Climate Impacts Move Some, but Not all, Voters

February 10, 2021

Short version: Climate risks and impacts may still seem abstract to people who are not directly effected, or who do not make the connection between, say, wildfires and sea level, and climate. (Media continues to do a terrible job connecting climate disasters with human activities)
Better results come when we connect climate action with positive short term gains for average citizens, as in the Covid relief package. Linking popular Covid action with climate action increases Democratic/Progressive support without a corresponding dampening of Republicans.

Matto Mildenberger is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work focuses on the political drivers of policy inaction in the face of climate change.

Kleinman Center for Energy Policy:

And here’s the top line, here’s what we found. So the answer is yes, we see about a five or so percentage point increase in support for costly energy and climate policies after exposure to a wildfire across the entire state. And we do a lot of work in this paper to sort of make sure we’re really getting at cause and effect so that we can really say that it’s the wildfire exposure itself which is causing this increase in ballot support. But it’s really heterogeneous. Where we’re finding all of that effect being concentrated in precincts and parts of the state that are predominantly Democrat, that have an above average number of Democratic voters.

Whereas when we look at the electoral precincts in part of the state that are more Republican and tend to have more Republican voters, we see a complete flatline. No responsiveness, no shift in people’s voting or opinion preferences as a result of this experience. So what we’re actually seeing is that this direct experience is not really moving everyone towards a sort of common share purpose of addressing climate change, it’s actually polarizing the public further, and it’s making Democrats who already accept climate science and support climate policy, it’s ratcheting up their commitment to this, and making them more committed to climate policy, helping them prioritize this issue, and making them more willing to invest in costly solutions.

Whereas we’re seeing essentially a no responsiveness on the Republican side. And to go back to your first question, this is actually pretty consistent with the political story in D.C. right now, where over the last two years we’ve actually seen the prioritization of energy and climate policy ratchet up within the Democratic Party, as reflected in President Biden really being the first climate President that we’ve ever had who is trying to address this existential threat at the scale of the crisis, while we have not seen a lot of movement on the Republican side, and if anything, the polarization over the last five years within the Republican Party on this issue has only deepened.

Stone: Let me ask you a question. It’s very interesting what you bring up. I recall reading that research, and a couple of things hit me. One is that you said that the exposure to a wildfire would make someone, particularly if they were a Democrat, more likely to support policy. That was actually a very specific effect though, because I think that was, if I recall the research correctly, there was a 5% or so increase in tendencies to support that policy if you were within three miles of the fire itself.

So I’m no expert on this by any means, but almost that immediate exposure would make me think that that number would be much higher. Number two, if we’re looking at the Republicans who you say didn’t have any response, is there any insight that you can provide into how they’re connecting these severe climate impacts with what they’re seeing? Are they attributing it to something else? What’s going on there?

Mildenberger: Yeah, I think this is a really good question. So to think a little bit about how people are being exposed, yes, so we find that the strongest effect of the wildfire exposure on voting outcomes amongst Democrats is right adjacent to the wildfire itself. And then as you move away from the wildfire to sort of 25, 30 miles away, then that effect is going to decay. And then by the time you’re a certain distance away from the wildfire, then it no longer is a personal experience in quite the same way. People don’t appear to sort of view it as a personal experience if it’s happening to the other part of the state.

Now as to the question of why Republicans may be non-responsive, I think there’s actually a really important point that we don’t appreciate enough. So in order to interpret an event like a wildfire that I experience as — in order for that to drive a shift in my political behavior and my attitudes and my preferences, I have to understand my experience as climate related, right? So I need to see this wildfire and interpret this wildfire as something that has the fingerprint of climate change in it.

Now in general, the media has not done a very good job of keeping up with advances in climate attribution science. And so generally speaking, the storytelling that we have in our society around the role of climate change in sort of our day to day lives is pretty weak. That’s only really begun to change in the last year or so. But even four or five years ago, if you look at sort of the studies that have been done, extreme events, extreme weather events that climate scientists felt did have — that could have been attributed in part to climate change were not being discussed with that context in a lot of the mainstream media reporting.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that if I don’t accept that climate science, if I don’t accept that climate change is shaping our environment and the conditions in which we live, then I’m not going to interpret or make sense of an experience like a wildfire as being a climate related event, right? If I’m not even thinking about this event as climate related, if I’m just saying there’s always been wildfires, and I’m not appreciating the science which shows that the intensity and frequency of those fires are being exacerbated by climate change, well then I’m unlikely, or there’s no reason to think that I’m going to change my mind.

And this sort of creates a dynamic where we might expect that these direct experiences could ratchet up support for climate policy and clean energy policy amongst communities that already are predisposed to care about this, that already accept the science of climate change. But they’re not going to convert skeptics, or they’re not going to convert people who aren’t already potential climate supporters, just need that activation.

Let me just give one other example of this same phenomena just to make sure that we don’t see it entirely as a Democratic versus Republican story. There are many impacts of climate change, or even the impacts of wildfires that are much more indirect, right? So for instance, the electricity system in California has just been roiled by wildfire risks, and the need to do planned power safety shutoffs over the last year or two.

As you know, in 2019, the fall of 2019, there was a particular extreme example of this where PG&E in Northern California had to, over a sequence of different shutoffs, had to kill power for up to a million households just in order to sort of manage wildfire risks and ensure that electricity transmission infrastructure wasn’t sort of sparking fires in sort of high risk fire conditions. Now climate change, to the degree that climate change is exacerbating wildfire risks in the state, as climate attribution scientists addresses the case, then it’s also the case that climate change is exacerbating or intensifying the need to have more frequently these types of large-scale power safety shutoff events.

But the public is not necessarily going to understand the linkage between these two. People are not going to experience that power safety shutoff and think, well climate change is contributing in its small part to this sort of extreme crisis that I’m part of. And so we’ve done some work where we’ve surveyed people who are just inside or just outside of those outage boundaries, trying to make sense of, among people who experience these power outages across Northern California in 2019, how did their attitudes towards energy infrastructure, utility company liability, how did all of that change as a result of experiencing this crisis, right?

And we don’t find any effect on, for instance, climate concern, either on Republicans or Democrats. Because in this case, even Democrats are not understanding their experience as really sort of being a direct function of climate change. It’s too indirect. And so there was lots of media conversations and sort of advocates saying, well look, the entire state of California is in the dark partly because of climate change. Now we’ll get serious about it. But that’s not how people are understanding their lived experiences.

Stone: People aren’t making that connection.

Mildenberger: Yeah, because it’s a little indirect, right? It’s not climate change in the wildfire itself, which Democrats can make the connection to. This is sort of a second order, a more indirect pathway. And so as climate change intensifies, we know that its effects are not just going to be felt in these sort of one-off crises events, we’re going to have all sorts of cascading, intermingled, complex follow-on repercussions, and it’s not entirely clear that people are making or going to be able to make that connection in a sufficiently clear way, that it’s really going to drive changes in our political discourse.

And that type of standards investment justice approach I think has an enormous amount of political benefits. And to go back to the very first question that we were talking about early in our conversation, we’ve actually been empirically finding that integrating these benefits, integrating, for instance, climate change into a COVID recovery package, or integrating minimum wage policy into a climate package, right? These have increasing returns. These are making everyone happier.

It is increasing the pie in terms of political coalition support. And even when, for instance, there isn’t strong Republican support for some of these energy and climate related issues, it rarely reduces Republican support, right? So if we look at, for instance, all sorts of different clean energy standards, or clean energy investments, sometimes they bring some Republicans along, often the political benefits of including them come from substantially increasing Democratic support for the policy, including amongst historically underrepresented communities, and fence land communities who are sort of suffering many of the worst injustices surrounding our energy system.

But it’s not antagonizing Republicans, right? So we include climate policy in the COVID recovery bill. It makes the COVID recovery bill a lot more popular with Democrats, and it makes it just as popular with Republicans. So we have this real opportunity through sort of this integration to build our political coalition rather than polarizing it further. And I really do think that in looking at the priorities of the Biden administration, the priorities that Majority Leader Schumer has articulated in his sort of strong commitment to ensuring that this policymaking window involves acting on climate and energy in the next several months, I think this is a political win-win.

Where the climate can win, we can see sort of real investments in decarbonization and transforming our energy infrastructure, while protecting people’s health, protecting people’s livelihoods and quality of life. There’s a real opportunity here to sell them on the benefits of action, sell them on the benefits of a clean energy system, the jobs that are going to exist, the improved quality of life, the correction of historic injustices and who is being exposed to pollution. Like, sell them on all of this, not on the fear of a future risk that is unlikely to shift their perceptions and attitudes in the empirical evidence that we’ve examined really carefully to date.

3 Responses to “Climate Impacts Move Some, but Not all, Voters”

  1. doldrom Says:

    Unfortunately, many are portraying the blackouts due to fire risk along transmission lines as proof that renewable energy is unreliable.

    Attribution is very difficult for people to grasp because it is all about statistical probability. Most people cannot deal with numbers or even probability, they’re looking for straightforward cause/effect hammer and nails. Even in completely unrelated things like driving/flying, hiking along a ravine or jumping from stepping stone to wet stepping stone with a heavy back pack, people just cannot relate to risk expressed in terms of numbers and probabilities: They worry more about comet impacts than impacts to their skull upon stumbling. Even in the IT domain, people have trouble responding appropriately to unlikely high risk events and highly likely low risk ones.

    Climate change itself is up against human psychology: people react to immediate concerns, and have a hard time responding to slow inexorable trends with only probability linking these to small differences in current normal high amplitude variation.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      If by “human psychology” you mean some variation on “human nature” I can’t agree, or we’d all feel the same way, and none of us would be responding rationally to the billions of pages of accurate information available. This same excuse has been used thousands of times, inexplicably, by the only side that accepts any part of reality on climate science. But why is that side so eager to relieve the people who have caused the crisis and prevented the solutions of responsibility for it?

      We haven’t responded adequately in the US because the people causing the catastrophe have spent tens of billions of dollars deceiving the public and buying the government. People overwhelmingly want more action to avoid catastrophe; their wishes have been denied by oligarchic control of decisions.

      Obviously the oligarchy is insane; whether it’s an individual or collective illness, taking actions over decades that are virtually guaranteed to destroy civilization and most life on Earth, against determined resistance and overwhelming evidence, means no other conclusion is possible. That’s not human nature; it’s a specific condition caused by specific events afflicting a specific group and with known symptoms. Human nature has no cure; emotional illnesses do. We should implement them.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    “we see about a five or so percentage point increase in support for costly energy and climate policies”

    The only costly energy policies are trying to continue as we are, even with the other right wing of the oligarchic duopoly in charge. Replacing fossil fuels with clean safe renewable energy, revolutionizing chemical industrial agriculture into small-scale low-meat perennials-based organic permaculture, transforming industry with ecological principles… are investments that will pay off many times and more equitably distribute resources than we do now.

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