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Declining Public Concern about Climate Change: Can we Blame the Great Recession?

Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal

Journal of Global Environmental Change 2012, 22(2): 505-515 

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 speculation that there 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 – 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. (N.B: Media coverage on this paper at WiredScienceDaily and MSNBC.)


Highlights

► Public opinion about climate in the United States has deteriorated considerably in the last three or four years. 
► Between April 2008 and September 2009, public concern about climate change fell as much in Europe as in the United States. 
► The recent decline in public concern about climate change is better explained by unemployment than by “climategate”, negative media coverage, partisanship, or recent weather. 
► Concern about climate change dropped more in European countries where unemployment rose more than in countries where it rose less.


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