According to Maslow, until those basic needs are satisfied, an individual will focus on eliminating those deficiencies. Once those needs have been met, people have the opportunity to pursue psychic contentment in the form of friendships, intimate relations with others, and feelings of self-esteem and worthwhile accomplishment.
Only after the four lower tiers of needs have been met does an individual enjoy the luxury of worrying about the greater good of societies, says Maslow. And perhaps concern over the environmental health of the planet, in the present and in the future, is a possible subject of a person’s attention only if all deficiency needs have first been satisfied.
The novel coronavirus pandemic and the economic crash in the United States in 2020 offer an opportunity to explore the impact of economic change on opinions about global warming. Does a sudden decline in the satisfaction of deficiency needs—loss of a job, diminished feelings of safety, reduced economic security—affect American concerns about the natural environment, public support for efforts to protect the environment, and even public belief in the existence of climate change?
In 2018, we collaborated with researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) and ABC News to conduct a national survey, asking a wide array of questions on the topic of climate change, including questions about its existence, causes, and impacts; who should take action to address it; and more. Some of these same questions were posed again in a new survey we conducted with researchers at RFF and ReconMR, with 999 American adults who were interviewed between May 28, 2020, and August 16, 2020—in the midst of this year’s global pandemic. In May 2020, when the survey went into the field, the national unemployment rate was 13 percent—a level not seen since the Great Depression. During the period the survey was conducted, 19 million Americans filed new claims for unemployment benefits.
Comparing the 2018 and 2020 surveys allows us to assess whether the intervening public health crisis and economic upheaval
- have reduced the number of people who believe in the existence of global warming or the certainty with which people hold those beliefs, perhaps to rationalize reduced support for government action on the issue; and
- have reduced support for government efforts and policies intended to mitigate global warming, in favor of redirecting efforts to focus on the American economy and COVID-19.
This survey provides a glimpse into the collective American psyche during a unique time in the nation’s history. The data from this survey show that, in spite of the array of social, economic, and public health issues affecting the United States today, considerable and sometimes huge majorities of Americans believe that global warming has been happening, will continue in the future, and requires ameliorative action.
Note: When this research program began in 1997, “global warming” was the term in common parlance. That term was used throughout the surveys over the decades and was always defined for respondents, so it was properly understood. In recent years, the term “climate change” has risen in popularity, so both terms are used in this report interchangeably. Empirical studies, such as by Villar and Krosnick (2011), have shown that survey respondents interpret the terms “global warming” and “climate change” to have equivalent meanings.