Unemployment Vs. Global Warming

Is “thinking green” an economic luxury? Intuition implies that it may be, but so far there’s been little empirical evidence on the subject. Two economists recently changed that: using data from Google keyword searches between 2004 and 2010,?Matthew E. Kahn and Matthew J. Kotchen found that “higher unemployment rates within a state decrease internet search activity for global warming, but increase search activity for unemployment. Based on this revealed preference for interest in global warming, therefore, it appears that recessions crowd out concern for the environment…” The authors also used recent survey data to analyze the link between unemployment and climate-change denial, concluding that “an increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in the probability that residents think global warming is happening, and with a reduction in the certainty of those who think it is. Higher unemployment rates are also associated with views that we should do less with respect to policies designed to reduce global warming.” [%comments]

Sebastian Good

This is hardly surprising given the strident and explicit connection the media makes between global warming and economic harm. I'm not sure this indicates independent thinking so much as the fact that the unemployed may simply have more time to bask in the ignorance peddled 24/7 on radio and TV.


Is correlation vs causality not discussed with these people? Or do they just realize that claims like this will get their work posted on the Freakonomics blog?

Just because unemployment has gone up and global warming concerns have gone down doesn't mean that one caused the other. It's more likely, in my opinion, that the spike seen in 2007 was the great interest people had in the subject, causing them to learn more about the subject, and realize the truth that man-made global warming is bunk.

I know that of all of my friends/family, it's been education regarding global warming that was increasing skepticism well before unemployment and recession were hot topics.

Ian Kemmish

It should be no great surprise that contemplating a major lifestyle change is something you defer when you're worried about your job.

But I've been living frugally all my life and using CFLs for more than fifteen years, yet I've never typed "global warming" into a search engine, so one needs to be clear what, precisely, is being measured. People who are already "thinking green" won't be showing up in a survey of search terms, only people who are thinking about _going_ green.

Eric M. Jones

"higher unemployment rates within a state decrease internet search activity for global warming, but increase search activity for unemployment. Based on this revealed preference for interest in global warming, therefore, it appears that recessions crowd out concern for the environment..."

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: also known as false cause, coincidental correlation or correlation not causation. (Wiki)

I don't doubt that using search terms is a new way to get information, but one must be cautious:

"higher unemployment rates within a state decrease internet search activity for global warming,..." ----Many who search for GW info are school kids writing reports. But even so, since GW interest maybe on the downswing, but interest in the economy is; how does this make sense?

"but increase search activity for unemployment."---"Unemployment"? Who searches Google for "unemployment"?

"Based on this revealed preference for interest in global warming, therefore, it appears that recessions crowd out concern for the environment..."---Or maybe this is just a meaningless pairing. I'll bet the glaciers receding correlate nicely with the declining Google interest in Britney Spears.



well i guesse you can,t blame them for there concern about personal survival over whats good for the environment
when it really comes down though if things there predicting come true and they already are masses of us will be dead and still not care about the environment

Geoff from Ohio

Haven't you heard? Correlation in no way proves causation.


There's little empirical evidence? Jack Hollander pointed this out in his 2003 book "The Real Environmental Crisis".


Leaving aside correlation versus causation, as pointed out by other commentors, I suppose it would have to depend on how you define "economic luxury". The unstated assumption in this post is that being green hurts the economy. The reality is that being green exchanges a a small short-term cost for a large long-term cost. People choose to avoid the small short-term cost because the large long-term cost is being imposed on somebody else in the future.

Put more simply, if you're in your 60s and unemployed now, there's not a lot of incentive for you to care if Shanghai is underwater by the time people my age hit retirement.


who cares? One way to combat global warming is to decrease consumption.

One way to decrease consumption: takeaway everyone's money!


And your point is what? The same search corollary can be said about internet shopping for new shoes and expensive handbags in states with high unemployment. The only thing that the "research" tacitly shows is that individuals, under economic duress, satisfy what they perceive as basic and necessary necessities. Food, housing, health, education, security, the environment.

But to define "thinking green" as a economic luxury only feeds into the perception that it is a luxury. It isn't. For many of us it is an economic necessity to stretch our dollars as far as we can by reducing, reusing and recycling what we need and not buying what we don't. Thinking globally is a part of that thinking process.

People spend more time "feeling" what is right instead of "thinking" what is right.


i'm not surprised.. anyone can doubt correlations made using data mining, but they can be surprisingly accurate. For others posting on this blog: why is this such a difficult thing to reason? It's a classic case of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Who cares about the environment when there may not be food on the table tomorrow...


The problem here is that pundtis are used to framing the discussions around the 'environment' vs 'business' tradeoff. This is entirely the wrong way to think about Climate Change. That is an epochal trend that will affect Everyone. In any epochal change, there will be winners and losers, hence great opportunities. The questions is, can be think about it in a way to stimulate our Creativity to take advantages of opportunies and help ameliorate the impacts on losers who will be most affected by it.


Does no one in the media simply know psychology? Politicians do!

Just learn Maslow's Hierarchy.

When a person is stuck at safety needs, they cannot rise to social needs. In the world today, money is safety/survival need. Add to this Republican's using fear to motivate their base, and add to th base. We see masses of people pushed into fear/survival level. At that level, anything beyond personal selfish survival is disregarded, or seen as hurting survival. Thus we see the unemployed thinking mostly about themselves. And conservatives arguing for protection of self, non-sharing, which resonates at the low levels. The environment is a level of care larger than social. There IS a correlation and causation.

We saw this too with slavery. Taking away slaves meant taking away money. The South was willing to kill their neighbors & brothers rather than lose what the considered survival. Survival brings out animal attitudes of non-sharing.

It is a psychological issue conservative politicians and media are well aware of and use pointedly. Drive people down the hierarchy, they will become selfish, and then can be used to further selfish corporate economic agenda. America consistently held on to destruction as a means of personal profit, whether buffalo, fishing, slavery, oil, Muslims (oil). Until folks are brought out of fear, level 1, they will predictably not be to consider love of society or planet.


We are in a dangerous and divisive time because the only group that understands this psychology of survival is using it to manipulate people for their own agenda. You can't talk about high ideals of loving your neighbor to a person stuck in survival or fear.


Joe Young

This falls under the "And?..." category. Yes, searches related to employment go up and focus on less immediately tangible issues go down. Wow. Some article.


When every "green" product or service costs anywhere from 20 to 50% more than a comparable non-green (ungreen?) product or service and when every large scale green project (windmills farms, etc.) require large subsidies to exist, they can only be described as indulgences or luxuries.

The whole green movement serves to enable some people to feel morally superior to the rabble.

Joshua Northey

I am all for getting a better handle on what we are doing to the environment, and managing our impacts in a more intelligent and considered way.

But there is a infinitesimal chance that Shanghai will be underwater anytime soon. It simply is not likely under any plausible assumptions. Moreover the problem i really rather cheap and easy to solve even if it did occur (most likely several hundred years from now due to thermal expansion of the ocean, not melting).

It is exactly this kind of scare mongering that allows the opponents of climate change to gain traction.

Why not stick to the rather powerful and specific facts instead of dreaming up disaster movie scenarios?

(as an aside)
In the long run (next few centuries) we are going to decide to warm he planet anyway to better terraform it and make use of all the ice locked land. A warmer wetter earth is an earth with a higher carrying capacity, and teraforming other terrestrial bodies will be heinously expensive. But you cannot expect people to make decisions based on whats good for civilization long term when they cannot even make decisions based on whats good for 10 years from now. I don't think Washington has made a decision with more than a 6 month payoff horizon in two decades, maybe more.



In the UK the building of a new renewable power infrastrucure is certainly resulting in new factories and new contracts in manufacturing and construction.

This is driven by fixed returns set from delivering renewable power, set for solar, wind, etc and obligations on power companies to produce certain amounts of power renewably. The cost is being paid by the consumer.

Overall the need to switch to renewables is driven by government/EU requirements to reduce fossil fuel use to reduce CO2.

That's massively different from anything in the US...

Whether extra cost is justified if it provides money to build a new infrastructure and whether the jobs created are additional or instead of other employment, I leave you to decide.

Its certainly necessary if you believe in climate change and/or 'peak oil' costs.

chris brown

The results of climate catastophies are catastrophic. They cost not only lives but cause innundations and floods that cost huge sums of money. Economic melt down and climate collapse may not be in a direct causal relationship but indirectly human activity can cause havock to an economic system. This happened during the thirties when the dust bowl to say tthe least made the depression very much worst. Lest some one start mumbling about sunspots in the 30s they can be sure that overintensive land use was the prime cause of the loss of topsoil.

For all those who wish to hide their heads in the sand and claim there is no connection between human settlement patterns and climate, I suggest that they take a trip to Glacier National Park or Glacier Bay Alaska. Both are in retreat and have been since explorers first named them. The wall of ice that was the glacier on the coast of Alaska has retreated enough for it to be called Glacier Bay.

Where does this leave the debate about CO2 and methane? Both these gases are increasing and even in miniscule amounts (parts per million) seem to have profound effects on the warming trends. But science doesn't matter to some people as they think that all that matters is their own beliefs or superstitions.




I think that underemployment is intimately linked to the environment so it is unfortunate that the voice of the unemployed can't rise to this. One of the main reasons for underemployment seems to be distorted economies of scale and suboptimal resource allocation due to fossil fuels being sold at subsidized prices that don't reflect their true cost current cost (inlcuding environmental). Humans as a cost factor in production are penalized because resource allocation decision-making is based on short term cost considerations that don't include the long term cost of fossil fuel pollution, thereby creating irrational economies of scale. Big companies like this because they depend on transport and subsidied fuel. When oil went up to $150/barrel it stimulated local production factors. So it would seem that now is the time to tax oil, stimulate localized production and use the tax resources for lowering the debt.



In a severe recession people are more depressed. It is well known that depression is highly and positivily correlated with rational thinking.