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.