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This paper demonstrates that the recent decline in the American public's concern about climate change is driven principally by recession and poor labor market conditions. Popular alternative explanations for declining support— disinformation campaigns, biased media coverage, and fluctuations in short-term weather conditions—are unable to explain the timing of recent opinion trends or to hold up to systematic empirical analysis. Public opinion about climate change has tracked the economy in recent decades, and this pattern is consistent with almost two generations of American survey data on aggregate environmental attitudes. Evidence from European nations further supports an economic, rather than a political, media, or meteorological explanation. One implication of these findings is that the "crisis of confidence" in climate change is probably temporary: aggregate opinion will rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until then.
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Declining Public Concern about Climate Change: Can We Blame the Great
Lyle Scruggs
This paper demonstrates that the recent decline in the American public’s concern about climate
change is driven principally by recession and poor labor market conditions. Popular alternative
explanations for declining support— disinformation campaigns, biased media coverage, and
fluctuations in short-term weather conditions—are unable to explain the timing of recent opinion
trends or to hold up to systematic empirical analysis. Public opinion about climate change has
tracked the economy in recent decades, and this pattern is consistent with almost two generations
of American survey data on aggregate environmental attitudes. Evidence from European nations
further supports an economic, rather than a political, media, or meteorological explanation. One
implication of these findings is that the “crisis of confidence” in climate change is probably
temporary: aggregate opinion will rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until
Keywords: Public opinion, economic recession, climate change, global warming, unemployment,
United States, Europe
Contact information: Lyle Scruggs, , University of Connecticut, Department of Political
Science, 341 Mansfield Road, U-1024, Storrs, CT 06269. Email .
Phone: 860-486-0409. Fax: 860-486-3347.
Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 2010 Council of European Studies
Conference of Europeanists, Montreal, Canada April 15-17, 2010 and the 2010 International
Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology Meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, July
11-17, 2010
1. Introduction
In the last few years, many in the climate change policy community have expressed
dismay about declining public opinion about climate change. Several public opinion polls
featured prominently in the US and UK media have raised fears that public beliefs about the
immediacy and seriousness of climate change have been undermined (Pew Center for People and
the Press 2008, 2009; Saad 2009; Jowitt 2010; Kaufman 2010; Satzman, et al. 2010). These
reports have generated speculation about the causes of this decline, and prompted concern about
a “crisis of confidence” in climate science and policy. The urgency of this speculation is
understandable: in a democracy, public opinion is an important driver of policy change. While
the climate may not react to what people think about the climate, elected politicians often do.
The dominant explanations for the recent change in public opinion are:
A campaign to promote “climate skepticism” orchestrated by those with a narrow self-
interest in preventing action: fossil fuel producers, political representatives of those
interests, or people whose lifestyles or ideologies seem disrupted by such changes.
Loss of faith in climate science due to negative news coverage that scientists have
manipulated data in an effort to suppress evidence that the climate is not warming.
A leveling off of annual global temperature increases in the last few years, leading to the
perception that climate change has stopped.
Ultimately, policy issues are about political values. Scientific disputes are almost never
completely settled (consensus is not the same as unanimity), and conflicting “beliefs” can be
invoked to explain disputes. There are undoubtedly people whose minds have been changed by
scandals and information campaigns. For example, the use of the word “trick” in one
Climategate email exchange was reported as if the use of the word indicated a deception. Read
in context, “trick” refers to an innovative way of dealing with a problem, not cheating-- as in,
“the trick to threading the needle is twist the end of the thread.” Context has not stopped some
who know little about climate science to seize on the word to conjure a conspiracy by a “highly
politicised scientific circle [who] manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures”
(Sarah Palin, quoted in Pearce 2010).
Most public opinion polls, including those discussed here, continue to suggest that a
majority, or almost a majority, of Americans still support regulating greenhouse gas emissions
(Kaplun 2010, Krosnick 2010). Nonetheless, on a variety of measures, the public’s belief that the
climate is warming has fallen between 10 and 20 percent in the last two or three years (Kohut
Do information campaigns and scandals really matter for this recent “crisis of
confidence”? The evidence suggests that they do not. Underemphasized among the popular
explanations for declining concern about climate change is the recent economic crisis. Some
opinion poll interpreters have resisted the suggestion that the economy has much to do with
opinions about climate change. However, a careful examination of the evidence suggests that the
current economic downturn provides a much more compelling explanation for just about all of
the recent decline in support for climate change than does bad press or any other explanation.
To substantiate this claim, I examine historical public opinion trends in the United States
and in the European Union, a region generally regarded as having broad public
acknowledgement of climate change as an important global problem. The analysis shows that
America’s shifting concern about climate change is not unique to the last two or three years:
support for climate change, and for prioritizing environmental problems more generally, rises
and falls with economic conditions. What is different today is that the latest economic downturn
has been much bigger than any since climate change emerged on the international scene in the
late 1980s. Furthermore, the Great Recession has also caused European public opinion to shift
away from its wider acknowledgement of the climate change problem. While an inverse
relationship between opinion about the environment and state of the economy may seem
intuitive, a considerable amount of scholarship on post-materialist values during the last 30 years
suggests otherwise (Inglehart 1977, 2008). And recent coverage of opinion has paid surprisingly
little attention to the economy (Walsh 2009, Newport 2010, Satzman, et al. 2010, Koch 2010).
2. Trends for public opinion about global warming: Question wording does not matter
Public opinion polling on climate change dates back at least to the mid 1980s (Nisbett
and Myers 2007). This polling has, from the outset, indicated public support for ameliorative
action, at least in the abstract. The Gallup Organization has been tracking America’s opinions
about global warming for several years. Their polls have used several questions, asked at
somewhat regular intervals, typically in March or April. Trends over time for a few of their most
popular questions are illustrated in Figure 1. (The exact wording for each question is provided in
the appendix.) The question repeated over the longest period asks whether people worry “a great
deal” about global warming. It is the question with the largest amount about cyclical variation.
Asked since 1989, the percentage of people reporting that they worried about warming “a great
deal” peaked in 2000 and 2008, and was at low points in 1997 and 2004. The decline in the
percentage of adults saying they worried a great deal fell between 2001 and 2004 from 33% to
26%. Worry then increased through early 2008, to 41% of American adults. It then fell
precipitously in 2009, to 33%, and then further in 2010, to 28%.
The number of prior studies directly evaluating the impact of economic conditions on
aggregate opinion is limited (Dunlap and Scarce 1991, Dunlap and Mertig 1992, Guber 2003,
Chapter 4, Scruggs 2003, Chapter 4). Earlier reviews of poll trends sometimes state that public
support “survived” economic recessions (e.g., Gillroy and Shaprio 1986: 271), it would be
incorrect to suggest that these reviews suggested that opinion was unaffected by those changes.
“Survive” contrasts the continued strength of support with fears, based on Downs (1972), that
support for environmental protection would evaporate under the stressful economic conditions of
the 1970s and early 1980s.
Figure 1 about here
Prior to 2008, the Gallup surveys show that public’s belief that global warming was
exaggerated reached a peak of 38% in 2004, but there was a particularly sharp increase in 2009.
The percentage of Americans agreeing that the problem was exaggerated moved from 35% in
2008 to 41%. The sharp uptick continued in 2010, when 48% of Americans reported that the
seriousness of global warming was being exaggerated. Until 2009, with a slight pause after 9/11
(reflected in the March 2002 poll) and the run up to war in Iraq (reflected in the March 2003
poll), there has been growing sentiment that global warming either was occurring or was
imminent. While less than a majority (48%) of Americans had that view in October 1999, 60%
of Americans expressed that view in April 2007 and 61% had that view in April 2008. By April
2009, however, opinion had fallen dramatically to 53%, and in 2010 only 50%. This shift, no
doubt, indicates to politicians that the sense of public urgency has gone away.
While a majority of Americans see warming as imminent, a much smaller proportion
view warming as personally “life changing.” Trends in public opinion resemble patterns in the
previous question: concern rises through 2008, drops slightly in 2009, and then drops
precipitously in 2010. Since this specific question was not asked at all between March 2002 and
March 2006, we cannot observe any decline in perceived threat in that period.
Much of the scientific debate that does exist about climate change is not about the fact of
temperature change, but about its causes. Opinion about the role of human activity as a cause of
warming is central to climate politics for two reasons. First, if human activities have not caused
warming, it is not obvious why action to change those behaviors could be expected to reverse
warming. The Gallup data suggest that in 2010 a bare majority of Americans (50%) believe that
human’s have caused climate change. This is down by around 10 points in 2010 compared with
previous polls in 2008 (58%), 2007 (61%), 2006 (58%), and 2003 (61%). (The question was not
asked in 2009.)
Does the public believe that scientists agree that the planet is warming? The short
answer is that a majority of people do. However, even this pattern of support varies over time.
Between 2001, when it was first asked, and 2008, the public increasingly says that scientists
believe that the climate is warming. This question was not asked in 2009; but in 2010 opinion
shifted dramatically away from that view, with agreement falling from 65% to 52%. Overall, a
variety of climate change questions from the Gallup poll show that public opinion has a distinct
pattern: increasingly consistent with the scientific consensus until around 2007-2008. In 2009
and 2010, public opinion shifts dramatically away from that view.
Are the Gallup global warming polls anomalous? Data from other questions asked by
different polls suggest not. The Pew Center for People and the Press asked Americans in June,
July, and August 2006, January 2007, April 2008, and October 2009 several questions about
global warming. Like the Gallup questions, responses to all of these questions show large
declines in the percentage of American adults agreeing with the scientific consensus on global
warming. Agreement on “solid evidence” of warming fell from 77% in 2006 and 2007 to 71% in
2008, and then to 57% in 2009, more than a 20 point drop. The percentage of Americans who
thought there was primarily human-induced warming was 46% in 2006 (June, July, August
average), 2007 and 2008, but fell to 36% in the 2009 poll. Those indicating that warming was a
“very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem was 76% in 2006 (June and July average) to 77%
in 2007, 73% in 2008 and to 65% in 2009.
Surveys conducted at Stanford University and Ohio State University by Jon Krosnick
over the last few years (October 1996, February 1997, March 2006, April 2007, July 2008,
November 2009 and June 2010) tell a similar story. The percentage of Americans who believe
that the planet has been gradually warming rose from 76% 1996 to 80% in 1997 and to 85% in
2006, but then fell to 75% in 2009 and 74% in June 2010 (GfK Roper n.d., Stanford 2010). The
idea that humans play an equal or predominant role in warming was supported by 80-83% of
Americans in 2006 and 2007, but 77% in 2008, 70% in 2009, and 75% in 2010. Those thinking
that scientists’ prediction of warming of 5 degrees Fahrenheit in 75 years would be “very bad”or
“somewhat bad” were 56% in 1997, 65% in 2007, 62% in 2008, and 54% in 2009. Fox News
and CNN surveys have asked similar questions in the last few years, and show a similar pattern.
In the Fox survey, for example, belief in warming was 82% in January 2007, 69% in May 2009,
and 63% in December 2009.
All of these polling projects suggest a pattern of results like Gallup. While most
Americans consistently view global warming as a problem (the good news), public support has
declined considerably in the last year or two (the bad news). It is understandable why scientists
and some policymakers wring their hands over the public’s growing ambivalence about this
problem. The size of the decline in these different measures is not trivial: around 10-15%. The
reduction does not vary too much by survey item, be it subjective evaluations (i.e., personal
worry, exaggerated news coverage), facts (i.e., warming has begun, scientists believe warming is
real), or more complex issues (i.e., whether warming will be a threat in our lifetime or how much
warming is human induced). The fact that the declines are similar in size regardless of how the
questions are asked suggests that idiosyncrasies in question wording matter little.
3. Media coverage of climate and public opinion trends
A common explanation for rising doubts about climate change is explicit efforts to
dissuade the public. A prominent explanation of how this has worked suggests that the news
media tends to report opposing scientific views as equally accepted misrepresents widespread
consensus among the scientific experts (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004, Krosnick, et al. 2006). This
distortion might bias opinion downward, especially if the media pay attention (McCombs and
Shaw 1972, McCombs 2004). Ideally, to test this claim one would use information about the
content of news coverage, such as that performed by Boykoff (2007). Since there is no source of
story-content coding for “bias” in media coverage of climate change since the mid 2000’s, I use
a measure of critical stories, coding articles about climate change in the New York Times between
March 1989 and May 2010. Neither Boykoff’s nor the index provided here suggests a correlation
between media coverage and changes in public opinion.
Boykoff coded stories in major American newspapers for the amount of balance or bias
in coverage for years 1988-2002 and 2003-2006. He and his co-authors found that news
coverage focused more on the anthropogenic sources of GHG emissions in 1988 and 1989, but
shifted considerable away from that view starting in 1990 and continued in fits and starts into the
century. From around 2001, however, coverage increasingly converged towards the
scientific consensus that anthropogenic contributions play an important role in climate change.
By 2006, the last year covered in their study, media coverage overwhelmingly reported the
scientific consensus that climate change has important human contributions.
Based on Boykoff’s analysis, we would expect that when coverage presents a more
balanced view of science, public opinion will tend to be less concerned about climate change
than when coverage more closely reflects scientific consensus (see Krosnick, et al 2006). I use
his annual data for 1988-2006 to see whether more balance in coverage is in fact associated with
weaker public opinion about warming. The only opinion question with at least 10 common data
points asks how much people worried about global warming. The percentage worrying “a great
deal” is not correlated with balanced coverage at -.32 (p< .30, n=12).
Because Boycoff’s study ends prior to the start of the Great Recession, I created a index
of “negative coverage” of climate change covering the last 20 years. First, I collected all
headlines in the New York Times mentioning “climate”, “greenhouse”, or “warming” from
January 1989 to May 2010 from Lexis/Nexus. This list resulted in approximately 1620 items.
From this list, I culled articles not dealing with climate change, or which were not published in
the main national sections. The remaining 1194 items were then coded for location in the paper.
Location codes were: “A” (front section), “A1”(front page of front section), X1(front page of
later sections), “E” (editorial), and X (other). Counts for the respective codes were: 572, 89, 63,
308, and 251. Story counts were aggregated on a monthly basis. I eliminated counts of editorials
from this analysis, as most of these were short letters to the editor. Next, I took the subset of all
of the above headlines that mentioned the word fragments “critic,” “skeptic,” or “doubt,” in the
text or headline. There were 265 articles with one or more of these words in the text.
Figure 2 shows the annual count of news stories, and the annual ratio of “critical” to total
news stories. There is an increase in the number of stories over time, especially in the last four
years, along with spikes in coverage, mainly surrounding major international climate
conferences – e.g., Kyoto (late 1997), Genoa (2001), Copenhagen (late 2009)-- and the
publication of the IPCC 4
assessment report in 2007. There was no increase in the overall
ratio of articles mentioning skeptics. For example, in 1997, there were 30 news stories
mentioning skeptics and 83 total news articles (36%). In 2009, there were 38 mentioning skeptics
out of 126 total stories (30%). Thus, while the total number of skeptic articles was higher, as a
proportion of total skeptic articles, it was lower. Lest one think that this masks a change in more
prominent stories, 4 of the 13 (31%) A1 stories in 1997 referred to skeptics, while 19 and 7
(37%) A1 stories in 2009 did. What seems clear from this evidence is that critics are mentioned
more often in New York Times news stories in recent months than they were in the past.
Figure 2 about here
Is there a correlation between the skeptic ratio and overall public opinion? To find out, I
estimated the effect of the value of the skeptic index and the responses to two survey items that
have been asked over a reasonable period of time (11 years): a) the percentage of Americans
saying that warming is underway, and b) the percentage who say that they worry about global
warming “a great deal.” (Both of these items are from the Gallup poll.) Coefficients were
estimated with Prais-Winsten estimator to account for the possibility of autocorrelated errors.
The results provide little support for a media effect on aggregate opinion. The skeptic ratio has
the predicted negative effect for the “warming is underway” question, but the p-value is .17. For
the second question, which is asked over a longer period of time, the estimated coefficient has
the wrong sign, and is not statistically significance.
There are also some logical problems with the “skeptic mobilization” as an explanation
for lagging public opinion in 2009 and 2010. First, efforts to discredit climate scientists are
hardly new. Since the 1990s, there have been repeated (and well-funded) campaigns—such as
the Global Climate Coalition (GCC)-- to counter scientific consensus about warming. Second,
the most cited claims about scientific bias – allegations about the manipulation of scientific data
to conceal evidence against warming that have sparked recent criticism-- did not surface until
late November 2009, after public opinion trends had already deteriorated.
4. Weather and Public Opinion about Climate Change
Another explanation for flagging public opinion about climate is the weather. Several
studies have found that the public confuses short-term changes in temperature with long term
changes in climate (Krosnick, et al. 2006; Egan and Mullen 2010). In this view, “below trend”
temperatures may cause a shift in opinion that warming is real, serious and human induced.
There are two main problems with this explanation. First, the extant findings of a
“statistically significant” effect of weather on individual level attitudes cannot account for the
scale of opinion changes in aggregate opinion. Second, this perspective fails to account for the
fact that (short-term) warming peaked in 2005 (+.615 C over the 20
century average), and fell
in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Allowing a year lag for the reporting annual temperature anomalies,
opinion should peak in 2006, start to decline in 2007, and rebound in 2010. Only one of the
Gallup questions shows a peak in opinion that early, and the rest showing a peak one year later.
In the Pew and Stanford polls, opinion also peaks more than one year later than would be
As an additional empirical check, I regressed the annual global temperature anomaly in
the year prior to the Gallup survey against responses to two questions asked at least ten times
over the years, i.e., the “worry” and “warming now” questions. While the results do indicate a
positive effect of a higher temperature; that effect is very imprecisely estimated, and the
estimates are substantively small. The p-value of the estimates is greater than .35 and .67,
respectively, and a 0.1 degree increase in anomaly from one year to the next is associated with
only a .5% (i.e., .005) increase in the percentage of people who are “very worried” about global
warming on average, and a 1.2% increase is the percentage of people who say warming has
“already begun.”
5. The Economy and Attitudes about Warming
In this section, I provide several pieces of evidence to suggest that economic conditions
are a strong, arguably sufficient, explanation for lagging opinion. I do so in several steps. First,
I show that American public opinion about climate is correlated with economic conditions across
various survey items. Second, the large changes in opinion about climate observed during of the
Great Recession are consistent with what we would predict using only information prior to the
years of the Great Recession. Third, using a longer historical series, I show that economic
conditions and public opinion about global warming follow the long-term correlation between
economic conditions and environmental problems dating back to the early 1970s. This means
that the declining sentiment about warming during the Great Recession is consistent with a more
general cyclical pattern linking environmental opinions and the economy. Finally, using data
from social surveys in European countries and conducted over the latest business cyle, I show
that European public opinion is affected by the economy in almost exactly the same ways that we
observe in the US.
5.1 Climate change opinion data: 1989-2010
Figure 3 plots aggregate public opinion on climate change survey questions from the
Gallup, Pew, and Stanford polls against a classic indicator of short-run labor market conditions:
unemployment. On the Y-axis is the percentage of respondents giving a positive response to one
of the questions described in the previous section. (Similar questions from different survey
outlets appear on the same graph.) On the X-axis is the U-6 unemployment rate in the month
prior to the administration of the survey (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008). U-6 includes the
traditional unemployed, underemployed (those in part-time work, but seeking full-time work)
and marginally attached workers (those interesting in working but not actively seeking work due
to perceived futility of search). U-6 is used because it provides a more sensitive indication of the
supply of desired employment over the economic cycle-- particularly going into and out of
recessions-- than the conventional unemployment rate. (Using the conventional unemployment
rate produces similar results.)
Figure 3 about here
Figure 3 illustrates that, with one exception, no matter the survey group or exact
question wording, poorer economic performance is negatively associated with concerns and
beliefs about global warming. Table 1 provides Prais-Winsten estimates for several of the
survey time series for which we have enough sequential years in the series to provide estimates.
The first model estimated for each of the survey questions is a bivariate model with an AR(1)
process and robust standard errors. The results suggest that unemployment has a significant
negative impact on opinion in all cases except the survey question asking for agreement about
whether “warming will pose a threat to my way of life in my lifetime,” where there is no clear
evidence one way or the other.
Table 1 about here (gallup and krosnick macro)
One objection to these results is that they do not control for possible confounding effects
of negative media coverage and short-term climate fluctuations. The second set of results for
each survey item in Table 1 shows estimates for unemployment controlling for these other two
variables. (There is insufficient data to estimate this model for the Stanford polls about the role
of humans in climate change.) The size and direction of the coefficients for unemployment are
largely unchanged, except for one estimate that increases in absolute value. None of the results
provide clear evidence for an effect of temperature or the character of media coverage on
Though we now know that the unemployment rate is a much stronger predictor of the
decline in public concern and belief about climate change than biased media coverage or the
weather, one might still ask: would we really have predicted such a large drop in concern about
climate change in 2009 and 2010, given what we knew about the relationship between
unemployment and opinion about climate change? Another way to think about this question is to
ask whether the negatively sloped lines shown Figure 3 are negative only due to the data points
after 2008.
To answer this question, I re-estimated the bi-variate models from column 1 in Table 1
for the “worry” and “warming now” and “warming not exaggerated” survey questions using only
the pre-Recession data. (The other survey three items were not asked often enough before 2009
to generate a forecast.) Results are in the third column for each set of result in Table 1. Estimates
of predicted opinion for 2009 and 2010 using those coefficient estimates are reported at the
bottom of the table. Next to each is the observed value.
The results provide surprisingly good forecasts. Based only on what we knew about the
unemployment-climate change opinion relationship before the recession, we would have
predicted that the percentage of people who said they were “very worried” about global warming
would have fallen to 31% in 2009 and to 30% in 2010. It actually fell to 33% in 2009 and to 28%
in 2010. The corresponding prediction for the percentage who agreed that climate change
coverage was not being exaggerated was 57.5% in 2009 and 55.6% in 2010; this compares to
actual values of 59% and 52% respectively. For the “warming now” question, we could only
estimate the initial regression model in first differences, o the forecast is for the change in
percentage of the public agreeing. The forecast is very good. Given the rise in unemployment
between 2008 and 2009, we would have predict a decline in belief that climate change was under
way of 6.8%; there was an 8.0% drop. The decline between 2009 and 2010 leads us to predict a
decline of an additional .3 point decline; the actual decline was 3 points.
Taken all together, these forecast results suggest that the decline in opinion about
climate change since the start of the Great Recession is very close to what we would have
predicted in 2008, had we foreseen the Great Recession. Knowing weather or amount of negative
media coverage adds almost nothing to our ability to predict (results not shown). It seems that
the main reason that opinion fell so much in the 2008-9 recession compared to the 1991 and
2001 recessions is the fact that unemployment rose so much.
5.2 Historical opinion about environmental protection 1973-2010
One might still be inclined to doubt these results because the recession in 1991 and 2001
were too shallow to provide a real basis for forecasting the effects of the large economic shock of
the late 2000s. This might leads to doubts that an economic recovery might get opinion to
rebound from the current lows. To dispel that fear, we would need to show that economic
recovery has brought such a reversals in public opinion when labor market conditions were so
The only economic downturn in modern American memory which comes close to
matching the Great Recession in magnitude is the recession of 1981-1982. In that recession
American unemployment rose above 10%, and there were concerns that the United States would
lose its status as an economic power. Unfortunately, climate change was a non-issue in the early
1980s, so we cannot compare opinions about global warming in these two periods. There is,
however, comparable public opinion data on environmental problems more generally that spans
both periods.
Starting in the 1970s, two different polling firms have asked about public preference for
greater environmental protection at the cost of economic growth, or vice versa. Between 1977
and 1994, results come from Cambridge Reports; since 1985 they come from Gallup
Organization. (Question wording is provided in the appendix.) Values from these two series are
plotted in Figure 4 against the unemployment rate in the month prior to each survey. (The
conventional unemployment rate is used here, because U-6 is not available prior to 1994.)
Gallup surveys are represented with an X, the Cambridge surveys with a dot. A Chow test
indicates that the two sets of observations can be pooled, so a common regression line is
estimated on both series.
Figure 4 about here
This evidence suggests that over the last 35 years the relationship between the economy
and the public’s prioritization of the environment over economic growth resembles what we have
seen for opinion about climate change. Like concern about climate change, most people
If we use the model that includes terms for weather and the skeptic index as well as unemployment as the forecast
model (results not shown), we end up with poorer predictions of actual declines in opinion in 2008 and 2009.
prioritize environmental protection even in bad economic times. However, when the
unemployment rate goes up, prioritization of the environment goes down by about 1.4 points for
each point increase in the unemployment rate (after accounting for autocorrelated errors).
Critically, Figure 4 shows that the last time unemployment was as high as it is in 2009 and 2010,
opinion about the environment was also about as low as it is today.
Another historic public opinion series that covers deep recessions comes from the
General Social Survey. The GSS has asked whether or not Americans thought that the country
was spending too much, too little or the right amount on environmental protection. Figure 5
shows how responses to that question track the unemployment rate. The pattern looks
remarkably similar to the results in Figure 4: higher unemployment rates are negatively
associated with support for environmental spending.
Figure 5 about here
In summary, we can say that history shows that economic hard times take a serious toll
on public concern about environmental issues. The good news is that, in the past, public support
returned as the economy recovered. This historical evidence resembles patterns we observed for
climate change. It also demonstrates that when the country has seen unemployment rates as high
as the levels experienced since 2008, support for the environmental protection falls initially, but
then eventually recovers as the unemployment rate goes down.
5.3 Warming Attitudes and the Economy: Evidence from Europe
The final piece of evidence that recent public opinion about climate change can be
attributed to the Great Recession comes from Europe. The public in Europe is widely regarded as
having a much higher level of concern about climate change and basic acceptance of climate
science than Americans do. Europe has been on the forefront of efforts to establish international
institutions to reduce major greenhouse gas emissions and has taken significant steps
domestically to achieve reductions (Schreurs and Tiberghien 2007, Kelemen and Vogel 2010,
Stoddard 2010). Citing EU officials, Schreurs and Tiberghien (2007:30) conclude that: “climate
change is an issue that has reached such a level of social and political acceptability across the EU
that it enables (indeed, forces) the EU Commission and national leaders to produce all sorts of
measures, including taxes." Support for this view can be seen in news reports over the last
several years, not just in academic work. Headlines like “In Europe, a Call for Tighter Caps on
Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” “Europeans Say U.S. Lacks Will On Climate,” “Europe Sets
Ambitious Limits on Greenhouse Gases, and Challenges Others to Match It” attest to this
characterization (Kanter 2010, Broder and Kanter 2009, Bilefsky 2007).
Because Europeans seem to be much more supportive of policies to address climate
change, changes in public opinion about climate in the EU are strong test case for an economic
explanation of climate change opinion. Comparing European opinions over the current
economic cycle, of course, requires opinion trends over that economic cycle. Fortunately, there is
one source of evidence for over-time opinion in all EU member countries. Th Eurobarometer
Survey asked several climate change questions at several critical periods during the Great
Recession. This evidence shows that, much like in America, the Great Recession produced large
drops in opinions about climate change. Moreover, like the time series evidence in the US, the
European evidence suggests that the worse the recession hit, the more concern about climate
change fell.
Three different questions in the Eurobarometer are evaluated. All three questions were
asked “pre-recession” (April 2008), “mid-recession” (January 2009) and “late recession”
(September 2009). Unlike the US, which was technically in recession from December 2007,
almost all EU countries were not technically in recession until the second quarter of 2008. In
September 2009 most EU countries were emerging from the recession, although, like America,
labor market improvements have lagged the upturn in economic production.
How seriously do the citizens of different European countries take climate change?
Coding individual responses of 8, 9, or 10 on the ten-point response scale as indicating that the
respondent thinks it is a “very serious” problem, across the EU agreement declined with the
economic cycle-- from 61% in 2008 to 53% in 2009, and then to 45% in late 2009. The
magnitude of the decline in the EU was similar to what was observed in the United States. As
Figure 6 illustrates, responses in individual EU countries have considerable variation in the level
of concern about warming.
Despite this variation in level of concern, all EU country public rate
the seriousness of warming to be lower in December 2009 than in April 2008.
Figure 6 about here
Trends for the other two questions have a similar pattern. As in the US, most people
believe that there is a climate change problem; only (20-30% in most countries) say that “climate
change has been exaggerated” or that CO
“has a marginal impact” on warming. However, as the
Great Recession unfolded, agreement on these two “skeptical” statements increased
substantially. There was a significant increase in the idea that climate change was exaggerated in
16 EU countries between early 2008 and late 2009: Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands,
Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, and Slovakia.
The largest changes again came in Eastern Europe: Latvia, the Czech Republic, Estonia,
Lithuania, and Poland. Between April 2008 and January 2009, the portion of people agreeing
that CO
did not matter much for warming increased considerably. By September 2009 survey,
opinion had reverted somewhat to the original values. Only the Eastern European countries saw
significant increases in skepticism from the first to the third surveys.
While the results in Europe suggest that the Great Recession has undermined support for
climate change policy, we can actually push this data a bit harder. We might expect to see a
correlation between the severity of the recession and the size of the drop in public opinions
The Eurobarometer is administered to nationally representative samples in each member
country or region. The national sample varies, but is around 1000 in most countries.
about climate change. Demonstrating that opinion changed more when the economy performed
worse would bolster the argument that American opinion is truly driven by the economic
To evaluate this question, I estimated four regression models using aggregate national
responses from the three climate change survey items just discussed for April 2008, January
2009, and September 2009. In each survey, there is one measure for each of 29 EU regions (27
EU member states with Germany split into Eastern and Western regions and the United Kingdom
split between Great Britain and Northern Ireland). The fourth models uses the percentage of the
population in each country who responded “negatively” to all three questions as the dependent
Mirroring the analysis for the US, the main independent variable in all three models is
the labor market conditions in each country. I use unemployment rate for the quarter (3 month
period) preceding the survey. Table 2 reports results for OLS estimates for fixed effects (i.e.,
country dummies) and first difference models. The reason for choosing fixed effects is that we
expect that within countries, there will be idiosyncratic factors, besides unemployment, that
affect the level of public opinion about warming. We are interested in how opinion responds over
the cycle, so we do not report the estimates for the country dummies. In all estimates, we find
support for the claim that higher unemployment turns public opinion significantly against climate
change in Europe. More unemployment within a country means a larger proportion of people
believing that global warming is not very serious, exaggerated, and is not caused primarily by
GHG emissions.
Table 2 about here
These regression results predict that moving the national unemployment rate from 5% to
10% (close to what actually occurred in the United States) would reduce the percentage
reporting that global warming is a very serious problem by between 4 and 14 points. The
observed changes in the equivalent questions in United States (e.g., April 2008 to October 2009
in the Pew poll) was about 8 points. Keeping in mind that direct comparison of results should be
treated with caution because the wording of the US question is slightly different, what we
observed in the US seems in line with cross-national results among the European countries.
In summary, public opinion about climate change has affected Europe in many ways
similarly to the United States; this is despite the fact that Europe has acted as an international
leader on climate change. This in itself may raise questions about the essential role of public
opinion, as such, in explaining policy differences across the Atlantic.
There are no representative samples of state level opinion to test this thesis within the United
States, though we would expect to find a similar pattern. There is indirect evidence suggesting
of such cross-state effects (Kahn and Kotchen 2010).
6. Conclusion
This paper has provided an evaluation of claims that the recent decline in public opinion
about the global warming is driven primarily by an anti-warming information campaigns or
recent weather patterns. There is simply little logical or empirical basis for such claims to have
affected opinion on the scale that we have observed. Instead, we should blame the economy for
undermining public concerns about climate change. Past and current public opinion trends in the
US suggest that the timing of the declines in concern about warming map quite closely with the
economy over the years. This makes it hard to be convinced that this time is different. That
conclusion is further supported by public opinion in Europe, a region that has historically been
more eager to embrace policies to combat climate change.
The fundamental reason that we observe this association between the economy and
environmental opinion is prosaic: people’s immediate economic concerns-- not just for
themselves, but also for their friends, neighbors, countrymen, and even fellow man—lead some
to discount the importance of long-term “post-materialist” worries which are commonly thought
to compete either materially or on the policy agenda with economic concerns. This has recently
been shown to be particularly the case in bad economic times (Singer 2010).
The point here is not to suggest that non-economic issues related to climate change can
simply be ignored. Partisanship, public information campaigns, and the media may have roles to
play in public perceptions; but such concerns should not obscure the profound impact that the
economic crisis-- doubling the unemployment rate and skirting depression-- has on short-term
public support for long-term problems like climate change. It would be a misguided and perhaps
patronizing misreading of public opinion to dismiss the impact of an economic crisis of this
Given what we know about recent and historic patterns, it seems probable that climate
change opinion will rebound as the economy, and more specifically the labor market, improves.
Both would obviously improve more quickly if planetary stewardship can become a catalyst for
economic recovery and transformation, or at least not be seen as contrary to that goal. But it
would be incorrect to conclude that policy waits for opinion. Historically, major environmental
policy improvements have occurred in “bad” economic times. The Endangered Species Act
(December 1973), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), Solid Waste Disposal Act
(1976), Clean Air Act Amendments (1977), Clean Water Act Amendments (1977), and
CERCLA (Superfund) (1980) were all passed in tough economic climate. On the other hand, the
early 1980s, when the economic situation perhaps most closely resembled the present one, was a
period with little major environmental policy legislation. While this could point to a few more
years of inaction on climate change, it is worth recalling that in the early 1980s, Reagan
administration misinterpreted a temporary, economic-induced decline in public opinion about
environmental policy. Its efforts to severely curtail environmental policy were rejected by the
public (Gilroy and Shapiro 1986).
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Appendix: Question Wording
Gallup poll questions
“How much do you worry about the following Environmental Problems: a great deal, a fair
amount, a little, not at all? … Global Warming”
“Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming:
generally exaggerated, generally correct, or generally underestimated?”
“Which of the following statements reflects your view of when the effects of global warming
will begin to happen: It’s already begun, within a few years, within my lifetime, not within my
“Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your
“From what you have heard or read, do you believe that increases in the Earth’s temperature over
the last century are due more to the effects of pollution from human activities or natural changes
in the environment that are not due to human activities?”
“Just your impression, which one of the following statements do you think is most accurate—
most scientists believe that global warming is occurring, most scientists believe that global
warming is NOT occurring, or most scientists are unsure about whether global warming is
Pew Center for People and the Press Survey questions
“Is there solid evidence that the earth is warming?”
“Do you believe that the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as
burning fossil fuels or mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment?
“How serious a problem is global warming? Very Serious, Somewhat Serious, Not Much of a
Problem, Not a Problem at All.”
Stanford/Ohio State/Krosnick items
“You may have heard about the idea that the earth’s temperature has been going up slowly over
the past 100 years. What is your opinion on this—do you think this has probably been happening
or do you think it has probably not been happening.”
“Do you think a rise in the worlds temperature is being (would be) caused mostly by things
people do, mostly by natural causes, or about equally by things people do and by natural causes.”
[NB: choice 1 and 3 are coded as “human causes”]
“How important is the issue of global warming to you personally? – extremely important, very
important, somewhat important, not too important, not at all important.”
“Do you think most scientists agree with one another about whether or not global warming is
happening or do you think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on this issue?”
“Scientists use the term “global warming” to refer to the idea that the world’s average
temperature may be about five degrees Fahrenheit higher in 75 years than it is now. Overall,
would you say that global warming would be good, bad or neither good nor bad.”
Environment/Growth trade off questions
Cambridge Reports item
Which of these two statements is closer to your opinion? We must be prepared to
sacrifice environmental quality for economic growth, or we must sacrifice economic
growth in order to preserve and protect the environment
Gallup Organization item
With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most
agree--protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing
economic growth or economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment
suffers to some extent?
General Social Survey item
“We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or
inexpensively. I'm going to name some of these problems, and for each one I'd like you to
tell me whether you think we're spending too much money on it, too little money, or
about the right amount. … Are we spending too much, too little, or about the right
amount on...improving and protecting the environment.
Eurobarometer survey items
“How serious a problem do you think climate change is at this moment?” (1, not a serious
problem at all, – 10, an extremely serious problem)
“For each of the following statements, please tell me whether you totally agree, tend to
agree, tend to disagree or totally disagree.”
“The seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated”
“Emissions of CO
have only a marginal impact on climate change”
Humans are
the chief
cause (Stan)
U-6 -0.76 -1.01 -0.24 -1.40 -1.39 -1.23 -1 .68 -1.70 -1.49 -0.82 -0.8 -1.04 0.2 0.04
0.25 0.16 1.5 0.14 0.24 0.67 0.14 0.19 0.85 0.23 0.1 0.29 0.4 0.72
Skeptic Ratio -0.22 -2.16 1.5 -19 -2.7
0.2 2.48 4.2 6.6 6.3
Global Temperature Anomaly 1.5 -7.4 -4.0 11 28.2
13.7 13.2 6.4 5.8 12.9
rho 0.60 0.85 0.72 n/a n/a n/a 0.38 0.36 -0.17 0.30 0 -0.52 0.3 0.15
n 15 15 13 9 9 7 11 11 9 7 7 5 7 7
Adj-R 0.72 0.77 0.77 0.74 0.28 0.96 0.95 0.94 1 0.98 0.4 0.15
Data for 2009/2010 used in regression Y Y N Y Y N Y Y N Y Y Y Y Y
Predicted/Actual values for 2009 31/33 -6.8/-8 57.5/59
Predicted/Actual Values for 2010 30/28 -.3/-3 55.6/52
a-OLS estimates for first differences
bold= p<.05 one tailed
Warming (G)
Warming Has already Begun
(G) a
Seriousness of Warming is
NOT exagerated in media
Poses s erious
threat in my
lifetime (G)
Earth is slowly
Table 1: Prais-Winsten Regression Estimates Effect of Unemployment on Public Opinion
fixed effects
b -2.82 -0.88 0.84 0.51 0.72 0.76 0.85 0.51
robust s.e. .32** .34* 0.25** .30+ .33* 0.29* .17** .19**
87 58 87 58 87 58 87 58
R-squared 0.48 0.11 0.32 0.08 0.15 0.08 0.36 0.14
Serious Problem
CO2 not relevant
"Negative" in all responses
Table 2: Regression Estimates for effect of national unemployment rate on public opinion about
warming in the European Union member states, April 2008, January 2009 and September 2009
20 30 40 50 60 70
1990 1995 2000 2005 2008 2010
Warming Already Threat in my lifetime
Very worried about warming Concerns not exaggerated
Warming due to human activity Scientists generally agree
Figure 1 Trends in Gallup survey questions about global warming
Figure 2: Annual References to Global Warming and “Skeptic ratio” in New York
Times, 1989- 2009 References to global warming in news item headlines, and
ratio of articles mentioning of skeptics, critics or doubts in text.
20 40 60 80
5 10 15 20
% Very Worried (Gal) Serious Problem (Pew)
50 60 70 80 90
5 10 15 20
Warming Imminent (Gal) Solid Evidence (Pew)
Slowly warming (Stan)
20 30 40 50 60 70
5 10 15 20
Threat in my lifetime (Gal) 5 F warming bad (Stan)
Not exaggerated (Gal)
40 50 60 70 80
5 10 15 20
Human causes (Gal) Human Cause (Pew)
Humans cause (Stan)
30 40 50 60 70
5 10 15 20
Scientists agree (Stan) Scientists agree (Gal)
Figure 3: Public opinion about warming and labor market underutilization in the United States
The x-axis in all figures is the U-6 unemployment rate
30 40 50 60 70
4 6 8 10
Gallup series Cambridge series
Figure 4: Environment versus Growth trade-off and Unemployment, 1974-2010
2006 2008
50 55 60 65 70
4 6 8 10
spendlittle Fitted values
Figure 5: Spending “too little” on the environment and unemployment
Figure 6: Perceived Seriousness of the Climate Problem in EU
Percentage answering 8,9 or 10 to the following question: “How serious a problem do you think
climate change is at this moment?” (1, not a serious problem at all, – 10, extremely serious
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The implementation of ambitious climate policies consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement is fundamentally influenced by political dynamics. Yet, thus far, climate mitigation pathways developed by integrated assessment models (IAMs) have devoted limited attention to the political drivers of climate policymaking. Bringing together insights from the political science and socio-technical transitions literature, we summarize evidence on how emissions lock-in, capacity, and public opinion can shape climate policy ambition. We employ a set of indicators to describe how these three factors vary across countries and regions, highlighting context-specific challenges and enablers of climate policy ambition. We outline existing studies that incorporate political factors in IAMs and propose a framework to employ empirical data to build climate mitigation scenarios that incorporate political dynamics. Our findings show that there is substantial heterogeneity in key political drivers of climate policy ambition within IAM regions, calling for a more disaggregated regional grouping within models. Importantly, we highlight that the political challenges and enablers of climate policy ambition considerably vary across regions, suggesting that future modeling efforts incorporating political dynamics can significantly increase the realism of IAM scenarios.
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We present a cross-cultural comparison of newspaper coverage of global warming in France and in the United States (1987-1997) as a case study to analyze the impact of culturally bound journalistic practices on media attention cycles. Based on the results of a content analysis, we show that France's coverage was more event-based, focused more on international relations, and presented a more restricted range of viewpoints on global warming than American coverage did. American coverage emphasized conflicts between scientists and politicians. Downs's "quot;media-attention cycle,"quot; which is apparent for the American coverage, does not manifest as visibly in French coverage. Our findings suggest that research on media coverage of global environmental issues needs to move beyond studies at the national level; cross-cultural comparisons are essential to understand how different news regimes might affect public opinion.
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In 1971 it was hypothesised that intergenerational value changes were taking place. More than a generation has passed since then, and today it seems clear that the predicted changes have occurred. A large body of evidence, analysed using three different approaches – (1) cohort analysis; (2) comparisons of rich and poor countries; (3) examination of actual trends observed over the past 35 years – all points to the conclusion that major cultural changes are occurring, and that they reflect a process of intergenerational change linked with rising levels of existential security.
Unfortunately, I do not have an electronic file for Setting the Agenda. Best wishes for your research, Max McCombs
Representing the first comprehensive study of its kind, this book evaluates the comparative performance of national environmental policies since the beginning of the modern environmental era. Unlike other comparative studies, it looks directly at the purpose of environmental policy: pollution reduction. Lyle Scruggs presents four major explanations of environmental performance which it evaluates through the comparative statistical analysis of data from seventeen affluent countries. The results often challenge conventional explanations of good performance.
The disclosure that high officials within the Reagan administration had covertly diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras funds obtained from the secret sale of weapons to Iran provides us with a splendid opportunity to examine how the foundations of popular support shift when dramatic events occur. According to our theory of priming, the more attention media pay to a particular domain--the more the public is primed with it--the more citizens will incorporate what they know about that domain into their overall judgment of the president. Data from the 1986 National Election Study confirm that intervention in Central America loomed larger in the public's assessment of President Reagan's performance after the Iran-Contra disclosure than before. Priming was most pronounced for aspects of public opinion most directly implicated by the news coverage, more apparent in political notices' judgments than political experts', and stronger in the evaluations of Reagan's overall performance than in assessments of his character.
The debate over global warming has created predictable adversaries, pitting environmentalists against industry and coal-state Democrats against coastal liberals. But it has also created tensions between two groups that might be expected to agree on the issue: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters. Climatologists, who study weather patterns over time, almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change. There is less of a consensus among meteorologists, who predict short-term weather patterns. Joe Bastardi, for example, a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures. "There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing," Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather's Web site. Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was "caused mostly by human activities." More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement "Global warming is a scam," the researchers found. The split between climate scientists and meteorologists is gaining attention in political and academic circles because polls show that public skepticism about global warming is increasing, and weather forecasters — especially those on television — dominate communications channels to the public. A study released this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures like former Vice President Al Gore or Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate. The George Mason-Texas survey found that about half of the weathercasters said they had discussed global warming on their broadcasts during chats with anchors, and nearly 90 percent said they had talked about climate change at live appearances at Kiwanis Club-type events. Several well-known forecasters — including John Coleman in San Diego and Anthony Watts, a retired Chico, Calif., weatherman who now has a popular blog — have been vociferous in their critiques of global warming.
Theories of government approval usually assume that voters care about economic outcomes. This assumption frequently does not hold. Data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems demonstrate that although the economy is often the most important issue in an election, its place on the issue agenda varies across individuals and electoral contexts. The economy is more likely to dominate other issue concerns under conditions of economic recession, volatility, and economic underdevelopment. Moreover, at the individual level the salience of economic performance rises with unemployment and economic vulnerability. Governance crises related to corruption and human rights reduce attention to the economy, as do large-scale terrorist attacks. If the economy is not perceived as important, its effect on government approval is strongly mitigated. Thus, variations in the economy’s salience need to be further incorporated into studies linking economic and political outcomes.