Electoral Backlash against Climate Policy: A Natural Experiment on Retrospective Voting and Local Resistance to Public Policy

The forthcoming article “Electoral Backlash against Climate Policy: A Natural Experiment on Retrospective Voting and Local Resistance to Public Policy” by Leah C. Stokes is summarized by the author here:

In many policy areas, the public holds a shared view. For instance, we would all like cleaner air and a stronger economy. But for some policies, not all groups in society share the same preferences. Sometimes, local costs are imposed disproportionately on some groups, while the entire country and planet benefits. Controversies have arisen when local communities are asked to host airports, housing projects, roads, subways, hospitals, jails, and waste facilities. While we might all benefit from these projects, local groups often resist putting them in their backyard.

This dynamic also occurs with climate policy. Across the globe, the majority of people strongly support climate policy, with actions including installing wind and solar projects, or creating a fee for carbon pollution. However, some groups in society may disproportionately bear the costs of these changes. Specific communities have industries that rely heavily on carbon pollution, and they will face significant costs in the transition away from fossil fuels. Other communities will have wind energy projects installed in their backyards, creating sound and visual changes to the landscape.

If these small groups in society are able to mobilize politically, they may be able to block the will of the majority. This dynamic is amplified if opponent groups are spatially concentrated—if opponents live and vote together. In the case of climate policy, groups have mobilized to block wind energy projects across North American and Europe, often succeeding in blocking projects. But is this mobilization politically consequential? Does the protest spill over from the local level to impact state or national elections?

To answer this question, I studied a specific policy that created a ‘natural experiment’ by sorting communities’ receipt of wind projects as a function of local wind speed. The case is Ontario, Canada, which established an ambitious climate and clean energy policy at the provincial-level in 2009 and did not allow communities to reject wind projects. I investigated whether citizens living near wind energy projects punished the government more than we would otherwise expect. Using a variety of statistical estimators, I identify electoral losses for the governing party ranging from 4% to 10%. Even people living up to 2 miles or 3 km away from these wind projects punished the government more than we would expect.

We often think that voters are not able to follow public policy, particularly in a complex area like energy policy. However, my research shows that voters only punished the provincial government responsible for the climate policy, not the federal government. Together, these findings provide evidence that voters can be informed about public policy, at least insofar as it impacts their ‘backyard.’

Despite majority support for policy to thwart climate change, implementing this policy is often difficult. As this study shows, when opponents are concentrated in communities, they can reduce democratic accountability and exacerbate political barriers to addressing climate change. Similar to locating other kinds of controversial facilities, policymakers may need to engage citizens more during project development, to build trust, address concerns about fairness, and if necessary, require revenue sharing with the community to build support. Experimenting with policy designs that lead to greater political acceptance of renewable energy will be crucial to minimizing political barriers to effectively addressing climate change.

Leah C. Stokes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (stokes@polsci.ucsb.edu)

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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