Does the economy affect public opinion on climate?

Public opinion climate change Yale Program Climate Change CommunicationDoes the economy affect public opinion on climate?

By Flannery Winchester

Popular wisdom suggests that the environment and the economy have a strained relationship in the minds of American voters. If someone can’t pay their bills, the thinking goes, why would they worry about a few degrees of warming in the earth’s atmosphere?

Well, a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Politics contradicts that assumption. The paper is titled “Public opinion on climate change: Is there an economy-environment tradeoff?” and was written by Matto Mildenberger and Anthony Leiserowitz from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.


They began by revisiting the public opinion numbers on climate change during the Great Recession. During that time, belief did in fact fall. Leiserowitz and Mildenberger explained, “Between 2008 and 2012, multiple surveys found that US public beliefs and attitudes about global warming declined by over 10 percentage points. For example, our surveys found that public belief that global warming is happening fell from 71% in 2008 to a low of 57% in 2010 (Figure 1) before beginning to rebound.”

Then, they conducted a new survey of those exact same respondents to learn their current opinion. “This allowed us to assess how individual-level climate beliefs and attitudes in the U.S. changed over time,” they said.


On the whole, public opinion about global warming has gone up in the years since the recession. The traditional narrative would attribute the earlier drop to an increase in economic anxiety. But after conducting this new survey and controlling for tons of variables—everything from unemployment statistics to home values and more—Mildenberger and Leiserowitz didn’t find anything to support the connection.

They said in their paper, “We find no evidence that shifts in either individual-level or local economic conditions explain declines in environmental concern. We also find no evidence that self-reported recession impacts, shifts in family income, or changing state-level retail gas prices correlate with opinion declines.”

Pretty interesting, right? Survey respondents might have had to cut back work hours or pay more at the pump, but it had no effect on their opinions about climate change.

So why did opinions change?

Mildenberger and Leiserowitz’s survey revealed some clues about what actually caused those public opinion numbers to dip.

“The likely culprit is a parallel shift in American politics that happened during this time, including the rise of the Tea Party,” they explained. “We found a significant association, for example, between changes in the environmental voting record of a survey respondent’s congressional representative and the shift in a respondent’s climate beliefs and attitudes between 2008 and 2011.” So even more than the state of the economy, people take their cues from elected officials about climate change.

“Public opinion on climate change is very sensitive to changes in the Republican and Democratic party platforms and politicians’ talking points,” Mildenberger and Leiserowitz went on. “This suggests that engaging Republican leaders in the issue will be important not just to the passage of climate legislation, but to shifting public opinion as well.”

This is good news for groups like ours—engaging Republicans and conservatives is right in our wheelhouse. As more and more Republicans sign the Republican Climate Resolution and join the Climate Solutions Caucus, more Americans will understand that climate change is real and something we need to tackle. And all along the way, we’ll keep educating Congress and our fellow Americans about a market-based solution that everyone can agree on.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.