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

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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