On both sides of the Atlantic, voters want rapid action on climate change

Recent climate assessments have stressed two key messages. First, to avert irreversible damage from climate change, ambitious measures need to be taken not just sometime –implementation needs to start immediately. Second, as investments in cleaner sources of energy and innovative modes of transportation become mainstream, we must start actively terminating the use of carbon dioxide-emitting technologies. In other words, it only works if investment and divestment happen simultaneously.

Yet, despite repeated calls for speeding up, climate action is still incremental. Policymakers seem reluctant to introduce effective carbon policies, perhaps fearing that voters won’t be willing to change their behaviour, and that they might punish them at the ballot box for pushing these policies. However, it turns out these fears are unfounded: our research suggests that citizens on both sides of the Atlantic support ambitious climate policies and implementation at a pace far faster than those proposed by their elected officials.

In one of our studies, published in Climate Policy, we investigate public support for policies to phase out fossil fuel cars in the U.S. states. The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, accounting for 29% of total emissions . Therefore, incentivizing a transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of transportation, such as electric cars, should be a key priority for state governments. As the example of Norway shows, policy intervention is key for a transition towards electric mobility: electric cars in Norway had a market share of 46% in 2018 (including plug-in hybrids), thanks to a number of incentives including tax credits and road toll exemptions. In the US, on the other hand, electric vehicles barely reached a share of 2.5%, lagging behind China (4.5%) and other countries. Hesitation to adopt more ambitious policies at the state level may be based on concerns that reducing carbon emissions in the transportation sector requires changes in people’s routines and habits, which raises questions about the political feasibility of phasing out gasoline.

To investigate public support for policies to decarbonize the transportation sector, we employed a survey-based choice experiment. Our study, based on a representative sample of the American population, shows that citizens are more supportive of climate action than their political leaders might think. While we find that Americans prefer subsidies for alternative technologies over a ban of gas guzzlers and an increase in fossil fuel taxes, the  most important finding of our study, we think, has to do with the preferred timing of policy action. Accordingly, Americans want policy action no later than 2030. Interestingly, this  corresponds to phase-out plans announced by India, Sweden, the Netherlands and several other countries who plan to phase-out the use of fossil fuels in transportation by 2030.

Our second study, published in Nature Energy, investigates the transition from coal to renewable energies in Germany. Globally, burning coal to generate power is the number one contributor to climate change. Several countries have, therefore, started to develop roadmaps for phasing out coal. Germany is Europe’s largest energy consumer and has successfully increased the share of renewables tenfold over the last three decades while at the same time phasing out nuclear power. However, the country is still the world’s largest producer of one of the most polluting forms of fossil fuels, lignite, or brown coal, which accounted for one-third of German power generation in 2018.

To address the discrepancy between its coal dependence and its climate change mitigation targets and international commitments, the German government mandated an expert commission, which proposed to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2038. The
commission’s report has received mixed feedback. While climate scientists criticized the proposal as “too little, too late,” other observers hailed the policy process for its consensual  nature, implicitly suggesting that a more ambitious timeline would not have been possible in a democracy where voters can easily oust politicians they don’t agree with. But a large-scale survey of German voters using a similar methodological approach as our Climate Policy paper demonstrated that respondents preferred a faster phase-out by 2025 even if accelerating the elimination of coal plants by 13 years would come at a higher cost.

We conclude that political leaders in Western democracies have more room to manoeuvre for ambitious climate action than they might think. As other studies show, most voters are aware of climate change. Our studies highlight that citizens on both sides of the Atlantic also support significant action to address the largest sources of emissions.

While the two studies are based on representative samples of the U.S. and German
populations, further research is needed to fully explain why policymakers are so hesitant to enact reforms. Politicians could be discounting voter preference based on the mistaken belief that voters will punish them next election should they act. Or perhaps other mechanisms are at work: politicians may not be aware of changing voter preferences, acting instead in what they perceive to be the best interest of incumbent industries. If the latter is the case, voters deserve to know that they are not being listened to on this critical issue, as this will allow them to express their climate-related preferences at the ballot box. Politicians would do well to align their policy making with voter preferences as we see them in our research: fast, effective measures to tackle one of the planet’s greatest challenges.

Read the paper in Climate Policy.

Adrian Rinscheid is a PostDoc at the Institute for Economy & the Environment at the
University of St. Gallen (Switzerland).

Silvia Pianta is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at Bocconi University (Italy) and
affiliate scientist at the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment.

Elke U. Weber is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and
the Environment and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University
(USA).

Rolf Wüstenhagen is Professor of Management of Renewable Energies and Director of the
Institute for Economy & the Environment at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland).

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