What if We All Ate a Bit Less Meat?

What does this have to do with climate change? As it happens, quite a bit. Economic slowdowns bring with them reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. In a world that seems to be speeding toward catastrophe, recessions act as a speed bump.

When an economy is expanding, “the demand for energy for private industry and for commercial activity increases,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Trucks and airplanes move more goods around the country, and there’s more vacationing and leisure travel. These activities produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, but they “obviously work in the opposite direction when there’s a recession,” he said.

The connection between economic blahs and lower emissions was shown in a 2015 paper in the journal Nature, which found that the nearly 10 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in the United States between 2007 and 2009 “was primarily the result of the economic recession, evidenced by large decreases in household consumption, energy-intensive capital expenditures and export.”

That’s not the whole story, though. Professor Stavins said that if a recession was prolonged, there would also be a “reduction in investment activity,” including precisely the kind of investment in renewable energy that helps the world transition away from burning fossil fuels.

What’s more, some experts suggest that public concern about climate change tends to wane during recessions. “The relationship is very clear — economic recessions are associated with declines in concern about climate change,” said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University. “The underlying idea is that there is a ‘finite pool of concern,’” meaning only so many issues can be a high priority, and when the economy sours it can have “large immediate impacts on individual well being.”

However, analysis from scholars at Yale and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggest that political discussion, and not economic conditions themselves, have the greatest effect on attitudes toward climate change. Which probably means that, if a recession does come, keeping climate change a prominent part of the American consciousness will come down to keeping it in the national conversation. With an election coming next year, that seems highly likely.