Gallup has asked Americans how much they "personally worry about global warming" nearly every year since 1989. In 2000, a high of 72 percent told Gallup they "personally worry about global warming." The figure stood at 66 percent by 2008 -- and then quickly plummeted again to 51 percent in 2011, before rising slightly to 55 percent this year. The figures parallel, with a slight lag, what U.S. GDP has done -- slumping around the 2001 dot-com bust, recovering, and then falling again after the 2008 financial crash.
It's not that people no longer think the climate is changing. It's that they just don't have the capacity to worry about it all that much. The percentage of Americans who acknowledge humans' impact on the climate has actually held pretty steady in the 50s over the same period.
In a paper published in May in the journal Global Environmental Change, University of Connecticut political scientist Lyle Scruggs laid out the case that the economy -- not Climategate, not Fox News -- explains the decline in concern over the issue. More than 30 years of survey data show that people's fears about the environment track more closely with the ups and downs of the economy than with any other trend.
Other countries have also cooled to warming as a top policy concern. Japan, Canada, and Russia have declined to extend the Kyoto Protocol. The eurocrisis has even pushed the issue to the back burner of the European Union, long the most dedicated champion of significant climate action. Scruggs found a similar decline in Europeans' concern about climate amid economic hardship. Meanwhile, Australia, which approved a carbon tax in 2011, abandoned a price floor for carbon in August amid concerns it would put the country at a competitive disadvantage with Europe.
That hasn't stopped deniers from dancing in the end zone. In May, the energy industry-funded Heartland Institute unveiled a billboard in Chicago featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the tag line, "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?" The group promised more billboards featuring Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden, and Charles Manson, but ended up pulling the Unabomber sign mere hours after it went up. Then, the website Climate Depot -- an all-purpose clearinghouse for denialists -- blasted a headline declaring that Gore's absence from this year's Democratic National Convention lineup "matches what has happened to issue of climate change itself." (Unfortunately, the short shrift climate change received at the convention did little to disprove the notion.)
So the deniers have benefited, if inadvertently, from the recession. They can stop fretting, for now, that the United States or other major governments might enact wide-ranging emissions caps. But ironically, the dismal economy, coupled with low natural gas prices, is also responsible for bringing U.S. carbon emissions down to a 20-year low this year, without any concerted policy effort to cut them. Scruggs predicts that Americans' concern for the environment "will likely rebound after labor market conditions improve, but not until then." Unfortunately, that should be right around the time emissions pick up again.