In the World’s Two Largest Democracies, Forms of Vulnerability Informs Voter Preferences Regarding Compensation and Investment in Climate Change Policy

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leah Costik, covers the new article by Nikhar Gaikwad, Columbia University, Federica Genovese, University of Essex, and Dustin Tingley, Harvard University, “Creating Climate Coalitions: Mass Preferences for Compensating Vulnerability in the World’s Two Largest Democracies“.

As concerns over climate change rise, governments across the world are enacting decarbonization, or policies that focus upon a transition away from fossil fuel industries. Yet in this transition, governments must strike a balance: decarbonization may adversely affect some groups of voters over others. To gain support for climate transition policies and alleviate the concerns of voters who stand to be negatively impacted, both policymakers and scholars suggest providing compensation to offset such costs. However, very little academic research exists that examines how voters develop preferences as they relate to compensation and investments in climate policy. In their new article in the American Political Science Review, authors Nikhar Gaikwad, Federica Genovese, and Dustin Tingley use a novel theoretical framework, original surveys, and open-ended responses to investigate what kinds of voters prefer what forms of compensation and investments in climate change policy in both India and the United States.

Compensation refers to the “mechanism for allocating resources to the losing parties of a redistributive economic policy.” A variety of policy tools exist that can provide compensation to either specific or broad societal groups. These tools include direct fiscal transfers, protective infrastructural investments, investments in clean energy and green technologies, and rebates. Gaikwad, Genovese, and Tingley hypothesize that voters’ support for such policy tools will vary given the type and degree of vulnerability any given voter experiences. The authors investigate two types of vulnerability: (1) policy vulnerability, which affects individuals whose economic well-being (notably their wages and employment) depends on carbon-intensive industries and (2) climate change vulnerability, or physical threats given climate change. Voters tend to fall within four groups: “policy threatened but not climate change threatened,” “policy and climate change threatened,” “neither policy threatened nor climate change threatened,” and “climate change threatened but not climate policy threatened.”

To understand how voters would design climate policy, the authors first conducted surveys to benchmark and understand preferences of the average voter in both India and the United States. The same surveys were then administered to “targeted samples of citizens residing in fossil fuel-producing regions that are either physically vulnerable, and thus cross-pressured, or less physically vulnerable.” Survey respondents were presented with a scenario: the government enacted a new climate policy that raised the price of fossil fuels. Given these higher costs, demand for fossil fuels drops. Respondents were asked how to allocate these additional funds raised from the new climate policy.

“(…) The authors demonstrate that considerable support exists among the average voter in both India and the United States to transfer funds to support the most vulnerable among us, a finding that feels both important and hopeful amidst the accelerating climate change crisis.” Their findings center around three groups: the general public, those who live in coal producing regions, and those who face cross-cutting pressures (i.e., they live in regions that depend on fossil fuel production but also are saliently impacted by climate change itself). For voters who live in coal-producing areas, compensation for lost jobs is the preferred compensation policy. The general public prefers climate policy designed to use “diffuse redistribution mechanisms and investments, discounting compensation to targeted groups.” Those voters who are both economically and physically vulnerable to climate change policy have cross-cutting preferences and prefer a mix of rebate policies, investments in green technology, adaptation spending, and compensation for lost jobs. Interestingly, there is considerable support from average voters in both India and the United States “to allocate meaningful funds for transfers to fossil fuel workers and for infrastructural investments in climate vulnerable communities, indicating considerable space for ‘just energy’ policies that compensate the vulnerable.” Finally, open-ended responses and other survey questions allowed respondents to explain their compensation preference. In both India and the United States, voters residing in coal producing regions offered “substantially more community-oriented responses.” In the United States, for example, 32% of coal country respondents justified their policy choice “by referencing themes that evoked prior generations, families, schools, local shops, or regional community identities.” This finding suggests that group identities can become linked to certain sectors within the fossil fuel industry, such as coal mining, for both social and economic reasons, in turn creating shared interests amongst community members for government-led compensatory policies that target entire communities rather than just individuals who stand to lose from decarbonization.

In sum, Gaikwad, Genovese, and Tingley’s piece is a valuable addition to the international relations and comparative politics literature. Three noteworthy contributions stand out. First, the authors contribute research to an area where more academic work is needed: voter preferences and climate change policy. Second, their research comparing India and the United States is relevant; few studies compare developed and developing democracies with the same survey design. Finally and substantively, the authors demonstrate that considerable support exists among the average voter in both India and the United States to transfer funds to support the most vulnerable among us, a finding that feels both important and hopeful amidst the accelerating climate change crisis.