Partisans, the Weather, or the Economy?

The Dynamics of Public Opinion about Climate Change

In a report released today, the Pew Center for People and the Press details the issues that Americans view as the "top priority for the President and Congress," with the economy and jobs dominating the list for the fourth straight year (the national debt is a close third). Out of 21 possible priorities, protecting the environment ranks #12 and dealing with global warming -- for the fourth straight year -- ranks last.

There is a 37 point gap between Democrats and Republicans in their views of the environment as a top priority. Among Democrats, 69% say that protecting the environment should be a top priority, compared to 49% of Independents and 32% of Republicans. Enthusiasm for dealing with global warming, however, is much lower across parties: Just 13% of Republicans say dealing with global warming should be a top priority, compared with 31% of Independents and 38% of Democrats.

The good news though is that the proportion of all Americans naming the environment as a "top priority" rose to 52%, a 9 point climb from last year. Overall, the proportion naming global warming is up marginally to 28 percent, a 3 point increase from last year, with most of this increase coming from a 10 pt increase among Independents. [UPDATE: See new UNH study showing Independents more susceptible to shifts in opinion based on weather patterns.]

In addition, as Pew notes, if focus is shifted to the related issue of energy, perceptions change: "By contrast, there continues to be very little partisan difference on whether dealing with the nation’s energy problems should be a top priority; 45% of both Republicans and Democrats say this."

In all, with the economy, jobs, and the debt dominating the attention of the public and political leaders, major legislative action specific to climate change will be a tough task to achieve for the foreseeable future.

Let's take a moment to think through the factors that might be accounting for climate change remaining a bottom-tier public priority and what these factors might mean for paths forward.

Where public opinion on climate change stands today is a major disappointment, given the historic spike in concern that occurred in 2006 and 2007. The sharp downturn over the past four to five years has been blamed by many on conservative political leaders and advocates dismissive of the problem with commentators pointing to a recent study at Climatic Change led by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. In that study, comparing public opinion trends to a number of factors including weather, media attention, media advocacy, statements by political leaders, and economic trends, Brulle and colleagues concluded:

The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change, however, is the elite partisan battle over the issue. The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. This finding points to the effect of polarized political elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting (seemingly) contrary levels of public concern. As noted by McDonald (2009: 52) “When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds.” This appears to be the case with climate change.

As I first suggested in an article with Chris Mooney at Science in 2007, there is little doubt that diverging partisan cues on climate change shape public perceptions, accounting for example in the large gap between college educated Republicans and Democrats on the issue. Republican leaders are deservedly blamed for their efforts at dismissing the problem, playing to the predispositions of the GOP rank and file.

But the communication efforts of Democratic leaders like Al Gore have also inadvertantly helped seed division, as vividly portrayed in a segment broadcast by PBS Frontline. A recent study at the American Behavioral Scientist by University of Vermont political scientist Deborah Guber documents this long term trend towards increased polarization not just on climate change but other environmental problems as well. As she concludes:

When elites unite, the public’s response is relatively nonideological. However, “when elites come to disagree along partisan or ideological lines,” as they did...during the latter stages of the Vietnam War, and as they did on global warming in the years following the release of the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth in 2007, “the public’s response will become ideological as well” (Zaller, 1992, p. 210).

Surely, the efforts of Gore and others at the IPCC succeeded in capturing public and media attention, but strategies to increase issue salience often, and unwittingly, invite political opposition. The timing on climate change could not have been worse, since its opponents were already emboldened by a series of events virtually guaranteed to reorder the public’s priorities, ranging from 9/11 to soaring energy prices and a deep and prolonged economic recession (Guber & Bosso, 2009).

In short, as Zaller would have predicted, party polarization among elites has now trickled down to the masses. Like the unraveling of a thread, opposing sides on global warming are now evident within the American mass public and, to a lesser extent, on a host of other more innocuous subjects ranging from air pollution to soil contamination by toxic waste and the loss of tropical rainforests.

These differences are robust, even after controlling for demographic traits, such as age, education, income, race, and gender. Now that disagreements extend beyond policy preferences into virtually every aspect of environmental thought, it will be harder to sustain what had been called “the politics of consensus”—a fragile (if at times unproductive) equilibrium that for many years allowed discourse on the environment to focus on shared values while muting cleavages along ideological lines (Guber, 2003). For better or for worse, partisanship has now moved front and center in the debate on global warming....


But for as much attention as elite polarization has received, largely overlooked has been the transformative influence of the economy and unemployment on public concern over climate change. In the Brulle-led study -- little noted -- is that unemployment and GDP were the next most influential factors in their model. In addition, in at least two other published studies, researchers have concluded that the economy is a central driver of the shift in public opinion since 2007. Just as there is a sound basis for anticipating the effects of elite cues, there is good theoretical reason to expect that the economy would be a dominant factor on perceptions.

As I discussed in the Climate Shift report, social psychologists describe the public as having a “finite pool of worry.” As one perceived risk gains attention, other risks often are bumped from concern. Perhaps no other issue has the ability to swamp public attention to a greater extent than the economy and unemployment. Unlike the diffuse, creeping nature of climate change, the economy and unemployment for many Americans provide daily and powerful reminders of their vulnerability.

Consider the inverse relationship between concern for jobs and concern for the environment as displayed above from the Pew survey trends. In 2007, unemployment stood at its lowest level since the Clinton-era boom years. That year, an equal 57 percent of Americans named both jobs and the environment as top policy priorities. Yet by 2009, unemployment had jumped to 9.3 percent. When Obama took office, 83 percent named jobs a top priority, compared with 41 percent who defined the environment in similar terms and 30 percent who said global warming was a leading concern.

A similar downturn occurred between 2002 and 2003, as the economy struggled after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The threat of terrorism along with war also likely taxed the ability of the public to turn its concern to the environment.

Over the past year, as the unemployment rate has droped to 7.8 percent, the preceived priority of the environment has rebounded to 52 percent and the perceived priority of global warming is up marginally to 28 percent.

In a 2010 study, economists Matthew Kahn and Matthew Kotchen investigated directly the linkages between the economic recession that hit the United States in 2007 and the subsequent downturn in climate change concern. Analyzing Google search trends, they discovered that in states with higher unemployment rates, given a limited pool of worry, individuals were much less likely to search for information about global warming.

Turning to national survey data, after controlling for demographics, they found that individuals living in states with higher unemployment rates were appreciably less concerned and more dismissive of climate change.

Lastly, they examined polling data from California, analyzing the relationship between a survey respondent’s attitudes and the unemployment rate in their surrounding county. After controlling for demographics, Kahn and Kotchen’s analysis showed that even in pro-environment California, a significant increase in the local unemployment rate could decrease the perceived priority of the environment by as much as 50 percent.

Reflecting on their three analyses, the economists concluded “the general pattern is clear: higher unemployment rates—at least when levels reach those observed during the recent recession—erode public concern about the environment.” Conversely, they observed, elevated concern only is likely to occur during periods of relative economic boom.

A second study published last year at the journal Global Environmental Change by University of Connecticut political scientists Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal employed a series of regression models to test whether the decline in U.S. public concern and belief in climate change between 2008 and 2011 could be attributed to economic conditions, the weather, and/or the communication efforts of conservatives.

As they note in their results: "The unemployment rate is consistently estimated to be an important correlate of change in beliefs about climate. A standard deviation increase in unemployment (2.1 points) is associated with sizable decline in support for climate change (about .33 standard deviations, 4 points)."

In terms of the effect of weather trends --as measured by global and U.S. temperature anomolies-- they note that in 2008 and 2009 "there is more modest support for weather as an explanation for differences in public attitudes about the existence of climate change....However, only the economic indicators are consistent with continued low public concern about warming in 2010 and 2011." [UPDATE: See more recent studies showing correlation between opinion and weather trends].

Skeptical voices in the news media were measured by an index of the number of mentions of critics of climate science in stories published by The New York Times, which in many past studies has been used as a trend-setting proxy for U.S. coverage generally. On the influence of skeptics and critics, Scruggs and Benegal find that "the skeptic index receives minimal support in the regression: while the estimates have the expected (negative) sign, they are not statistically different from zero in any of the models."

To further test their assumptions, they examined European public opinion over a similar time period. In this case, they were able to analyze a media and political system that in comparison to the U.S. is generally more unified in support of action on climate change. As they conclude in their analysis of opinion trends across European countries:

There is a very strong association between increases in unemployment rates and increases in skeptical opinion. A one point increase in national unemployment is associated with a 2.5 point decline in the percentage saying that warming is a serious issue, and almost a one point increase in the percentage of the country saying that warming is exaggerated or saying that it is simultaneously not serious, exaggerated, and not due to CO2 emissions....

In summary,the effects ofthe Great Recession on public opinion about climate change were very similar in European countries and the United States. All European countries experienced declining public opinion about warming as the Great Recession has developed, and those that fared the worst economically tended to see the largest declines in opinion. [Emphasis added].

To conclude their paper, they warn against drawing strong conclusions about the impact of disinformation campaigns or the weather on American public opinion, especially if overlooking the central influence of economic performance:

Perhaps the fundamental reason that we observe this negative association between the health of the economy and environmental opinion is related to a prosaic public goods dilemma: people’s immediate economic concerns – not just for themselves, but also for their friends, neighbors, countrymen, and even fellow man – lead many to adjust their expressed concern about long-term worries when they seem to directly compete. This has recently been shown to be especially the case in bad economic times (Singer, 2010).

Those concerns do not change facts, of course, but they do create a situation in which people are more likely to change their (stated) beliefs about what the facts are. Our point here is not to suggest that non-economic issues related to climate change can simply be ignored, or that they are irrelevant.

Partisanship, public information campaigns, and the media affect public perceptions (including how the public reacts to the economy or the weather). But such concerns should not obscure the profound impact that an economic crisis – doubling the unemployment rate or flirting with a depression – has on public beliefs and actions on long-term problems like climate change. We would suggest that it is misreading public opinion to dismiss the impact of the current economic crisis and to blame the problem mainly on a disinformation campaign or the weather. [Emphasis added]


Scholars will be analyzing and debating the factors shaping aggregate and partisan trends in public perceptions over the next few years with many more studies to come. In the process, it's important to make sure to take account of the full range of factors shaping public opinion rather than to just focus conveniently on the assumed dominant impact of conservative leaders and aligned media.

This is especially important now as we plan and invest in steps that move us towards progress on reducing the risks posed by climate change.

Just after the release of the Climate Shift report in 2011, I spoke with Climate Central on what these broad paths forward might look like, see excerpt below. As I mentioned at the time, a first step is to better understand how we communicate about the issue. In this case I discussed the research we were doing looking at the potential for a public health focus to transcend political differences. [See more on this subsequent research.]

I also emphasized that while national politics remains gridlocked, organizations and their partners needed to invest in localized and regional efforts at engagement, building networks of trust, collaboration, and participation around climate change adaptation, initiatives that protect communities against the major risks from climate change that we already face. It's through this type of engagement that we can start to increase the perceived relevance of climate change as a national priority while reducing the confounding pressures of partisan polarization.

Q: If the economy has such a strong influence on what people are concerned about, does that mean people aren’t likely to change their opinions about climate change until the economy improves, which could be a few years from now?

Nisbet: The economy poses a major communication challenge for climate change. It is a far greater communication challenge that what the conservatives have put forth in terms of questioning the science. In fact, in recent years, conservatives haven’t really had to even speak out against the scientific consensus. They can just say, “even if climate change is a problem, we can’t afford to take action against it,” and that might be enough to stall any and all action. The same strategy has been used by Democrats from agricultural and industrially-focused states. To make people pay attention to climate change, we’ll need to find ways to show them why it matters to them now, how it is affecting them now, and how actions can lead to benefits rather than costs.

Q: What are some of the ways in which climate change can be communicated in a way that matters to people?

Nisbet: With another researcher, Edward Maibach, who is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, we’re looking at how you can frame climate change in a way that is more personal to people. For example, we’re looking at, to what degree, you can communicate about climate change as a public health concern. If we can engage people in a conversation about the link between long-term chronic health concerns, like allergies, and climate change, then they will understand what the impact will be for them. They may begin to care about climate change because it is going to make their condition worse in the future.

The same can be said for communicating to people about actions that are local and regional, like increasing accessibility to public transportation, making communities safer and easier to walk in, or making fruits and vegetables more affordable, which could reduce meat consumption. These are the kinds of things people will want to invest in, not because they offer a long-term climate change benefit but because they improve the community and quality of life in general.

Only after you connect with people this way, at the personal and local level, can you then get people participating in a dialogue about bigger policy efforts. And that’s rarely been done before now. We’ve never really connected at a local and personal level about climate change.

Q: You’ve also recently written about the politicization of climate change and how that has influenced the public. How can the science be politicized and what does this mean for how to improve climate change communication?

Nisbet: You don’t communicate about climate science in a vacuum; of course you have to consider the political context. The Cultural Cognition project at Yale shows that when people interpret scientific advice they hear, in connection to the proposed policy solutions, as threatening to their personal values or their world view, the first thing they do is argue against the science. Similarly, pollsters found that in 2009 and 2010, just as cap and trade became more politically viable, there was a simultaneous increase in skepticism amongst Republicans. These polling experts argue that this means that when you ask Republicans and Conservatives about the science of climate change, you shouldn’t interpret their answers fully as knowledge, but rather as indirect opinions about the policies being posed. The perceptions of science, it seems, are policy dependent.

What this means is, if we’re trying to make strategic decisions about where to invest in communication activities, we have a choice. Do we double-down and invest even more money and resources in trying to counter the work of Republicans and conservatives? Or, do we invest more resources in alternative strategies and consider a broader range of policies, perhaps smaller in scope and across several levels of government. I argue that if we take a different approach, like working at the local and regional level and try to facilitate public participation directly in the discussion, then people are more likely to come together, start talking about climate change, plan, connect, and find common ground.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.).Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nisbet, M.C. & Myers, T. (2007). Twenty-Years of Public Opinion about Global Warming. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71, 3, 444-470.