Americans and Climate Change: Incentives: Politicians
"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.
Why aren’t politicians more eager to champion the issue of global warming? Why did Al Gore fail to get any traction with it in 2000? Find out below!
Politicians’ Incentives: Limited Accountability on Climate Change and a Stigma to Boot
No matter how focused on the public interest they may be, the politicians’ incentive structure is inescapably dominated by the need to get elected or reelected. Many political candidates, and the operatives who orchestrate their campaigns, believe that environmental issues — especially global ones like climate change — offer little opportunity to carve out electoral advantage. And polling of the public largely bears this out — only a small minority of the electorate deems the environment a voting issue (though there is some evidence the Independents in this group could constitute a swing vote in close elections). In recent presidential campaigns, nominees who had championed the environment (and climate change specifically) throughout their careers appeared to mute their support because of perceived electoral downsides.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment, contending that the environment was discussed by the campaigns but not covered much by a media preoccupied with horse-race coverage and hot-button social issues.
Yet private discussions with campaign operatives reveal that some indeed perceive a stigma associated with talking about climate change on the campaign trail, which could render their candidate susceptible to ridicule or at least to being called "out of touch" with the concerns of average Americans. Against this downside, they perceived little compensating upside.
Some polling of political leaders indicates that while they personally favor action to address climate change, it has not risen to the top of their legislative agenda, in part because they are unaware of their constituents’ general, though not uniformly urgent, support for action. The public, according to polling by Steven Kull, also tends to think that their elected officials are doing more about climate change than they actually are. As a result of this mutual non-awareness, politicians have simply not experienced much constituent pressure to act today on climate change. Consequently, there are relatively few incumbents championing the issue legislatively today, with a few promising exceptions now seeking to build on the non-binding "Sense of the Senate" resolution in 2005 favoring a mandatory cap-and-trade regulation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The Conference looked beneath the surface partisanship on climate change to the underlying structural problems that impede effective government action on this and other issues. For example, one incumbent elected official with us spotlighted how the prevalence of safe seats in the Congress limits the opportunity for issue entrepreneurship on climate change. When over 90 percent of elected members of Congress face no plausible threat to their incumbency in a future election, they are simply less inclined to have to respond to any constituent pressure that can be mobilized on climate change or any other issue, or to consider the electoral implications of their inaction.
This implies that those concerned with promoting societal action on climate change need to also understand and address gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, and other determinants of policy outcomes. Accordingly, Conference Recommendation #24 calls for convening a group of political scientists, elected officials, and campaign operatives to conduct an analysis and dialogue about the connections between problems in democratic governance in the U.S. and climate change specifically. It would be grandiose to think that this action, alone, could achieve outright change in these larger political structures, but it could add an additional rationale to large ongoing efforts to do so (e.g., campaign finance reform), while also ensuring that change agents focused on climate change craft more sophisticated strategies that reflect the full range of obvious and non-obvious forces at play.