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Politics and International RelationsPart of Economic, Social and Political Science

The relationship between support for environmental prioritisation and economic conditions – a blog post by Dr John Kenny

Published: 11 November 2020

The relationship between support for environmental prioritisation and economic conditions: what lessons can we learn from the 2008 Recession and how might these inform us in light of the Covid-19 fuelled economic downturn.

Dr John Kenny, Research Fellow. Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton

One of the many consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic has been its negative economic impact with several sectors of national and global economies being closed or severely disrupted following the implementation of lockdowns and other restrictions. The resulting economic uncertainty has been particularly stark. Though different in many respects, it has been just over a decade since the last major global economic contraction – the Great Recession of 2008. In this post and in the context of our current economic difficulties, I look back at what we learned from this previous crisis on the effects of economic crises on public attitudes towards an issue of global importance: environmental protection.

Individuals have a limited pool of concern that they need to divide amongst a range of competing issues. Given that environmental deterioration often occurs too slowly for individuals to notice change and that the worst effects may not occur in the short-term, people may perceive the environment to be less urgent during recessions as both their own economic needs and those of the wider society come to dominate. With it being well-established that governments are more likely to implement policies that are favoured by voters, as economic concerns are given precedence policymakers may decide to follow a ‘grow now, clean up later approach’ where environmentally-friendly policies fall down the agenda.

In a paper published in the journal Environmental Politics, I examined how changing economic conditions resulting from the 2008 crisis may have affected environmental attitudes. For the analyses, I used data from the World Values Survey, a non-commercial research programme that fields international surveys focusing on human beliefs and values approximately every 5 years. I examined 21 countries which had data collected prior to the onset of the recession (2004-2007) and again in its aftermath (2010-2014) in the regions of Europe, North and South America and Australasia, as well as Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea


Respondents were asked to choose between prioritising the environment even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs or prioritising economic growth and job creation even if the environment suffers to some extent. While both a healthy environment and a prosperous economy are goals that are widely seen as desirable – with the European Unionthe UK and New Zealand all aiming to achieve carbon-neutral economies by 2050 in an attempt to fulfil both of these societal needs – this question captures a strong commitment to environmental protection as it forces respondents to choose between one or the other in a hypothetical scenario in which both are not possible.

The graphic below summarises the changes within-countries in the expressed willingness to prioritise the environment over the economy from the period before to the period after the onset of the crisis once those who provided a ‘don’t know’ or ‘other’ answer have been excluded. The deepest blue indicates the country that experienced the greatest increase, while the palest white indicates the country that experienced the greatest decrease. In total, 7 of the countries recorded an increase and 14 a decrease. The largest increases were in Hong Kong (+21%), Uruguay (+20%), South Korea (+16%) and Germany (+13%), while the largest decreases were in Spain (-28%), Japan (-18%), the United States (-16%) and Cyprus (-16%).

World map

Were these changes in environmental preferences related to changing economic conditions? To examine this, I compared the changes with changes in countries’ unemployment rates, growth rates and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. Of these three, unemployment was the only one to have a significant association in statistical analyses. As can be seen in the graph below, in every country in the sample where the unemployment rate increased there was a corresponding decrease in the number of individuals that would be willing to prioritise the environment, whereas there were no countries where the unemployment rate increased and people were more likely to prioritise the environment. And in the four countries that saw the greatest increase in the percentage giving the pro-environmental response, the unemployment rate either decreased or did not change.

Cross graph

Why might unemployment be so important? For one, unemployment has been argued to ‘provide a widely publicized and easily understood measure of how hard times are’. Moreover, employment plays a vital role in the wellbeing of households. As GDP focuses solely on the means of production and its benefits may be unevenly distributed, higher unemployment rates may be perceived as having a more tangible impact on people’s lives than lower economic growth.

It is too early yet to say what direction environmental attitudes will take following the Covid-19 epidemic and whether – in light of the higher-salience of the environment in recent years – environmental attitudes may be more robust to changes in economic conditions than they were a decade ago. There are some initial indications of a challenging path ahead from an IPSOS Global Trends report based on survey data collected across 14 countries in April. On the one hand, 71% agree that climate change – one of the most pressing environmental issues – is just as serious an issue as Covid-19 in the long-term. But people are not presently focusing on the long-term. Environmental issues do not feature in the top five issues that individuals find to be the most worrying, namely Covid-19 (61%), unemployment (35%), healthcare (28%), poverty and social inequality (27%) and financial/political corruption (22%). And while there are clear majorities in each country who agree that climate change should be prioritised by governments in recovery plans, we see a more mixed story when individuals are explicitly asked whether economic recovery should be prioritised even if it means taking some actions that are bad for the environment. In Australia, Britain, India the US and Russia, more people would accept that economic recovery should be prioritised first and foremost even with environmentally-damaging actions, though in other countries – such as Brazil, China, France, Germany and Mexico – majorities disagree with this.

Knowing that individuals’ willingness to prioritise the environment can rise or fall within a relatively short period in tandem with changing economic conditions, these figures suggest little room for complacency. While the Covid-19 crisis presents the opportunity to build back better, the current economic difficulties that countries are facing – which may deepen in the coming months, especially once government-sponsored furlough schemes end – may present a challenge to maintaining public backing for ambitious environmental policies if such policies would slow down economic recovery.

This post has been written as part of the University of Southampton’s Human Worlds Festival in collaboration with the university’s Nature and Biodiversity Hub.

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