This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Why the environment is an electoral non-issue

Ask people if they think the environment is an important issue, and they will tell you that it certainly is. A ‘great deal’ or ‘fair amount’ of concern about global warming is reported by 67% of the British public respondents in the UK, and 84% of car drivers are ‘very’, or ‘fairly’, concerned about the effect of transport on climate change (indeed drivers show a higher level of concern for the effect of transport on climate change than non-drivers).

But ask people if they are willing to pay for environmental improvements and that support tends to disappear. Whilst 84% of those car drivers were concerned, only 18% were willing to pay higher taxes on their car for the sake of the environment. In another recent survey, of those airline passengers who were ‘concerned’ about the environmental impact of flying, only 14% held passengers mainly responsible for its effects. As Iain McLean of Oxford University has put it, the ‘feeling that something must be done is disconnected from feeling in favour of doing anything.’

This disconnection is a problem for politicians in democracies. If the electorate report high levels of concern, then this is an issue about which ‘something must be done’. But if there is no desire on the part of the electorate to actually do anything about it themselves (which there isn’t), and if this is understood by politicians (which it is), then we can expect this high-flown rhetoric to be accompanied by policies that make long-term promises but which leave the status quo intact in the short-term.

This disconnection has also led some to suggest that the environment is now an arena for political ‘simulation’, where electorates ‘demand’ environmental action, but where such demands are not intended to be taken seriously, being a mere performance or simulation of ‘real’ politics. Woe betide any politician who takes such demands seriously and seeks to act upon them. In policy terms, this means that it’s acceptable to promise carbon cuts in fifty years time, but not to apply the fuel duty escalator today. One way to explain this simulation is that environmental politics is particularly prone to what Bryan Caplan, an American economist, has called ‘rational irrationality’. Individuals can make no difference to the outcomes of environmental problems, and so have no reason to get good information about them (they are rationally ignorant). Furthermore they can believe what they prefer to believe without any cost. One can be a global warming alarmist or a climate change denier, on the basis of no good reason whatsoever; it costs you nothing as an individual and so you can just believe whatever you prefer (that’s rational irrationality). When, however, you are faced with the prospect of altering your travel habits or paying more tax, the potential costs of your preferred beliefs are revealed to you and you may sing a different tune.

So despite general agreement on how important it is, don’t expect the environment to figure as a key issue in this general election. This is not just because the party leaderships agree on the importance of environmental matters – they also agree on the benefits of economic growth, but they will fight like ferrets in a sack over who can deliver it best. It is also because of the intractability of both (a) satisfying the demand that ‘something must be done’ and (b) satisfying that demand in a way that appears to cost nothing to anyone right now. It is much better to make a few vague long-term commitments and go back to education, education, education.

For more on this, see here

Dr Mathew Humphrey