This article proposes a framework to explain how individuals determine their preferences for climate change policy. This framework is based on looking at policy instruments that governments use to compensate citizens for the costs of undertaking carbon reduction measures, as well as the different types of vulnerability faced by citizens thanks to climate change. How did thinking along the lines of this framework come about?
Nikhar Gaikwad, Federica Genovese, and Dustin Tingley: Our thinking came about from brainstorming at a workshop on climate politics organized by Robert Keohane at Stanford in 2018. We understood that any serious international effort to combat climate change requires nations to create policies that would be acceptable to their domestic constituencies. But climate change is unique because different groups of voters face distinct sets of costs and benefits both from climate change itself and from potential policies that reduce nations’ reliance on fossil fuels. Thus, how do democracies figure out the types of policies that will win support among these different constituencies? We zeroed in on the idea that it would be important to understand how “losers” of climate action (or lack thereof) could be redressed and therefore better incentivized to support climate policy. Some of us had worked on studying the impact of climate policy vulnerability on citizens’ preferences, but we realized that we needed to think more broadly about vulnerabilities that motivate citizens in this policy area. This led us to a framework that builds on how citizens can face both climate change vulnerability and climate policy vulnerability, and how these vulnerabilities can have reinforcing/offsetting effects, an idea first advanced by Detlef Sprinz and Tapani Vaahtoranta.
In terms of policy instruments that could embed compensation, our thinking was influenced by different policy debates around the world (in US and India, of course, but also Germany, Poland, Canada and South Africa). We did an extensive background search of policy tools being considered by governments and civil society organizations in these countries. We think we identified some of the main ways in which distributive welfare policy can meet climate policy.
After describing the framework, you and your co-authors test it by surveying voting-age citizens in the US and India regarding climate policy preferences. What were the primary findings from the survey?
NG, FG, and DT: Our survey asked citizens to clearly allocate funds raised from an increase in fossil fuel energy prices to different compensatory climate policy options. We fielded this survey in different regions of the US and India which represent, respectively, policy vulnerable communities (i.e., coal-producing regions), policy and ecological vulnerable communities (what we call the “cross-pressured”), and the general public (i.e., the average citizens in the general population).
We find that allocations of respondents in the general population samples emphasize diffused mechanisms of climate compensation (namely, green technology investments or tax rebates). However, residents in coal-producing regions in both countries are far and above in favor of direct transfers to policy-threatened workers. The preferences of cross-pressured communities lie somewhere in between. That said, we find that each of these groups evidences considerable support for policies that compensate different coalitions of climate-vulnerable citizens, in line with theories of “just energy” transition and embedded liberalism. Importantly, we also document that coal-producing regions has distinct preferences for targeted compensation not only due to pure material gains: when asked if compensatory transfers should go to individuals or communities, voters in the coal samples overwhelmingly chose community-oriented disposition. This is true regardless of individuals’ own employment in fossil fuel sectors. We trace this community-oriented preferences in coal-producing regions to a logic of shared identities that have been developed in the context of regions that are occupationally specialized, racially/ethnically homogeneous, and intergenerationally dependent on the carbon economy. So clearly, our findings point to a more general sense of welfare concerns in coal-producing regions that goes beyond the concerns of specifically-exposed individuals. One of the striking features of our results is that these preferences are quite similar across the US and India, two democracies with very distinct social, economic, and political characteristics.
How do these findings add to existing literature on climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts? What (if any) gaps exist in the literature that need to be addressed by future work?
NG, FG, and DT: Our findings open up a productive set of research questions for scholars who are interested in grappling with the distributive dimensions of climate politics. First, our results on identity speak to work in sociology and anthropology that has argued that coal-producing communities (and fossil fuel communities in general) is distinct due its strong sense of community identity tied to coal mining and extraction. Getting coal communities to support decarbonization efforts thus requires policies that compensate vulnerability not at the individual level (akin to, for example, compensatory programs like Trade Adjustment Assistance), but at the community level. Further unpacking how identity-related considerations shape distributive policy preferences is going to be essential for understanding how to convert climate opposition to support. These findings will have implications for ascertaining the political preferences of voters in other regions, such as the Rust Belt, where globalization has affected not only individually displaced workers but broader communities.
Second, we think that it will be important for scholars to develop a better understanding of the role of individual-level characteristics (e.g., trust or income) and how they relate to vulnerabilities and support for the policy instruments. And finally, work that unpacks whether particular combinations of compensation and investment policies increase citizens’ willingness to pay higher carbon taxes, whether increasing climate change vulnerability shifts preferences regarding mitigation and adaptation, and whether cross-border financial transfers from richer to poorer can bolster popular support is urgently needed.
Climate change is a global problem, but one that will require solutions implemented at the national and sub-national levels. What implications do your findings have for governments and other stakeholders looking to enact the policies outlined in the article?
NG, FG, and DT: Our findings suggest that the preferences of average voters and those of vocal pockets of regionally-concentrated voters that are vulnerable to climate change (e.g., communities in low-lying coastal regions), decarbonization policies (e.g. coal-producing communities), and that face cross-cutting pressures (e.g., fossil fuel communities in the Gulf Coast) are not in sync, and this distance generates tension in the climate policy priorities of national governments. At the same time, the study indicates that identifying and redressing important groups of opposition voters is possible through policy instruments that offset different combinations of vulnerabilities at the same time. For example, a salutary feature of our findings is that the general public is willing to divert a non-negligible proportion of funds collected from carbon taxes to compensate job losses in the fossil fuel industry. This points toward a way by which governments can design compensatory policies that address the needs of different domestic constituencies and, in turn, decrease public opposition to ambitious climate policy.