Public opinion drives climate policy

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Around the turn of the millennium, democratically governed countries took a whole host of measures to protect the climate. Also because of public demand, as an SNSF study shows.

People who live in a democracy should theoretically be able to have a say in policy. In a study* supported by the SNSF, researchers have now established that this was indeed the case in climate policy between 1995 and 2010. "Popular opinion on climate policy at the time has been a blind spot so far," says Lena Maria Schaffer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Lucerne. "It's true that there were already green parties, but the issue was not yet as important, so there is virtually no polling data from that period."

Against this backdrop, political scientists from the University of Lucerne and ETH Zurich reconstructed the public's attitude to climate protection between 1995 and 2010 with the help of an elaborate method: they combed through the newspaper archives in six democratically governed countries – Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Italy, the USA and Canada – and analysed the reporting of climate policy issues in general und regarding different targets such as transport or energy supply. They distinguished between demands for more climate protection, for maintaining the status quo and for less climate protection. Demands by members of the government were not included. As many studies show, politicians regard the published opinions in quality media as a good proxy for public opinion and act accordingly.

Statutory CO2 tax

The researchers then compared the frequency and thrust of the media reports with the actual political measures for climate protection in the respective countries. "Here we see a clear correlation. More public demand actually leads to more climate policy," says Schaffer. This also applies to the regulation of individual sub-sectors of climate policy such as energy supply, transport, buildings and household appliances.

For Schaffer, the results shed a positive light on democratic responsiveness. As an example, she mentions the introduction of a CO2 tax on fossil fuels in Switzerland in 2008. Previously, articles on climate protection had appeared frequently in the newspapers between 2005 and 2007. Although public interest dropped briefly after policy implementation in a kind of thermostat effect, it then quickly picked up again: "People are not satisfied with one law per area of climate policy, but demand more and more from their elected representatives."