The Economy and Climate Change Perceptions: Study Examines the Most Parsimonious Explanation for Public Skepticism

The science community needs to partner with expert organizations in creating a new communication infrastructure about climate change that isn't centered on scientific-information or the communication of risks.

As advocates, commentators, and many scientists seek to account for the decline since 2007 in public concern, worry, and acceptance of the climate change problem, speculation has tended to focus relatively narrowly on the presumed impact of climate skeptics, with the Climategate incident accepted widely as fundamentally damaging to public trust.

Based on this attribution, the response has been to focus on increasing the amount of accurate science-related information available to the media and to the public while engaging in "rapid response" against the claims of skeptics.  The assumption is that more accurate messages about climate science will reverse the decline in public concern and erode political gridlock.

As I wrote in the opening to a recently commissioned white paper to the National Academies on climate change education, this type of approach to communication... too often discussed rather narrowly in terms of promoting a technically informed yet essentially spectator public. In this view, the goal is toachieve a level of public understanding where Americans can accurately assess specific scientific details or concepts relevant to climate change. This knowledge is assumed to then correlate with increased concern for the problem, leading to greater public acceptance of scientific expertise, and a decrease in societal conflict over policy. However, the role of knowledge and discussion typically ends there. The implied vision is of Americans as spectators in a political system where decision-making on climate change is handled by experts,policymakers, environmentalists, and industry. [Emphasis added]

This dominant mental model relative to the nature and role of the public is inaccurate at several different levels, overlooking the actual factors that shape public opinion--most notably the economy--and the fundamental need for direct participation and input from the public.

To date, as public opinion theory would suggest, research indicates that Climategate has had a very limited impact on wider public opinion, was little noticed by the public, and primarily served to reinforce the beliefs of attentive conservative segments of Americans who were already deeply dismissive of the issue. 

Far more parsimonious and likely explanations for the decline in public concern include a reaction to the intense fear appeal nature of climate change communication that peaked in 2007 with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the likely strong influence of the economy and unemployment on public concern, and the tendency for individuals to argue against scientific advice when it is easily associated with policy proposals--such as cap and trade--that they perceive as more regulation and more government, and therefore threatening to their worldviews.

On evidence of the impact of the economy on public opinion, a recent paper from UCLA and Yale economists deserves much stronger attention.  Using data taken from google searches, national opinion surveys, and state surveys in California, the researchers find a strong relationship between local or state unemployment rates and multiple indicators of public concern, acceptance of climate science, and support for climate legislation.  You can read the article here and below is the abstract:

This paper uses three different sources of data to investigate the association between the business cycle—measured with unemployment rates—and environmental concern. Building on recent research that finds internet search terms to be useful predictors of health epidemics and economic activity, we find that an increase in a state’s unemployment rate decreases Google searches for “global warming” and increases searches for “unemployment,” and that the effect differs according to a state’s political ideology. From national surveys, we find that an increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in the probability that residents think global warming is happening and reduced support for the U.S to target policies intended to mitigate global warming. Finally, in California, we find that an increase in a county’s unemployment rate is associated with a significant decrease in county residents choosing the environment as the most important policy issue. Beyond providing the first empirical estimates of macroeconomic effects on environmental concern, we discuss the results in terms of the potential impact on environmental policy and understanding the full cost of recessions.

In the face of a still struggling economy, the most conservative electorate in history, and the most conservative elected Congress in history, what is needed is not more communication about the risks of climate change or the science behind those risks.  No amount of additional scientific information will reach or influence a wider public, a majority of whom are deeply frustrated, anxious, and fear even making their next rent or mortgage payment.

Instead, what is needed is a renewed focus on the policy formulation process, setting an agenda of policies at the national, regional, and local level that are not easily perceived as a growth in regulation or big government and that credibly translate into real benefits to the public in terms of the economy, jobs, public health, and national security.

In combination with new policies, the science community needs to invest with other expert organizations in creating a new communication infrastructure across regions and communities, one not centered on scientific-information or the communication of risks, but rather one that creates the opportunities and motivation for a diversity of Americans to learn, plan, connect, and voice their opinion about the climate and energy challenge. This shift requires the scientific community to play a vital civic education role, serving with other organizations as facilitators, partners, and conveners rather than as one-way communicators of simplified, technical information. 

See also:

Eye on 2012: A Post-Partisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change

Study Finds That Fear Won't Don't Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire

Climate Scientists at a Crossroads: Muddling the Differences Between Public Engagement and Deficit-Model Activism

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