Expert Comment: European public opinion on climate change has become politicised
Thursday 3rd Nov 2022, 10.58am
The European Union will present a united front in favour of ambitious climate action at the forthcoming United Nations climate change conference in Cairo. Across Europe, more broadly, governments support the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But such consensus belies political divisions within European nations.
Disagreement is very intense over climate change between Republicans and Democrats in the United States. But mainstream political parties are not as polarised in Europe. Certainly, there are ‘populist-right’ parties which take a very different stance on climate change from Green parties. But the larger traditional parties are all in broad agreement that climate change is a problem caused by carbon emissions generated from human activity.
With such consensus among the political elites of mainstream parties, there is perhaps relatively little reason for voters with strong feelings about climate change to pick one mainstream party over another. Instead, voters may continue to choose who to vote for based on other issues, such as taxation and public services.
With such consensus among the political elites of mainstream parties, there is perhaps relatively little reason for voters… to pick one mainstream party over another…But recent research shows voters in Europe do, in fact, divide between mainstream parties partly based on climate change attitudes
But recent research shows voters in Europe do, in fact, divide themselves between mainstream parties partly based on climate change attitudes.
Using high-quality European Social Survey data from 21 countries, the study looks at how voters for different kinds of parties differ in their climate attitudes. It confirms some obvious differences: voters for Green parties are the most worried about climate change, while populist-right voters are among the least worried.
But the study also found systematic differences between voters for mainstream left and mainstream right parties. Some 38% of voters for social democrat parties (including the British Labour Party) report being “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, compared with just 26% of voters for conservative parties. Voters for the mainstream left are also more likely to believe climate change is mainly or entirely caused by human activity (49%) than voters for mainstream right parties (39%).
Some 38% of voters for social democrat parties (including the Labour Party) report being “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, compared with just 26% of voters for conservative parties
Of course, divisions such as these could be a statistical by-product of other, more fundamental, processes. For instance, if left-wing people vote for left-wing parties based on welfare policies, but also hold more climate-conscious views than average, then voters for left-wing parties will be more climate-conscious – even if their climate attitudes had nothing to do with their vote choice.
However, the study found party differences in climate change attitudes cannot be so easily explained away. They exist even after accounting for attitudes to income redistribution, gender equality, gay rights, and immigration. Climate change attitudes are linked to vote choice in their own right, not just as a statistical by-product.
That does not mean voters are necessarily choosing parties based on their climate attitudes. It could be that left-wing parties, and more broadly left-wing activists and newspapers on the left, have persuaded left-wing voters to care more about climate change. It could be both, and both are processes that produce politicisation of climate change in domestic electoral politics.
Climate change attitudes are linked to vote choice…[but] That does not mean that voters are necessarily choosing parties based on their climate attitudes
Politicisation, though, is a problem for climate policymakers. If carbon reduction becomes predominantly a left-wing cause, this may alienate voters on the right, making it harder to reach consensus. If mainstream right parties voters care less about the climate, it is harder for leaders of right-wing parties to advocate for effective carbon reduction policies.
Politicisation is a problem for climate policymakers. If carbon reduction becomes predominantly a left-wing cause, this may alienate voters on the right, making it harder to reach consensus.
Over the last two decades, patterns of change in greenhouse gas emissions have depended on which kinds of parties are in government. Although the EU managed to maintain a united front for this year’s UN conference, it was, in fact, the product of tense negotiations and compromise, especially over the use of coal.
If politicisation of climate change at the level of electoral politics gets worse, consensus and action at the intergovernmental level could get harder still