The climate vote

At times, climate policies are divisive and polarizing, others they do not even reach party platforms. At first glance, climate policies should carry significant weight in voters' decisions, but the situation is much more complex. To better understand it, we reckon with political short-term goals, the parties’ ability to engage citizens in decision-making, and even the role of misinformation. A review of how climate change and electoral consensus are interlinked.

Money, jobs, income, and welfare are just some of the issues that affect how people vote and, thus, influence climate change’s role in the electoral race. Indeed, whether we talk about adaptation or mitigation, limiting the negative impacts of extreme events or halting temperature rise by abating greenhouse gas emissions, addressing climate change means touching deeply on relevant economic and financial issues. From taxes, incentives, economic costs of mobility (such as fuels or cars, for example), costs or benefits for companies and the public sector in specific areas, including energy, infrastructure, jobs to be reconverted, food production and many other issues.

Scientists, economists, climatologists, and anyone familiar with climate transition know it can benefit all these issues. At least, this is what emerges from analyses of the available scientific knowledge and scientific research that focuses on how this knowledge translates into the relationship between voters and political decisions.

“In many contexts, the most influential issues of voters’ choices are economics and social topics such as migration,” explains CMCC researcher Silvia Pianta, who at the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment is deputy coordinator of the Capable project, a research initiative dedicated to analyzing climate policy and its social and economic impact. From the scientific literature, Pianta says, we can infer that, concerning the relationship between climate change and elections, “while there is some evidence of small and localized backlash, there is no methodologically robust evidence of governments being significantly punished by voters for implementing powerful climate policies”.

In other words, as far as we know, working on climate transition solutions does not equate to losing votes and, for those in government, does not represent an electoral risk. At the same time, however, when we get into the thick of election campaigns, we see very different situations. In some cases, we witness sharply contrasting positions between those in favour and those against the usefulness of climate policy; in other cases, however, the issue of climate change remains entirely outside electoral competition.


The missing topic

2024 will be a significant election year in more than 40 countries. The elected leaders and parliaments will be the ones who will have to address crucial future climate policy issues such as deforestation, the future of coal and oil, and the rise of renewable energy, as the New York Times points out.

A handful of these countries account for a substantial portion of the global electorate and emissions, to be more precise: “one-third of the world’s population and about the same proportion of human-made carbon emissions,” points out an analysis in Nature.

Facing these significant electoral seasons, how relevant are climate policy and action in different contexts? There is no single answer to this question. While playing a considerable role in the international debate on decarbonisation, some countries are experiencing – or have already experienced – election campaigns in which climate change has not at all influenced voter choices. Or at least they did not enter decisively into the electoral campaign. This is the case of Russia, for example, where the issue of war was a priority, and Vladimir Putin won by a large margin. Or Indonesia, where coal and nickel are still central to the country’s economic development path.

In India, the April 2024 elections affect almost a billion people, and although around 80% of the population lives in areas at high climate risk, the issue does not seem to be a factor in the campaign. This is in line with the domestic political debate. In fact, in the ‘Largest Democracy in the world’, climate change is a great absentee from the parliamentary halls as Indian MPs, even those from the regions most at risk from climate change, rarely raise the issue and question government representatives on the state of art and possible solutions for the future.


US, the polarized campaign

The case in the USA is very different, where the climate issue is part of the polarization that characterizes the election campaign. On the one hand, Joe Biden, the incumbent president, whose Democratic administration has prompted significant momentum in climate policies, the peak of which is probably the Inflation Reduction Act that, without mentioning the word “climate” in its name, would commit up to one trillion dollars of investment between now and 2032 to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Voted in August 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act is, to date, the most significant investment in clean energy and climate action in US history.

On the other side of the ballot, Donald Trump could jeopardize any policy to decarbonise the American economy, even abandoning all multilateral agreements, taking up the line that characterized his previous term in the White House, which ended four years ago. The Republican candidate’s positions on climate issues are likely part of an ideological construction that sets the current campaign, as well as that in 2016, on clear opposition principles to the norms defining global climate governance and invoking the principles of international cooperation and common but differentiated responsibilities.

It is unclear whether, in the event of a Republican victory in November, the Inflation Reduction Act will be revoked entirely, as Donald Trump is announcing on the campaign trail. This process cannot be enacted simply with a republican President in the White House, but it will probably also need a large majority in Congress. However, if elected president, Trump could have many tools to slow down the investments envisaged by climate law, which would have repercussions on the global trend of greenhouse gas emissions.

In turn, the European Union is experiencing a different situation, where the pre-election conditions are focused on political forces that are traditionally distant from supporting climate action policies.


The consensus for climate policies

Climate policies are attacked, primarily by denialist positions, often through disinformation techniques and narratives that portray them as extremely costly choices for voters and with no return for community well-being. 

It is a trend that crosses much of Europe, as Politico reports in a survey of political forces, the ways in which climate transition is being attacked and by whom in different European political contexts, where some parties “are jostling to be [the] official standard-bearers” of hostile positions.

Electoral results depend on many factors. They are the outcome of a complexity that deals with many variables, including (to name just a few) the voters’ perception of problems and their solutions, the local/national context, the ideological framework and the sense of belonging to a party’s vision or culture.     

At the same time, the benefits of climate policies, especially when we talk about abating greenhouse gas emissions, may take years to be appreciated, while the costs are immediate.

Therefore, the open question for politics is how best to describe a decarbonisation policy in an election-winning way.

An example comes from Spain, where the incumbent government increased its votes precisely in municipalities that had been the target of a local policy to phase out coal mining.     

To facilitate the transition, incentives were proposed for the affected workers and investments for the communities that saw their former coal mining-centered economy transformed into a sustainable, low-carbon one. An analysis of the Spanish case is well described in a study from which it emerges that “it is not only the content of redistributive policy packages that matters electorally, but also the processes by which they are designed and advocated”, such as campaigns to share strategy and decisions with the affected citizens. This process generated appreciation for the initiative and led people to be close to the need for change and to play an active role.


Compensation and distribution

 “These are the two aspects that, above all, seem to be most relevant for climate transition policies to have a positive effect on political consensus,” Silvia Pianta further explains, echoing the results of a discussion among experts held at Bocconi University as part of the Capable project entitled Political dynamics and consequences of climate policy.     

Since the costs of the transition can disproportionately affect some groups, like low-income families and workers in carbon-intensive sectors, Pianta continues, “it is important to be convincing in explaining that compensation will be put in place” to ensure that the transition to a carbon-neutral society does not burden the incomes of some groups.

If the transition to a net zero-carbon economy directly affects household pockets, the backlash may occur not only in electoral terms but also against policies designed to provide a concrete improvement to the entire community. In this case, a helpful example comes from analyzing the case of the city of Milan and its vehicle traffic limitations: where solutions were adopted to compensate for costs (in this case, restrictions on the free movement of cars in a large area of the city), people showed no interest in shifting their vote towards opposition parties that, once in government, would act against the very principle of climate transition and would remove the policies implemented by their predecessors.

To be accepted and re-confirmed in the voting booth, climate policies must be shaped and implemented to show voters that they do not just involve costs for some citizens but also benefits and compensations.

In this direction, political discourse and actions truly matter. The ability to design climate policies in a shared and participatory manner matters. The capacity to create economic incentives for change and avoid imbalances for those asked to burden higher costs matters. How the change is narrated as the path towards a shared development matters.



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