Climate change beliefs influenced by recession

Posted by Kate Taylor

Americans are less likely to believe in man-made climate change as economic conditions get tougher, new research shows.

Lyle Scruggs, associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, says the public's belief in climate change dropped significantly as the economy dipped and unemployment climbed in the late 2000s.

And the suddenness and timing of the change in popular opinion can's be explained by politics, accusations of biased media coverage or weather fluctuations.

It's a question of believing what you want to believe, says Scruggs.

"It's easier for people to disbelieve in climate change than to accept that it is real, but little should be done about it right now," he says.

The study's based on public opinion surveys dating to the late 1980s - and the researchers found a stark decline in belief in global warming in the late 2000s.

In 2008, for example, a Gallup poll reported that 60 to 65 percent of people agreed that global warming is imminent, is not exaggerated and is agreed upon by scientists as a valid theory. By 2010, though, those numbers had dropped to about 50 percent.

The authors also found a strong relationship between jobs and people's prioritization of climate change. When the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, an average 60 percent of people surveyed said climate change had already started. But when the jobless rate reached 10 percent, that number dropped to about 50 percent.

Scruggs says the trend held true across political lines.

The researchers suggest that cognitive dissonance - which occurs when people experience conflicting thoughts and behaviors - could explain the pattern.

Many people view economic growth and environmental protection to be in conflict, so admitting that climate change is real but should be ignored in favor of economic growth leads to an internal philosophical clash. It's less troubling to convince themselves that there isn't a problem in the first place.

"Psychologically, people have to evaluate economic imperatives in the recession, and that can create conflicting concerns," Scruggs says.

Now the economy's beginning to recover and the unemployment rate is shrinking, Scruggs says he's seeing belief in global warming starting to rebound.

"We would expect such a rebound to continue as the economy improves," he says.