Environment and the election

So, I’m giving a guest lecture for a class today on Climate, Sustainability and the 2012 election.  In many ways, I would say that environment is the dog that didn’t bark.  Sure, Obama talks about green jobs and Romney gives us his take on “drill, baby, drill” but it’s pretty clear that environmental concerns are way on the back burner this election.  Chris Mooney had a nice piece in MoJo a couple of weeks ago arguing that Democrats have a real advantage here and that they are dropping the ball.  It’s full of cool charts like this:

The really cool finding is from an interesting survey experiment:

Wow– that sure sounds pretty good.  Wouldn’t it be nice if voters actually punished climate deniers.  For this, I’d like to see some real-world evidence.  I went through a lot of public opinion data on climate change last night and I was pretty skeptical of most of it.  Drum’s response to this piece I think largely captures the problem:

The problem is that you don’t always get to talk about political issues the way you want to. Your opponents get to talk about them too. And they won’t be shy about labeling virtually any serious green policy as a price hike for consumers and a regulatory burden for business. What’s more, conservatives have an unusual advantage when they say this: it’s actually true. Things like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade policies really will increase the price of energy for consumers. That’s the whole point. Conversely, if you limit yourself to generally popular issues like CAFE standards and building more solar plants in the desert, voters will support it, but only because the price hike is small enough (and hidden enough) that it has only a modest impact on climate change in the first place.

What really matters, then, is what happens when potential voters are presented with messaging from both sides.

Bingo.  And in the real world, as Drum points out, you get matters such as “Climategate” that end up driving opinion on the issue.  I think this is an area where we need to be particularly skeptical of public opinion because how a policy sounds in a poll is very different from how it is debated in a polarized political environment.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Environment and the election

  1. Mike from Canada says:

    ” And they won’t be shy about labeling virtually any serious green policy as a price hike for consumers and a regulatory burden for business.

    It’s going to cost Americans (and Canadians, Europeans, etc) more money anyways as prices rise because of crop failures, loss of drilling platforms and shutdowns of refineries because of storms or terrorism. Increased healthcare problems as Malaria and other problems move north and south into the temperate zones. Crop and lumber destruction because of pests that used to be killed during hard winters.

    One way or another, humans are going to pay for the problems they create.

    Sooner or later the oceans fisheries will collapse and food prices will rise through the roof. Right now the oceans supply 10% of human population with a high grade protein source. The cost of raising that protein on land will be at least four to one, four parts feed to get one part protein. Can the world increase our grain production by 20 to 40 percent? Will more jungles be cut down and burned for farms? In the last few years world grain production has decreased, and many think it will only get worse as crops fail because of increasingly unstable climate that can no longer be predicted with any certainty for farming purposes.

    The loss can’t be made up on fish farms because many fish farms are fed fish by-products from the ocean. The costs will ripple and magnify throughout our global food system. This isn’t fear mongering. The cod fisheries completely collapsed twenty years ago and they haven’t returned because international waters keep getting fished. The fish ignore international boundaries. The greatest fish source ever known to man was destroyed by humans. So goes the salmon fishery, the halibut fishery, the tuna fishery. Almost every fishery known is seeing smaller fish in smaller numbers. Almost every fishery is seeing the workers and boat owners complaining about reducing allotments, often blaming sport fishermen, as sport fisheries blame commercial fisheries.

    And no one wants to have their catch reduced.

    We’ve already seen rioting and civil unrest including the toppling of states from relatively minor (to us) food cost increases. The poor eat mostly grain in the form of rice or bread. In bread the main cost in poor countries is the cost of grain, the opposite to rich countries where the cost is mostly labour. Small increases in grain price mean large increases to the cost of the final product in many developing countries. Fuel for ovens also make up a large part of the cost. Many in the first world hardly noticed any change in prices. Those in developing countries were hit very hard. People will starve. But they won’t go quietly.

    Current policies are untenable, they are going to create widespread political instability and more terrorism. This is going to further destabilize countries. Countries will need larger armed forces to protect their interests, such as large tracts of farmland owned in Central America. Oil and gas interests all over the world and mines that produce critical metals for industry an defense.

    Just the rising human population and increased social mobility of China and India is going to force these issues. Continued environmental degradation will only cause the issues to the forefront faster. And everyone, Americans included will pay increased prices one way or another. With planning and foresight they can be mitigated, otherwise they will have to be managed on a case by case basis as they blindside us.

    • Alex says:

      “Well, yeah, but fix it without raising my gas prices. Come on, I’m paying way too much already without you trying to make things more expensive and reduce jobs. Can’t we just use clean coal and green jobs to fix all this?”

      Sadly, people’s time-value discount is way too high for a real comprehensive environmental policy to win out in this political climate.

      • Mike from Canada says:

        I wish I could say you are wrong, but your not. I wish I could say Canada is better, but its not. I think its even worse. Canada hasn’t been hit near as bad as the US with an economic slump, but our government is busily stripping away employees from Environment Canada and making legislation sound pretty but really has no teeth.

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