The following is a guest post from University of Michigan-Dearborn political scientist Salomon Orellana.


Concern over climate change continues to grow among climate scientists and across the political spectrum. But climate change is a difficult problem to address in large part because its consequences are not immediately apparent, and thus it can be difficult to convince the public to accept the material sacrifices required. In democracies, this task can be made more difficult by the incentives parties and politicians face to pander; that is, to pursue votes by appealing to voters’ short-term interests. In the case of global warming, this would be by appealing to voters’ preferences for material comfort in the present at the expense of a future stable climate.

In my recent book, I make the case that democracies with fewer parties in the legislature struggle more with pandering than democracies with more parties. As I discussed in an earlier post at The Monkey Cage, this dynamic is consequential to important social problems such as crime and incarceration, but it is also quite relevant to how societies respond to other complex and critical problems such as global climate change. In two-party systems, when one party panders on material comfort (e.g., “gasoline prices have risen under the current government”) or even survival (e.g., “carbon taxes will cost jobs”) versus doing something about climate change, the other party feels great pressure to follow suit. This dynamic also tends to reduce dissent on issues like carbon taxes, and thereby can influence public opinion and the policies governments adopt on such issues.

Most people actually demonstrate a preference for protecting the environment when responding to general questions about the environment; however, levels of commitment to environmental protection tend to decline as people begin to realize that there are specific material costs involved. Survey questions that more specifically address the costs of environmental protection tend to show lower levels of support. This may help explain why presidential candidates in the U.S. will make general statements about protecting the environment, but they tend to avoid making statements about specific steps that might involve materials costs, such as carbon taxes. In multiparty systems, smaller parties can take the risk of promoting dissenting ideas, including suggestions that fossil fuels should be taxed at a higher rate. Thus, voters are more likely to be exposed to discussion of specific costs involved with addressing climate change. Does such exposure affect the public’s willingness to accept those costs? Conversely, does more frequent exposure to pandering positions lessen public tolerance of those costs?

We can begin to answer to these questions by turning to the World Values Survey, which asked the following question across dozens of countries: Can you tell me whether you agree strongly, agree, disagree or strongly disagree? The Government should reduce environmental pollution, but it should not cost me any money. The wording makes it easier for respondents to reject the costs of protecting the environment and thus provides a more accurate measurement of respondents’ environmental commitment. Disagreeing with the statement, therefore, reflects a greater willingness to accept materials’ costs to protect the environment.

The figure below compares the proportion of respondents in various countries selecting “disagree” or “strongly disagree” in response to this question with “legislative fractionalization,” or the probability that two deputies picked at random from the legislature will be from different parties. A score of .5 — which is about what the U.S. scores — indicates a pure two-party system. As can be observed, countries with more parties tend to have higher public willingness to bear the costs of protecting the environment. These results hold across time and across larger samples of countries (I report such results in my book).

The variation in support across countries also appears large enough to influence government policies. One policy area that seems most clearly affected by such dynamics is taxation of fossil fuels, especially gasoline taxation. In the U.S., for example, it has been historically difficult (if not impossible) for a presidential candidate to run on the position that taxes on gasoline should be higher. On the contrary, both parties tend to attack one another when gasoline prices rise. Indeed, even Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore (who may have emphasized environmental protection more than any recent major party presidential candidate) urged incumbent President Bill Clinton, during the 2000 presidential election campaign in which Gore was competing, to draw on the government-held emergency petroleum reserve to bring oil prices down. This seeming consensus reinforces the position that gasoline taxes should be low. Consequently, the American public should tend to be more opposed to increases in gasoline taxes and politicians should be less willing to increases gasoline taxes.

In the figure below, I compare gas prices in countries with legislative fractionalization. Oil is considered a relatively “fungible” commodity (it sells for roughly the same price around the world), and therefore, variations in the price of gasoline should to a great extent reflect government actions, such as subsidies or levels of taxation. Indeed, it does appear that gasoline prices are correlated with the number of parties in the legislature – of course, Italy and the U.K. are noticeable outliers, suggesting that other factors can play an important role. These results match previous research showing that countries with fewer parties and less proportional electoral systems tend to use more CO2 per capita.

In sum, this evidence suggests a couple of key conclusions. First, the institutions we use to govern ourselves can have a large influence on the policies societies choose. Second, human preferences (and therefore voter preferences) can align with our long-term interests even for complex policy problems such as global warming, especially when exposed to dissenting ideas.