Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

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.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.