It’s probably fair, if crude, to talk about national societies as having “moods,” or going through particular psychological states — especially in economic depressions, when they become more fearful and less willing to take risks. The United States has spent the last few years mired in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and a cap-and-trade system or a carbon price is unquestionably an attempt to structurally raise the price of some forms of energy.
However meritorious, those policies are something of a step into the economic unknown, and thus understandably worrying to the average voter. So if the economy is affecting the national mood, that’s a problem for policy efforts to fight climate change. And earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer dug up a new study that put some hard data to that phenomenon at the political level.
What Grant Jacobsen of the University of Oregon did was take a look at how unemployment in various states changed the votes of senators from those states. He used the League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV) scorecard as a measure of 296 senators’ friendliness to pro-environment votes. Then Jacobsen determined how their score changed as unemployment in their state went up and down between 1976 and 2008.
The result? For every one percent point unemployment went up, the average senator’s LCV score dropped 0.48 percentage points. Jacobsen statistical analysis also suggested this result was like due to a meaningful correlation between unemployment and the vote score, rather than random chance or noise.
To make sure he wasn’t just reading swings in the political leanings of the legislative body, Jacobsen also compared the American Democratic Association’s (ADA) scores — a widely accepted measure of liberalism — to his findings. With that control, the relationship between voting and unemployment actually strengthened, to 0.64 percentage point drop in the LCV score for every one percentage point increase in unemployment. Jacobsen also found the LCV decline was 0.83 percentage points when just looking at Republicans, and 0.29 when just looking Democrats, though the latter result wasn’t as statistically robust.
Now, changes of 0.64 and 0.48 may not sound like big swings on a score that goes from 0 to 100, but lawmaking is a game of inches.
Just to bring the point home, Jacobsen also looked at how votes from 1981 to 2008 would’ve changed if a given state had always experienced its minimum unemployment rate. (See table at right.) Accounting for whether a particular Senate vote was straight majority or involved a filibuster, he determined that environmentally favorable votes would’ve increased from 36 percent to 41 percent under improved economic conditions. That’s almost a 14 percent increase in the rate of favorable votes. Not exactly peanuts.
This fits in with other studies on the relationship between support for environmental policies and the economy. As Plumer noted, Matthew Kahn and Matthew Kotchen used Google searches and surveys in a 2010 finding that higher unemployment lowers voters’ concern with global warming. Jacobsen’s paper mentions two other studies showing that per capita income increases correlate with higher support for environmental legislation, and more upcoming work from Kahn and Kotchen.
Furthermore, the Center for American Progress’ Dan Weiss previously went through the history of environmental legislation, and found that most of the bills passed when unemployment was low. “The first Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (hazardous waste disposal) were all enacted when unemployment was 6 percent or lower,” Weiss determined. “Only six major environmental laws were enacted with annual unemployment over 7 percent, and none with unemployment greater than 7.7 percent.”
Unemployment is currently 7.5 percent, which is the lowest it’s been since it peaked at 10 percent after the 2008 crash. So if you’re wondering why the cap-and-trade bill died in 2010, and why climate policy has been stuck in neutral ever since, the drag unemployment puts on voters’ and politicians’ willingness to take a leap on climate policy is a big piece of the puzzle.
That said, Dave Roberts over at Grist has been beating the drum on other pieces for a while now. There’s the staggering rise in the use of the filibuster, which can delay Congressional action and constrict the realm of the possible for legislative strategy even when one party has enough Senators to regularly overcome the 60-vote threshold. Second, partisanship in Congress and lockstep voting by political party has been steadily rising since at least 1990, which was likely exacerbated by the recession itself. Gerrymandering and the way the 2-votes-per-state structure of the Senate over-represents the interests of low population states certainly didn’t help either. Third, there’s the unusual geography of climate politics. The economies of several blue states rely heavily on fossil fuels, meaning support and opposition to climate bills don’t fall neatly along partisan lines like, say, the politics of health care reform — even as our political system’s ability to pass anything relies ever more heavily on total control of Congress by one party.
So there are several moving parts in the sociopolitical mechanism that determines what legislation passes and what doesn’t. But one thing should be clear: if you want to be an effective champion of the fight against global warming, you can’t escaper the necessity of being an effective champion for the unemployed.