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date: 23 April 2018

Economic Conditions and Public Opinion on Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

How do economic conditions affect public opinion about climate change? Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, people have debated three main perspectives on how economic conditions impact environmental attitudes. The post-materialism perspective suggests that social and individual affluence leads to increasing concern and demands for action on climate change through long-run cultural change. A second view suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped largely independently of economic conditions and reflect the emergence of a new environmental paradigm. A third view, associated with ecological modernization theory, suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped in important ways by short-term economic factors, such as economic self-interest, and are likely to vary among citizens over time. While all of these perspectives have merit, we emphasize the impact of macroeconomic risk and business cycle fluctuations in shaping public attitudes toward climate change and more general aspects of environmental policy. Rising unemployment rates, for example, tend to be associated with declines in concern about environmental problems. This is a trend that is repeated across more than four decades and multiple recessions and recoveries dating back to the 1970s.

Although it is obviously a more recently recognized environmental problem, public attitudes about climate change are also affected considerably by short-run economic conditions. This fact can influence the possibilities for policy reform. Through a process of motivated reasoning, in which immediate concerns and preferences to address economic risk lead individuals to adjust other attitudes about the environment, public concerns about climate change have ebbed and flowed with the business cycle. Other economic factors—such as societal affluence, personal employment status, or income—have more limited effects on attitudes about climate change, at least in most developed countries.

The impact of economic risk on public attitudes about climate change has important implications for policy reform in democratic societies, because public support matters. While partisanship and ideology are frequently cited as explanations for fluctuating public opinion about climate change, macroeconomic risk offers a complementary explanation, which suggests that the framing and timing of environmental policy initiatives is as important as ideological acceptability. Positioning environmental actions or initiatives in better economic conditions, emphasizing immediate economic benefits, and countering unwarranted beliefs about personal costs, especially during challenging economic circumstances, should improve the prospects for efforts to address climate change.

Keywords: public opinion, climate change, economic risk, unemployment, business cycles, climate change belief


The idea that economic conditions affect public perceptions of climate change emerges from a literature examining the effects of economic conditions on broader concerns about environmental protection. In many respects, climate change is just one type of environmental problem, albeit “the mother of all of them” (Tol 2009). For this reason, it is worth reviewing the role of economic conditions on public environmental concern to better understand how these factors affect attitudes about climate change.1

Early accounts of modern environmental problems explicitly suggest that the growth of modern consumption is a root cause of environmental impacts. This is most obviously evident in the development and popularization of the I(mpact) = P(opulation) A(ffluence)T(echnology) formula in the early 1970s (Ehrlich & Holdren, 1971; Chertow, 2000). This growth-environment nexus is also associated with the “treadmill of production” (Schnaiberg, 1980). Much of the early public opinion polling on the environment addresses attitudes about the extent and importance of ecological protection and policies to address environmental pollution (Erskine, 1972; Dunlap & Scarce, 1991; Gillroy & Shapiro, 1986). However, the tension between ecological and economic outcomes is often contained in the very structure of survey questions on the environment.

One view, associated with Inglehart (1990), is that environmental concern is higher among those with post-materialist values emerging via socialization in economically secure circumstances. Inglehart (1995) allows for an “objective threat” avenue for concern in the absence of post-material values. This “objective threat, subjective value” explanation is considered by some to be the hegemonic explanation for environmental concern, though its empirical foundations remain surprisingly limited (Dunlap & Mertig, 1997; Dunlap & York, 2008; Guha & Martinez-Alier, 1997; Lowe & Rüdig, 1986).

A second perspective is that environmental concern is part of a broadly transformative “new environmental paradigm,” produced primarily by forces independent of affluence or social class (Dunlap, Gallup, & Gallup, 1993; Dunlap & Mertig, 1995, 1997; Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, & Jones, 2000; Dunlap & Van Liere, 1978). Studies in this vein often present evidence that national wealth is inversely related to environmental concern (also see Givens & Jorgenson, 2011, 2013).

A third view, the affluence argument, suggests that economic circumstances directly affect environmental concern. Citizens of wealthy and faster growing societies are usually more likely to express environmental concern due to higher consumer demand for environmental quality and not necessarily a result of cultural or paradigmatic change (Beckerman, 1974; Diekmann & Franzen, 1999; Franzen, 2003; Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Franzen & Vogl, 2013a; Kemmelmeier et al., 2002). This perspective on affluence and concern is related to ecological modernization theory, which proposes that global affluence is a requisite of global sustainability (Mol, 1995).

While sometimes cast as conflicting, all three of these explanations can be simultaneously correct at the individual or social level. That is to say, post-materialist culture, a new way of thinking, and traditional consumer theory can explain why some individuals express more or less concern about environmental degradation. For example, the treadmill of production thesis does not critique economic development per se, but points to its capitalist structure and inequalities in development as generative of environmental destruction. Yet ecological destruction is a characteristic of most pre-capitalist and more materially egalitarian societies (Diamond, 2005). Post-materialist cultural “modernization” does not require high social inequality to achieve high levels of material satisfaction. Finally, the affluence perspective may be true even if environmental quality is not a “superior good” (i.e., demand increases at a faster rate than income) and social affluence does not require large individual or social inequalities.

Income Effects on General Concern for Individuals

Most studies examining the impact of socioeconomic determinants of environmental attitudes examine social characteristics at an individual level.2 These generally include age, social class, education, party affiliation, occupational prestige, worldview/ideological concepts, and income. Many recent reviews suggest that income and the economy do not seem to matter and that individuals’ economic situation (income, recent financial position, employment situation, etc.) does not significantly affect concern (Daniels, Krosnick, Tichy, & Tompson, 2012).3 Indeed, one of the most overlooked elements of public concern highlighted in this article is the impact of short-term economic factors, particularly those affecting one’s society. Public opinion, furthermore, typically reacts sociotropically to events, which is to say that attitudes toward policies, politicians, or other aspects of public opinion may change based on events occurring at a societal, not egoistic level (Kinder & Kiewiet, 1981; Erikson et al., 2002).

The evidence that pocketbook factors such as income affect environmental attitudes is mixed and inconclusive. While some earlier sociological studies in the United States indeed suggested that individual income was not an important correlate of concern (see Jones & Dunlap, 1992; Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980), much international research finds that respondent income does have a positive effect on concern (Franzen, 2003; Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Franzen & Vogl, 2013a; Gelissen, 2007; Givens & Jorgenson, 2011, 2013; Kemmelmeier, Krol, & Kim, 2002; Marquart-Pyatt, 2008, 2012).4 Moreover, studies in economics consistently find that individual income increases total demand for (though not always willingness to pay for) environmental goods. These studies also generally find that willingness-to-pay for environmental protection rises with income within countries (Harrison & Rubinfeld, 1978; Kristrom & Riera, 1996).5

Furthermore, most studies on environmental concern suggest that education increases individual environmental concern, and this variable is linked to income and better life chances (Daniels et al., 2012; Franzen & Vogl, 2013a; Jones & Dunlap, 1992; O’Connor, Bord, Yarnal, & Wiefek, 2002; Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980). Furthermore, given the many sources of measurement error of income in social surveys—high non-response rates, household composition effects, problems comparing money income to purchasing power over time and space, non-uniform distribution of income within measured income bands—it is possible that in many surveys education picks up respondent income better than the direct household income measures used in many situations.

Income Effects on General Environmental Concern at the Societal Level

While there is general agreement about the positive effects of income or life chances on environmental concern at the individual level, the effects of social affluence are more contentious. Treadmill explanations view societal affluence as being destructive of the environment, while ecological modernization views affluence as a basis for reversing ecological damage wrought (partly) by past affluence. Early studies of the impact of affluence on opinion focus almost exclusively on macro-level features, e.g., simple models of aggregate concern explained by average income (Diekmann & Franzen, 1999; Dunlap & Mertig, 1995; Inglehart, 1995; Scruggs, 2003). More recent studies use multi-level models and attempt to control for composition effects across countries, the effects of both real and perceived environmental pressure, and societal context (Franzen & Vogl, 2013a; Gelissen, 2007; Givens & Jorgenson, 2011).

One set of studies based on responses to the World Values Survey (WVS) finds that average income reduces concern (Gelissen, 2007; Givens & Jorgenson, 2011, 2013). Studies utilizing the International Social Survey Project (ISSP) often find the opposite (Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Franzen & Vogl, 2013a; Kemmelmeier et al., 2002). Both sets often agree that income, education, and real and perceived environmental conditions increase concern at the individual level.

What explains the different estimated effects of social affluence in these studies? One possibility is variation in country samples, as various waves of the ISSP project generally draw from comparatively wealthy countries, whereas WVS includes countries with a broader range of national development levels. However, the exact countries surveyed in these studies varies from wave to wave, and even more so from study to study. The assumption that these differences are a “random sample” of countries is implausible.

A second possible source of difference is the question researchers choose as a measure of concern (Klineberg, McKeever, & Rothenbach, 1998; Van Liere & Dunlap, 1980). Findings supporting the treadmill hypothesis generally use “rating” concern survey questions that do not explicitly evaluate the importance of the environment against other values. Some suggest that explicit trade-off questions are generally biased against poor respondents who cannot afford to pay. Affluence hypothesis advocates, on the other hand, often suggest that only questions that require some sort of social choice can show a real priority, and that “concern” rating questions may simply reflect bad external conditions or acquiescence or are otherwise not valid measures of concern.

Another possible source of divergence is the use of different control variables and operationalization and statistical modeling choices. Some studies use ordered response estimators (ordered logit or probit), while others convert ordered responses into a binary response variable. Some include recent growth rates as predictors, use different measures of income (at individual or national levels) or education, and even may include quadratic terms. Ultimately, there are a host of differences in the studies “pro-treadmill” and “pro-affluence” studies. The individual choices are all usually reasonable specification decisions, but combined, they make isolating the precise sources and degrees of discrepancy across studies impossible.

The way to resolve these problems does not lie in simply rerunning one’s preferred designs on new iterations of one’s preferred survey items with whatever countries happen to be included in an international survey wave. The resolution starts in observing the implications of each particular source of difference holding others constant. For example, would replicating Givens and Jorgenson’s (2011) design while changing only the type of concern questions from the WVS change the conclusions about income? This is done to some degree by Gelissen (2007), but with a much different (larger) set of countries. Franzen and Vogl (2013b) show that different results in the WVS are due to higher rates of general “acquiescence” in some countries (a form of response bias) that explains away results like Givens and Jorgenson’s.

Likewise, does using different concern questions in the ISSP produce results that conform to the findings for affluence reported in Franzen and Vogl (2013a, 2013b) or not? Marquart-Pyatt (2012) finds some suggestive evidence in the 2000 ISSP that the perceptions of threats to air, water, and pesticides are negatively associated with income, while other evidence of concern is positively correlated. However, some of the reported models in Marquart-Pyatt (2012) may be overidentified.6 It may also be possible to perform estimates on the same country, varying only the survey. If differences lie in the country selection, then differences in estimated effects should not vary substantially. The upshot is that isolating alleged design sources of difference requires holding the others possible source constant.

Most studies also spend little time in presenting results that assess the plausibility of their estimates: most simply report the sign and significance of their estimates. With respect to results with contradictory findings at the national and individual levels, we would raise another question: If the aggregate income reduces concern conditional on a positive effect of individual income and education, what does this suggest about the total effects of development? Does that imply that income growth increases (or decreases) concern at a declining rate? Does that point to intra- or international redistribution in order to improve concern levels globally? An excellent analysis that avoids many of these criticisms is Fairbrother (2013). He shows that there is no evidence that environmental concern or willingness to pay for it rises with affluence and, if anything, is higher in poorer countries in one study that provides a thorough assessment of the substantive impact of statistical estimates.

Impact of the Business Cycle on Environmental Concern

Comparatively little research in this field has investigated the short-term effects of the ups and downs of the business cycle (or other events) on environmental concern.7 Those that have tend to find significant effects of comparatively short-term economic conditions on opinion. Two papers appear to be the first to systematically consider the general impact of macroeconomic conditions and perceptions of them on environmental attitudes in the United States. Between 1974 and 1991, Elliott, Regens, and Seldon (1995) found that higher income and higher retrospective economic evaluations were associated with more support for environmental protection. Elliott, Seldon, and Regens (1997) estimated individual level and survey-year effects. They found that family income was weakly (but positively) associated with support for more environmental spending. They included dummy variables for each year in order to gauge the effect of particular years relative to a baseline year. Though they did not provide a formal statistical test of an economic cycle, based on the size of coefficients for each particular year, they concluded:

the year-dummy coefficients are consistent with the hypothesis that the overall political-economic environment may be crucial in providing a setting in which support for such collective goods as the environment is strengthened or attenuated. Indeed, both objective economic conditions and subjective evaluations of the economy may play a role in influencing opinions … policy propensities may be significantly conditioned by broader economic and social forces, net of individual level economic factors … Indeed, the future success or failure of the environmental movement may rest substantially with the ability of government policy makers to provide adequate levels of economic growth in advanced industrial societies.”

(Elliott et al., 1997, pp. 25–26)

Conroy and Emerson (2014) provide perhaps the most comprehensive updated analysis testing the impact of macroeconomic conditions on the environmental concern in the United States. Combining all General Social Surveys conducted between 1974 and 2012, they estimate a multi-level model to estimate individual demographic and macroeconomic effects simultaneously. They find that bad economic times—more unemployment, slower growth, a recession year—are associated with more people reporting “too much” spending on the environment. These effects are, in some cases, attenuated for individuals who were better off. This seems to suggest that macroeconomic conditions matter, and may matter more for those who are less well-off.

International studies of business cycle effects are even more limited. This may be due to lack of survey items asked consistently over long periods of time. However, using Eurobarometer data, Scruggs (2003, pp. 83–95) does find that environmental concern in European Union (EU) member countries followed the economic cycle from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s.8 Harring, Jagers, and Martinsson, (2011) finds that environmental concern was pro-cyclical in the period 1987–2010, though they suggest that this is pronounced over time, a fact the authors attribute to elite consensus in the long term. Finally, using data from two waves of the WVS, Turaga (2015) suggests that in India, public concern for the environment fell when the country went from high growth to low growth between 2006 and 2014.

The link between the business cycle and environmental concern can perhaps be seen most simply in a plot of the percentage of U.S. survey respondents who prioritize environmental protection over economic growth and the official national unemployment rate at the time of the survey (Figure 1).9

Economic Conditions and Public Opinion on Climate ChangeClick to view larger

Figure 1. The percentage of U.S. respondents prioritizing environmental protection over economic growth varies significantly with economic conditions. The figure combines annual polling data gathered by Cambridge Research Associates (1977–1994) and the Gallup Organization (1984–2016). In the Cambridge surveys, respondents were asked: “Which of these two statements is closer to your opinion? We must be prepared to sacrifice environmental quality for economic growth. We must sacrifice economic growth in order to preserve and protect the environment.” In the Gallup surveys, respondents were asked: “Which comes closer to your own point of view? 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.” As the figure indicates, concern has been negatively correlated with economic conditions across four decades.

(Source: Scruggs & Benegal, 2012, with updates through 2016 by the authors)

It is also important to appreciate business cycle effects for their implications on comparisons across countries. If business cycle effects are widespread and the countries being compared are at different points in their economic cycle and that factor is not controlled, analyses will yield biased estimates of national differences.

Economic Conditions and Public Opinion on Climate Change

Although the scientific community has grappled with the issue for several decades, in-depth studies of public belief and concern about climate change have emerged much more recently. A few early studies examined correlates of climate change awareness in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bostrom, Morgan, Fischhoff, & Read, 1994; Read, Bostrom, Morgan, Fischhoff, & Smuts, 1994), but the majority of scholarship on climate change attitudes has emerged since the late 1990s, particularly after conferences at the White House and in Kyoto in 1997 that addressed the issue of climate change.

The sudden emergence of scholarship on public opinion on climate change is due to a limited number of opinion surveys that have included questions related to the climate and environment prior to this date but is also due to shifts in global media attention and public awareness that followed these events. Much of the scholarship on environmental attitudes during this period falls into one of three categories that we examine in this section. These studies have typically addressed either experiential knowledge/risk about climate change, the ideological and partisan polarization of the environment and gaps in attitudes, or the role of the economy in shaping attitudes about climate change.

Previous Explanations for Public Attitudes Toward Climate Change

One set of scholarship has primarily focused on the role of knowledge, education, and experiential risk in shaping both environmental concern and the willingness to make environmentally friendly decisions such as choosing cleaner energy sources or supporting pro-environmental policies. In a survey conducted in 1997, Robert Bord and colleagues find that accurate knowledge about the causes and consequences of climate change is highly correlated with increased levels of concern and higher self-reported willingness to act in an environmentally friendly manner (Bord, Fisher, & O’Connor, 1998; Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000; O’Connor, Bord, & Fisher, 1999). These findings are mediated to some extent by individuals’ willingness to bear substantially higher costs or lifestyle changes (Bord et al., 1998).

Later studies have expanded on these findings to examine the role of experiential risk in impacting both knowledge and attitudes toward climate change. Leiserowitz (2005, 2006) finds that perceptions of localized threats and imagery are strongly correlated with environmental attitudes among Americans, while Lorenzoni and Pidgeon (2006) report parallel findings for a comparative public opinion study of Western Europe and the United States. Other studies also find that exposure to short-term weather fluctuations and physical vulnerability also impact public opinion (Brody, Zahran, Vedlitz, & Grover, 2008; Egan & Mullin, 2012).

In addition to physical risk and knowledge, several other studies have also examined the roles of education and information sources on climate change attitudes, generally finding that both higher levels of education and more specific knowledge about climate change and its causes are highly correlated with increased belief and concern over climate change as well as a greater sense of responsibility in addressing climate change (Malka, Krosnick, & Langer, 2009; O’Connor et al., 2002; and Zia & Todd, 2010).

While these studies have primarily dealt with knowledge, information, and experiential risk, another set of scholarship has examined the role of partisan and ideological polarization, in particular the role of conservative think tanks and politicians in denying climate change within the United States. Krosnick, Visser, and Holbrook (1998) and Krosnick, Holbrook, and Visser (2000) first identified this polarized gap in public opinion in the aftermath of the 1997 Kyoto talks, where Democrat survey respondents reported far higher agreement with Bill Clinton’s pro-environmental views than did Republicans. McCright and Dunlap (2000, 2003) later discuss the nature of claims made by prominent conservative figures or think tanks to discredit climate scientists and limit environmental policy (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008), and the ensuing impact on public opinion in the United States, with a partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats that grew through the 2000s (Dunlap & McCright, 2008; McCright et al., 2013; McCright & Dunlap, 2011, 2013).

Many other studies examining risk and knowledge also find that partisan and ideological affiliations remain consistent predictors of attitudes (Egan & Mullin, 2012; Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008; Weber & Stern, 2011). Several other studies also find that these partisan-ideological affiliations interact with and mediate other factors such as education or information sources about climate change (Krosnick, Holbrook, Lowe, & Visser, 2006; Malka et al., 2009; Marquart-Pyatt, McCright, Dietz, & Dunlap, 2014; Zia & Todd, 2010). The scholarship focusing on conservative ideology and right-wing partisans’ impact on climate change attitudes has primarily focused on the United States. However, some recent research has also identified that these factors may affect public attitudes toward climate change in Australia (Fielding et al., 2012; McDonald, 2015; Pietsch & McAllister, 2010; Tranter, 2011), Canada (Lachapelle, Borick, & Rabe, 2012), the United Kingdom (Carter & Clements, 2015; Clements, 2012; Poortinga et al., 2011), and Western Europe (McCright, Dunlap, & Marquart-Pyatt, 2016).

Role of Economic Conditions on Attitudes Toward Climate Change

While a substantial volume of scholarship on environmental public opinion has focused either on the ideological-partisan explanations or the role of knowledge and learned/experiential risk, relatively little has addressed the impact of economic conditions on public opinion about climate change. We examine studies looking at macroeconomic effects, including effects of national affluence (e.g., GDP per capita), cyclical (e.g., due to recession), and individual level economic variables.

Impact of Affluence and Development on Attitudes Toward Climate Change

There are relatively few studies that test the impact of macroeconomic outcomes on public opinion. A few studies examine the impact of affluence on cross-national public opinion, building upon or challenging the post-materialist hypothesis. Kvaløy, Finseraas, and Listhaug (2012) compare responses on perceived seriousness of global warming in 47 countries in the WVS between 2005 and 2009. They find that variation in average income across countries is not significantly correlated with reported concern for climate change. Brechin (2003) also finds little difference between citizens’ reported concern in poor and wealthy countries surveyed in the 1992 Health of the Planet Survey. Shum (2012) also finds inconsistent effects of average national income on climate change opinion in European countries. Several other studies have found that higher levels of wealth are correlated with lower levels of concern (Kim & Wolinsky-Nahmias, 2014; Sandvik, 2008; Tjernström & Tietenberg, 2008). Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins (2012) find a positive effect of GDP on pro–climate change opinion. All of these studies mirror some of the contradictory findings about the effect of affluence on opinion. These studies do tend to suggest that beliefs are impacted more by either experiential risks or partisan-ideological factors. All of these studies use GDP per capita or comparable measures of overall affluence as a measure of the economy.

Impact of Business Cycle Fluctuations on Attitudes Toward Climate Change

Several studies emphasize the effect of the business cycle on how people think about climate change. These studies have converged in agreement that increased state or national unemployment rates, or other indicators or reduced economic growth rates, are correlated with lower support for environmental policies and lower reported levels of concern and belief in climate change.

Kahn and Kotchen (2011) examine Google search activity during the economic recession in the United States and find that residents in areas with high unemployment were more likely to search for terms related to the economy and less likely to search for terms such as “global warming.” They also examine two surveys from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication administered between 2008 and 2010 and find that residents in states with higher levels of unemployment were less supportive of U.S. environmental policies and less likely to believe that climate change was occurring. Although the first of these results is less surprising, given the tendency for voters to show less support for government spending and other policies during a bad economy (Cusack, Iversen, & Rehm, 2006; Margalit, 2013), the second finding indicates a shift not only in priorities but in objective levels of factual belief when the economy changes.

Scruggs and Benegal (2012) find similar results in an analysis of PEW surveys conducted in the United States between 2006 and 2011, showing that increases in state-level unemployment are significantly correlated with lower levels of reported belief in the evidence for climate change. These results remain robust when controlling for other identified correlates of environmental attitudes such as ideology, partisanship, experienced weather patterns, media coverage, and education. In the same paper they also show that these results are not unique to the United States: analyses of public opinion in 25 European countries before and after the recession show similar patterns, with Europeans less likely to express concern or belief in climate change during periods of high national unemployment.

Brulle et al. (2012) aggregated data from 74 surveys during the 2000s and also find similar correlations between regional unemployment and public opinion in the United States. They find little correlation with oil prices, suggesting that something besides energy scarcity is the main culprit. This and the two previously discussed papers also show that ideological and partisan messaging remains a consistent predictor of environmental beliefs, with either exposure to elite conservative messaging or strong conservative/Republican self-identification being strongly associated with lower levels of environmental support.

Shum (2012) finds that short-term growth rates in GDP correlate with higher levels of concern over climate change in Europe both before and after the 2008 economic recession. Shum provides further evidence that climate change attitudes may be shaped more by short-term economic fluctuations and relative levels of risk instead of wealth or development. He finds that GDP levels are inconsistently or weakly correlated with attitudes toward climate change; however, fluctuations in quarterly economic growth and unemployment rates are more reliable predictors of climate change attitudes in Europe.

Impact of Pocketbook Economic Conditions on Attitudes Toward Climate Change

Of the studies that examine relationships between macroeconomic outcomes and aggregate public opinion trends, only Kahn and Kotchen (2011) control for the impact of individual or pocketbook economic factors. They include controls for individual employment status and home ownership but find that these variables are not significantly correlated with beliefs in climate change. They do find that both unemployment and lack of home ownership are correlated with greater support for carbon regulation with moderate significance, but otherwise these factors are not significantly linked to public opinion about climate change.

A number of other studies test individual-level income or employment status as possible correlates of public opinion about climate change. However, these studies primarily focus on the United States. Among these studies, an analysis of Gallup polls conducted in the 2000s finds that higher income individuals are more likely to believe that climate change is occurring, but are also less concerned about climate change as a problem (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). This finding appears anomalous compared to the other literature that examines American public opinion. Several other studies within the United States include controls for household or personal income but do not find individual income levels significantly correlated with reported concerns or beliefs about climate change (Brody et al., 2008; Dunlap & McCright, 2008; Kellstedt et al., 2008; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson, 2013; Malka et al., 2009; Zia & Todd, 2010). Neither McCright (2010) nor Kahn and Kotchen (2011) find significant correlations between individuals’ employment status and their reported attitudes.

The few non-U.S. results show mixed results for individual-level economic variables. Engels, Hüther, Schäfer, and Held (2013) find that in Germany, neither occupation type nor household income levels are correlated with climate change views. Pietsch and McAllister (2010) find that occupation type and family income are weakly correlated with preferences for greater environmental protection in Australia. Poortinga, Spence, Whitmarsh, Capstick, and Pidgeon (2011) find that higher social class is positively related to climate change opinion in the United Kingdom. Since these class measures incorporate aspects of both occupation and education level, it is unclear whether the differences in opinion related to occupation or not.

Based on the current literature to date, it is hard to draw generalizations that employment status or household income levels correlate with attitudes toward climate change. However, some recent research suggests that occupational secto, rather than income or employment status may affect opinion, albeit in rather intuitive ways. One study in the United States finds that employment in fossil fuel or renewable energy sectors is correlated with preferences for environmental policies associated with clean power development (Cherry, García, Kallbekken, & Torvanger, 2014). Another study in Norway finds that people employed in the oil and gas sector are less likely to agree that climate change is occurring or that it is anthropogenic (Tvinnereim & Austgulen, 2014). While literature in political science on voting behavior indicates that personal economic conditions explain less about behavior than do macroeconomic conditions (Erikson et al., 2002), it would be interesting to know more about whether occupational sector affects opinion for identity or pecuniary reasons.

Do Economic Conditions Motivate Particular Attitudes About Climate Change?

The finding that environmental attitudes are affected more by macroeconomic economic outcomes than personal conditions is consistent with many other studies of incumbent and policy support in public opinion. This research has identified a tendency for citizens to form their opinions based on sociotropic economic cues or macroeconomic conditions around them such as unemployment rates, inflation, or economic growth (Kinder & Kiewiet, 1979, 1981). In contrast, individuals’ attitudes toward policies or politicians are generally less affected by pocketbook measures or personal economic circumstances such as their own employment or income status (Erikson, MacKuen, & Stimson, 2002; MacKuen, Erikson, & Stimson, 1992).

While support for incumbent politicians or policies are known to fluctuate with business cycle outcomes (Carlin & Singer, 2011; Margalit, 2013; Powell & Whitten, 1993), changes in reported beliefs about basic facts about climate warming (as opposed to, say, the relative importance of climate change compared to economic growth) pose a larger puzzle.10 Scientific consensus on the existence and risks of anthropogenic climate change has only increased over time, whereas public belief on these issues has fallen during poor economic circumstances. Durr (1993) argues that one reason for this is that opinion tends to become generally more conservative (less liberal) in economic downturns.

One explanation for this is individuals’ tendency to use motivated reasoning as a tool to lessen cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonances occur when individuals hold contradictory beliefs or preferences or need to act in a manner contrary to their existing beliefs (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Greenwald & Ronis, 1978; Kunda 1987). To deal with such cognitive conflicts, individuals may report different preferences in order to align them with a predominant bias, essentially using one set of preferences as an anchor to motivate other views or beliefs (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011; Kahneman, 1992; Kunda, 1990). People may also use these priors to discount or dismiss conflicting or threatening information (Bastardi, Uhlmann, & Ross, 2011; Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Nyhan et al., 2013). A study of climate change denial in Norway shows that this process can occur as people perceive facts about climate change as potentially threatening to their own identity-based beliefs and politics (Norgaard, 2011). Hart and Nisbet (2011) also hypothesize that a similar process occurs among conservatives in the United States, who may face cognitive conflicts between their ideological views and facts about climate change.

As individuals face greater economic insecurity or develop stronger preferences for economic growth, their perceptions of an environmental–economic trade-off should grow as they associate even greater relative costs with pro-environmental behaviors or policies. Studies of environmental policy support have shown that individuals show greater opposition to policies or ameliorative behaviors that are associated with higher costs, such as higher taxes or higher fuel prices (Brewer, 2004; Leiserowitz, 2006). Hence, when faced with periods of economic insecurity, people will rely more on economically motivated reasoning as a tool to lessen dissonance between conflicting environmental and economic preferences and will consequently change their beliefs or attitudes toward climate change.

Another potential explanation for fluctuating concern derives from theories of relative deprivation (Citrin, Green, Muste, & Wong, 1997; Crosby, 1976; Runciman, 1961). This suggests that attitudes or preferences change when individuals perceive themselves as increasingly vulnerable or deprived, relative either to their recent past or to other outgroups. This may explain the difference in findings among public opinion studies that look at aggregate wealth as opposed to fluctuations in the economy.

These findings can have important implications for how environmental policies are framed and when they are prioritized. Many have highlighted the fact that pro-climate policies, such as cap and trade, are generally estimated to reduce economic growth and employment (Boussalis & Coan, 2016; CBO, 2009; Jacques et al., 2008; Paltsev et al., 2009). Such policies would likely be met with greater public opposition during periods of high economic insecurity and face less opposition during “boom” periods.

Considering the economic cycle helps us explain the Obama administration’s decision to walk away from environmental cap and trade legislation in 2009 (and to prioritize healthcare reform) and to embrace the Clean Power plan several years later. As Figure 2 shows, cap and trade legislative action in 2009–2010 occured during the worst of the economic crisis and in the midst of the large downswing in public concern about climate change. Concern about climate change fell 10 points between 2009 and 2010 as unemployment started accelerating in 2008 to a high of 10% in 2009. Concern had been at or near an all-time high in the 2008 election, and both major party presidential candidates (Obama and McCain) indicated support for action on climate change.

Economic Conditions and Public Opinion on Climate ChangeClick to view larger

Figure 2. U.S. economic conditions, national policy proposals, and concern about climate change, 2007–2016.

C&T = cap and trade; CPP = Clean Power Plan.

(Source: Scruggs & Benegal, 2012, with updates)

In contrast, economic and opinion conditions were more favorable to the Obama administration in 2014 when it rolled out the Clean Power Plan. Despite a hostile Congress in 2014, economic conditions and public opinion about climate change had returned nearly to pre-recession levels. And the Clean Power Plan has received considerable public support (Kull, 2016; Mills, Rabe, & Borick, 2015; Rabe, Mills, & Borick, 2015).

Directions for Future Research

An overview of the literature on public attitudes toward climate change identifies macroeconomic conditions as one of several factors that correlate with aggregate public opinion trends. But fluctuations in public opinion are more significantly correlated with business cycles (even when controlling for several other identified factors such as partisanship, left-right ideology, and experiential environmental risk) than affluence (Kahn & Kotchen, 2011; Scruggs & Benegal, 2012; Shum, 2012). However, this economic explanation has received relatively little attention in the literature compared to the theories examining ideology or experiential risk. Moreover, the range of countries studied over the cycle has been limited to wealthier democracies. This means that many questions and future avenues for research remain unexplored in the literature. Future research can address these gaps in scholarship at two different levels of analysis: exploring the causal effects between economic risks and attitude change and examining the interactions between economic outcomes and other correlates of climate change belief such as partisan-ideological associations.

We highlight two plausible cognitive mechanisms that may help explain some of the ways in which short-term changes in economic risks shape environmental attitudes: relative deprivation (Citrin et al., 1997; Crosby 1976) and motivated reasoning (Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Kunda, 1990). Psychological mechanisms that explain the impact of economic risks or outcomes on behavior typically assume that concerns over short-term economic risks will typically dominate long-term economic and environmental ones, such as climate change.

Techniques such as survey experiments may be effective in identifying causal pathways in this process and understanding the importance of cognitive heuristics, aiding both scholars and policymakers in reducing the wide gap between public opinion and scientific consensus on climate change. This also opens avenues for future research on how economic conditions may affect communication strategies for environmental action and legislation. Studies on effective communication methods may consider framing actions as economically necessary and accentuate immediate benefits, such as job creation in an economic downturn or in a distressed region.

Another goal is to make comparisons of the cost of action against costs of inaction outside of conventional approaches. Most estimates of the costs of mitigation—such as the cost of a carbon tax or cap and trade plan—ignore any countervailing benefits and, via future discounting, assume that catastrophic costs and benefits 100 years from now should get fractional consideration in enacting policies today. A 3% discount rate means that a $5 investment today needs to return at least $100 a century from now (in today’s dollars) in order to be worthwhile.)

At the same time, many questions remain about the nature of the correlations between economic risk factors and aggregate public opinion about climate change and the environment. In particular, the issue of how these factors may be mediated through interactions with experiential risk or partisan-ideological associations is yet to be explored. Previous studies have shown that factors such as personal weather experiences or education levels are mediated by a person’s ideological affiliation (Egan & Mullin, 2012; Zia & Todd, 2010). Other studies on economic voting also suggest perceptions of macroeconomic outcomes may be motivated or mediated by people’s partisan bias (Lebo & Cassino, 2007). Hence the question remains as to how different ideological or partisan factors may interact with economic factors, potentially making people of a particular association more or less susceptible to cues of economic risk.

In particular, studies examining interactions between partisanship and the economy would add significant value. For example, do politicians or partisan networks place greater emphasis on economic risk factors such as job loss or creation or restrictions on economic growth during economic recessions? Or do other factors such as preferences for social policy or campaign contributions from energy sectors affect ideological or partisan stances on the environment? The existing research on the factors affecting public opinion on climate change has identified partisan-ideological associations and macroeconomic risk factors as two significant correlates of public attitudes. However, these complementary explanations have been looked at mostly in isolation, without adequate consideration of the ways in which partisan-ideological views and economic preferences may affect each other as well as overall public opinion. While many questions remain on how attitudes toward the environment are shaped, future research may be best placed to help answer these by examining the interactive relationships between these hypotheses to better understand the roles that economic risks and political elites and networks play in shaping the public view of climate change.


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(1.) Another recent review of concern studies more generally is Marquart-Pyatt (2013).

(2.) There are many studies of environmental values, opinions, beliefs, and choices at an individual level. Most are not primarily concerned with the effect of income or and are thus not explicitly considered in this article.

(3.) Inglehart’s (1995) “objective problems, subjective values” argument does highlight the role of local surroundings as a motivation for environmental concern.

(4.) A meta-analysis of studies employing perhaps the most used measure of environmental concern, the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP), finds that NEP scores are systematically higher in studies conducted on “white-collar” samples (compared with representative samples) and lower in studies with “blue-collar” samples.

(5.) It is important to understand the difference between total demand and willingness to pay. If my income is higher, I may be able to buy more bread at current prices, but that does not necessarily mean I am willing to pay more for each loaf I buy.

(6.) Multi-level estimates have 10 level-2 (national) regressors for just 28 countries. Most would look askance at the validity of cross-sectional estimates of 10 variables with so few degrees of freedom.

(7.) Several recent studies of the affluence/treadmill hypothesis do examine the impact of economic growth on concern, with both sides finding positive effects. These should not be considered good tests of the business cycle effect, however, because they consider the average growth rate over 7–10 years, not location relative to a peak (boom) or trough (bust).

(8.) These Eurobarometer studies correspond roughly with the period prior to the major downturn in the early 1980s and subsequent recovery. However, unlike for the United States, the number of surveys per country was smaller.

(9.) There is autocorrelated error in this relationship. Statistical correction (i.e., Prais-Winsten regression) suggests a less steep regression line but nonetheless a significant negative relationship between prioritization of environmental protection over economic growth and the unemployment rate.

(10.) It also raises intriguing questions about how environmental concern “ratings” might fluctuate in different economic conditions.