Using a broader range of evidence from both the United States and Europe, two political scientists at the University of Connecticut, Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal, found that a decline in climate concern in that period was driven significantly by worse economic conditions, which increased worry about more immediate issues. In times of scarcity, people tend to think less of policies with long-term payoffs.
“The state of the economy affects people’s sensitivity to the future versus the present,” Professor Scruggs said. “Historically climate change has fallen into the same camp as a lot of other environmental issues, where people’s answers tend to wax and wane with the economy.”
If a central bank can achieve consistent prosperity, this research suggests, it may change some political dynamics on aggressive climate action. Prosperity could support branches of government that have more explicit responsibility for curtailing greenhouse gases, building out clean energy capacity, or helping communities adapt to more extreme weather.
Not everyone who studies public opinion on climate agrees.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, attributes the decline in concern about climate change in the early 2010s not to the weak economy, but to widening political polarization and a pivot of conservative media toward climate change denialism.
“What we saw was a symbiotic relationship between conservative media, conservative elected officials and the conservative public,” he said. “That drove the shift. It wasn’t the economy.”
A paper published this summer by Michael T. Kiley, a Fed staff member, analyzed how temperature variations affect economic performance. It concluded that climate change may not change the typical rate of growth in the economy over time, but could make severe recessions more common. A major crop failure, for example, would lower G.D.P. directly and could simultaneously create economic ripple effects such as bank failures.
And Lael Brainard, a Fed governor and potential Biden appointee to become the next chair, has emphasized that the unpredictable nature of climate change could make obsolete the historical models on which economic policy is based.