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Climate change experiences raise environmental concerns and promote Green voting

  • Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital
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Abstract and Figures

Public support is fundamental in scaling up actions to limit global warming. Here, we analyse how the experience of climate extremes influences people’s environmental attitudes and willingness to vote for Green parties in Europe. To this end, we combined high-resolution climatological data with regionally aggregated, harmonized Eurobarometer data (34 countries) and European Parliamentary electoral data (28 countries). Our findings show a significant and sizeable effect of temperature anomalies, heat episodes and dry spells on environmental concern and voting for Green parties. The magnitude of the climate effect differs substantially across European regions. It is stronger in regions with a cooler Continental or temperate Atlantic climate and weaker in regions with a warmer Mediterranean climate. The relationships are moderated by regional income level suggesting that climate change experiences increase public support for climate action but only under favourable economic conditions. The findings have important implications for the current efforts to promote climate action in line with the Paris Agreement. Exposure to extreme weather events could increase environmental concerns and support for Green parties. With high-resolution data across European countries, the authors demonstrate the existence of such effect, then further discuss the heterogeneity and possible mechanisms.
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1International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, OeAW, University
of Vienna), Laxenburg, Austria. 2Vienna Institute of Demography (OeAW), Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA,
OeAW, University of Vienna), Vienna, Austria. 3Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Potsdam, Germany. 4Department of Statistical
Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy. 5Department of Social and Political Sciences, and Dondena Centre Bocconi University, Milan, Italy.
While about two decades ago climate change and associated
extreme events were psychologically distant for many
Europeans, in the past years Europe has witnessed its
warmest years on record resulting in an increase in climate-related
hazards1. In summer 2021, the number of wildfires more than
doubled that of the annual average of the past decade in Europe2
and several western European countries, especially Germany and
Belgium, experienced their most devastating floods since the past
couple of decades. In fact, the series of heatwaves in Europe since
2015 has been the most extreme in the past 2,110 years3, highlight-
ing the urgent need for climate action.
While individual behavioural changes are an important ele-
ment of mitigation action, decarbonization of the economy requires
structural reforms that bring public and macroeconomic policies,
such as taxes, subsidies and government spending in line with the
European Union (EU) ambition to move towards a climate-neutral
economy. To fulfil its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the
EU has pledged to cut at least 55% of its greenhouse gas emissions
from 1990 levels by 20304. This requires radical transformations in
production and consumption involving all sectors ranging from
energy to land use, agriculture, transport, buildings, industry and
waste management. To achieve this transition, broad support by the
public is crucial.
Over the past two decades, awareness and concern for envi-
ronmental issues have risen across Europe, thanks partly to recent
climate movements and media coverage5. Whereas in 2002, less
than 5% of Europeans agreed that environmental issues should be
a priority for their country, this proportion had more than tripled in
2019 (Fig. 1a) with Nordic countries taking a leading role (Fig. 1b).
These changes can contribute to achieving the sustainability trans-
formation by catalysing public support for climate action and
inducing policy change6. Indeed, a substantial rise in the vote share
of Green parties in the last European Parliamentary elections in
2019 reflects the increasing salience of the climate crisis and public
concern about environmental and climate issues7. Between 2004 and
2019 the percentage of seats held by Green parties in the European
Parliament increased by 74% from 5.7% to 9.9% (Fig. 1c,d).
Understanding the drivers of changes in public concern and
support for Green parties is important to identify the mechanisms
underlying transformations towards a greener economy and more
sustainable society. Here, we empirically investigate the effect of more
frequent and intense experiences with climate extremes on envi-
ronmental concern and analyse to what extent changes in concerns
translate into actual political support for Green parties811.We exploit
time-series Eurobarometer data (42 survey waves, 20022019) and
European Parliament election data (six elections, 19942019) to
analyse changes in concerns and voting at the subnational level
across 34 and 28 European countries, respectively (Supplementary
Tables 1 and 2). Our regional panel dataset allows us to causally test
for the impacts of climatic extremes while controlling for unobserved
heterogeneity and time trends using fixed effects models.
Experiencing the consequences of climate change can support
the experiential processing and learning of information about cli-
mate risks and can thus influence the formation of environmental
attitudes and concerns and ultimately the willingness to support cli-
mate action1216 (Box 1). Existing evidence shows that people who
have experienced unusual weather and extreme climatic events
are more likely to believe in the existence of global warming and
its anthropogenic causes17,18, to express concern about climate
change19,20, to show willingness to engage in mitigation actions21 and
to be in favour of climate policies22,23.
Our study provides three key contributions to the literature.
First, we present evidence on the causal linkages between exposure
to extreme climate events, environmental concerns and voting.
There is limited empirical evidence on the links between climate
change experiences and voting outcomes, especially for such major
elections as the European Parliament24,25. Here, we overcome the
common empirical difficulty of capturing how concerns are
Climate change experiences raise environmental
concerns and promote Green voting
Roman Hoffmann 1,2,3 ✉ , Raya Muttarak 1,4 ✉ , Jonas Peisker 1,2 ✉ and Piero Stanig 5 ✉
Public support is fundamental in scaling up actions to limit global warming. Here, we analyse how the experience of climate
extremes influences people’s environmental attitudes and willingness to vote for Green parties in Europe. To this end, we
combined high-resolution climatological data with regionally aggregated, harmonized Eurobarometer data (34 countries) and
European Parliamentary electoral data (28 countries). Our findings show a significant and sizeable effect of temperature anom-
alies, heat episodes and dry spells on environmental concern and voting for Green parties. The magnitude of the climate effect
differs substantially across European regions. It is stronger in regions with a cooler Continental or temperate Atlantic climate
and weaker in regions with a warmer Mediterranean climate. The relationships are moderated by regional income level suggest-
ing that climate change experiences increase public support for climate action but only under favourable economic conditions.
The findings have important implications for the current efforts to promote climate action in line with the Paris Agreement.
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... We take into account the fact that the factors influencing individuals' responsible functioning on the micro-level are very complex. The relevant studies have revealed different impacts of income [45,51,52] and education [24,33,34,49,[53][54][55]. However, existing findings on the factors affecting responsible behavior often exceed demographic frames. ...
... Our regression analysis demonstrates that this is easier to achieve for younger, more educated individuals with a higher income. This is in line with previous research showing that well-educated and politically interested citizens are more interested in pro-environmental behavior [49,53,55] in terms of everyday practices on the one hand [24,34], and activism [33] and political preferences [54] on the other hand. Insufficient financial resources may also hinder pro-ecological behavior [51]. ...
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... As demonstrated by Hazlett and Mildenberger (2020), wildfire exposure in California, US increases pro-environmental voting in the case of Democrats. Temperature extremes are also shown to increase climate concern (Bergquist & Warshaw, 2019; Brooks et al., 2014;Hoffmann et al., 2022), while experiencing hazards increases support for mitigation and adaptation policies (Demski et al., 2017;Spence et al., 2011). Furthermore, people are more willing to take action if environmental problems are perceived to affect their health and well-being (Baldassare & Katz, 1992;Schultz et al., 2005;Stern et al., 1993;Stern et al., 1995). ...
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... Public concern about global warming and climate change has increased over the past decade [1][2][3]. Carbon emissions caused by human activities are widely believed to be mainly responsible for the increase in temperature on our planet [4,5]. Some reports point out that if the temperature on our planet continues to increase at the current rate, the global average sea level is expected to rise from 1 to 3 feet (1 m) by 2100 [6]. ...
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Public perceptions of climate change in the United States are deeply rooted in cultural values and political identities. Yet, as the public experiences extreme weather and other climate change-related impacts, their perceptions of the issue may shift. Here, we explore whether, when, and where local climate trends have already influenced perceived experiences of global warming in the United States. Using a large national survey dataset (n = 13,607), we compare Americans’ experiences of climate with corresponding trends in seven different high-resolution climate indicators for the period 2008 to 2015. We find that increases in hot dry day exposure significantly increases individuals’ perceptions that they have personally experienced global warming. We do not find robust evidence that other precipitation and temperature anomalies have had a similar effect. We also use multilevel modeling to explore county-level patterns of perceived experiences with climate change. Whereas the individual-level analysis describes a likely causal relationship between a changing climate and individuals’ perceived experience, the multilevel model depicts county-level changes in perceived experience resulting from particular climate trends. Overall, we find that exposure to hot dry days, has a modest influence on perceived experience, independent of the political and socio-demographic factors that dominate U.S. climate opinions today.
Unlike the scientific definition of global warming (GW), public discussion often links the existence of GW to daily temperatures rather than long-term averages. Previous research found that daily weather is perceived as personal experiences with GW. Additionally, prior beliefs about GW can affect interpretations of such experiences as evidence for the existence of GW. However, previous studies demonstrating that beliefs affect interpretations of experiences were based on correlational designs—limiting causal inferences—and relied only on self-reports of remembered personal experiences instead of direct interpretations of weather. The authors present the first randomized experiment investigating how people interpret daily temperatures in terms of the evidence that it provides about GW, clarifying the psychological causes for different interpretations of the same experiences across individuals. They test the influence of knowledge about (and beliefs in) GW on the interpretation of daily temperatures across two framing conditions labeled weather (interpreting a temperature as abnormal weather) and climate (interpreting a temperature as evidence of GW). The authors use signal detection theory to measure the decision-maker’s (a) ability to discriminate between temperatures, called sensitivity, and (b) threshold for describing a temperature as abnormal, called the decision threshold. The results replicate previous research finding a motivational distortion in interpreting temperatures as evidence of GW and further find belief-consistent distortions in decision thresholds while observing no measurable change in sensitivity. In other words, people know when temperatures are abnormally hot, but classify ambiguous events (i.e., less extreme abnormalities) differently based on their beliefs in GW.
One political barrier to climate reforms is the temporal mismatch between short-term policy costs and long-term policy benefits. Will public support for climate reforms increase as climate-related disasters make the short-term costs of inaction more salient? Leveraging variation in the timing of Californian wildfires, we evaluate how exposure to a climate-related hazard influences political behavior rather than self-reported attitudes or behavioral intentions. We show that wildfires increased support for costly, climate-related ballot measures by 5 to 6 percentage points for those living within 5 kilometers of a recent wildfire, decaying to near zero beyond a distance of 15 kilometers. This effect is concentrated in Democratic-voting areas, and it is nearly zero in Republican-dominated areas. We conclude that experienced climate threats can enhance willingness-to-act but largely in places where voters are known to believe in climate change.