By: Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 03/15/2012 03:39 PM EDT on LiveScience
In recent years, people seem to care less and less about climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, with surveys showing declines among those who see it as a real problem and worry about the effects.
A recent analysis of public opinion data in the United States and Europe offers an explanation: tough economic times associated with the Great Recession.
Using survey data going back to the late 1990s, researchers looked at other alternative explanations — media coverage that includes skeptical views on climate change and short-term fluctuations in weather — could not fully explain the dramatic decline since 2008, when the recession began, according to two researchers.
About two decades of Gallup survey data show a strong correlation between unemployment rates and the perception that the media "exaggerate the seriousness of global warming," they found. Even in Europe, where concern and acceptance of climate change science is higher than in the United States, concern declined after the recession hit, according to them.
This environment versus prosperity paradigm isn't new.
"The pattern is consistent with more than 40 years of public opinion about environmental policy," write Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal of the University of Connecticut in an article published online recently in the journal Global Environmental Change.
People believe addressing climate change will stifle economic growth, and when faced with tough economic times, people want growth. They respond to the conflicting needs by shifting their beliefs about climate change, according to Scruggs and Benegal.
"Given what we know about recent and historic patterns, it seems probable that climate change opinion will rebound as the economy, and more specifically the job situation, improves," they write. "Both would obviously improve more quickly if planetary stewardship can become a catalyst for economic recovery and transformation, and not instinctively seen as a barrier to that goal."