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Fair Weather Friends? Economics, Public Opinion and Climate Change.

Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal

Presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association
Revised paper available here.

Social surveys suggest that the American public’s concern about climate change has declined dramatically since 2008. This has led to a search for explanations for this decline, and great deal of concern about whether there is has been a fundamental shift in public trust in climate science. We evaluate over thirty years of public opinion data about global warming and the environment, and suggest that the decline in belief about climate change is most likely driven by the economic insecurity caused by the Great Recession. Evidence from European nations further supports an economic explanation for changing public opinion. The pattern is consistent with more than forty years of public opinion about environmental policy. Popular alternative explanations for declining support— partisan politicization, biased media coverage, fluctuations in short-term weather conditions, or the “climategate” scandal in 2009—are unable to explain the suddenness and timing of opinion trends. The implication of these findings is that the “crisis of confidence” in climate change will likely rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until then.
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