This shift in opinion is related primarily to the public's concern that action to alleviate climate change could further hamper economic recovery, Lyle Scruggs of the University of Connecticut says.
"Many people believe that part of the solution to climate change is suppression of economic activity," an unpopular viewpoint when the economy is bad, Scruggs says. "So it's easier for people to disbelieve in climate change than to accept that it is real but that little should be done about it right now."
A 2008 Gallup poll reported between 60 percent and 65 percent of people agreed with statements of opinion that global warming is imminent, is not exaggerated, and is agreed upon by scientists, Scruggs found, but by 2010 those numbers had dropped to about 50 percent.
The researchers found a strong relationship between jobs and people's prioritization of climate change: when the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, an average 60 percent of people surveyed said that climate change had already begun happening, but when the jobless rate reached 10 percent that number dropped to about 50 percent.
"That the economy impacts the way people prioritize the problem of climate change is uncontroversial," Scruggs said in a university release Tuesday. "What is more puzzling is why support for basic climate science has declined dramatically during this period."
However, with the economy beginning to bounce back and the unemployment rate shrinking, Scruggs said, belief in global warming has begun to rebound.
"We would expect such a rebound to continue as the economy improves," he said.