Elections and Climate Change Beliefs
Marquette Economics Professor Digs Into How Elections Affect Climate Change Skepticism
If there is a clear scientific consensus on the impact of climate change, why has political polarization around the issue increased?
This question nagged at Dr. Andrew Meyer. For the associate professor of economics in the College of Business Administration, understanding what influences environmentally conscious behavior is a passion of his and where he focuses his research.
“I’ve worked a lot on what drives pro-environmental behavior,” he says. “In other words, what makes somebody environmentally friendly or not so environmentally friendly?”
His past research has looked at how education or local economic conditions impact behavior related to the environment. His most recent paper published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, takes this inquiry a step further. This research looks specifically at the influence politicians can have on their constituents’ beliefs about climate change, beliefs that ultimately inform environmental behavior.
Dr. Meyer explains why understanding belief formation is important to economists.
“Economists have long been interested in how people form their beliefs about the true state of the world. For example, how do people form beliefs about the probability of a recession in the next year?” Meyer poses. “In microeconomic theory, we assume that an individual maximizes their expected well-being given their preferences and beliefs about the true state of the world. If beliefs are distorted from reality, people may make decisions that are against their own self-interest. Moreover, markets and political institutions can only work efficiently if individuals’ beliefs are accurate.”
What Close Elections Tell Us
Through statistical analysis of voter data from close gubernatorial elections, Meyer’s research found that, in general, political leaders can potentially affect their constituents’ beliefs in climate change. In the context of his study, he found that the election of a Republican governor sharply dropped the probability that Republican voters believed in global warming by approximately 11 to 15 percent relative to the election of a Democratic governor. On the other hand, there was no meaningful change to Democratic voters’ beliefs in global warming.
Meyer also found that the election of a Republican governor in a close race decreased the belief in human-caused global warming across the state, regardless of voter political affiliation.
The Economic Harm of Disbelief
This disbelief in the reality of climate change, and the ability of political leaders to influence constituent beliefs, has important implications, Meyer says.
“There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real, and scientists have developed models to predict the physical impacts of climate change,” Meyer points out. “Economists then translate the predicted physical impacts of climate change into dollar amounts of damage. It is clear from the economic research that climate change will impose substantial economic costs on society if we continue on our current path of greenhouse gas emissions. This justifies putting a price on carbon through a tax or cap and trade program to discourage the use of fossil fuels. We stand a lower chance of being able to pass this kind of climate change policy if public opinion remains skeptical about climate change.”
A Burgeoning Field For Cross-Disciplinary Research
Meyer also believes this line of research is one that will receive more focus in coming years, and provides an opportunity for cross-disciplinary research among individuals who often work in fields that on the surface may seem disparate.
“Although this paper focuses on climate change beliefs, I think the general question of how political leaders and the media influence public opinion in a variety of contexts is important,” Meyer says. “This question has important implications for economic policy, and I expect to see much more work in this area in the future. Lastly, we often get isolated in our disciplinary research fields, but I find that many interesting research questions lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. I think that economics will continue to incorporate more insights from fields like psychology and political science to improve our models of economic behavior.”
Listen online to Dr. Meyer discussing his recent research with Wisconsin Public Radio.