.”

Scruggs and his co-author, graduate student Salil Benegal, found a similar pattern in polling data during the recession in Europe (where climate change is less politically charged than it is in the U.S). And this gives them even more confidence that the real culprit here is the economy. Scruggs suggests this finding should change how political scientists and the media interpret such swings in opinion data.

“The media is obsessed with saying, ‘Republicans are more likely to deny climate change than Democrats are, and this must be partisan polarization that’s driving this,’” Scruggs said. “The implication of this is ‘how terrible partisan politics is’ and this plays into that narrative. That may be the wrong way to go about it. Really, this is something that’s more cyclical.”

The other implication here is a more practical one: the height of the recession was probably the absolute worst time for Congress and the White House to attempt to pass climate legislation.

“On the other hand, you could say the policies that we want to put in place when the economy is good, we should start working on now,” Scruggs said. “Because they need to be ready to go when the [opinion] environment changes.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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