Yes, People Still Care

 In Blog topics, Energy, Environment

(Photo credit: Chris McGrath)

By Ian Nemelka

During the November elections, voters rejected the majority of state ballot initiatives intended to curb climate change. In Arizona, an amendment to the State Constitution was proposed that would require electric utilities to use renewable energy for 50 percent of its power generation by 2035. It failed. In Washington state, another attempt to implement the carbon tax failed. In Colorado, the effort to dramatically limit fracking and other drilling on non federal land also failed. If none of these laws were implemented obviously people really don’t care about climate change, right? Wrong. People still care a great deal.

So what’s the problem? If people cared so much about climate change wouldn’t it show in the way they vote? These results might look hypocritical on the surface, but Public Choice Theory offers a clear perspective. The simple answer is incentives matter, regardless of how important the issue is perceived to be. Even in relatively wealthy and developed countries such as the United States, voters are not immune to self interest and scarcity. So much thought and effort is put into how to supposedly save nature, that none is spared when it comes to thinking about how these laws will impact human nature. Some of these proposed changes, like the carbon tax, obviously understand negative incentives, but underestimate voter’s aversion to personal cost.

One would assume that the potential and catastrophic environmental and economic consequences of climate change would be enough of an incentive to appeal to most people. Because of the lack of timely results, however, voters will often choose immediate financial gratification over non-guaranteed long term investments. Whereas some would accuse these individuals of being selfish, capitalistic, and ignorant, Public Choice Economists would argue that they are simply voting rationally. A voter’s incentive is to improve their situation as much and as quickly as possible. If the costs (money, time, and effort) of change exceeds the cost of leaving things the same, rational voters will choose the latter, even if they believe the consequences of climate change are imminent.

The recent French riots have exemplified this principle perfectly. In the home of the famed Paris Accords, citizens are protesting/rioting against against a fuel and cost of living increase brought upon primarily because of new climate change policies disincentivizing the use of fossil fuels. French voters are historically in favor of curbing climate change, so do these events prove they are full of it? Of course not. Voters are simply thinking rationally. Feeding their families affordably will always be the first priority. The reason developed countries lead the way in tackling climate change is because its citizens can afford to do so. It is difficult to be concerned over CO2 emissions from your car when your family is starving.

The costs of climate change policy are always going to be high. So, what can the world do to avoid the detrimental consequences brought about by climate change? Remove the barriers to prosperity in less wealthy countries. Provide routes towards success, competition, and innovation. As the United States has developed through these means, so too has our thinking about the environment. Cleaner cars, furnaces, and factories are all a result of technological capability, not just regulation. It does little good to mandate cleaner cars when only a small fraction of your citizens own one. It is when humans have ease of living and excess that their nature will allow them to think (and vote) rationally about climate change. That is why many of the recent state initiatives failed. People still care, but laws cannot change what they care about the most.