Red Light on Green Policies

Why Biden may turn out to be less concerned about climate change than advertised

Image Credit: George Rose/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s presidential bid has substantial pro-environment elements, building on a generally green (by American standards) 40-year political resume and reflecting the greater importance American voters have been attaching to environmentalism of late. However, should he secure the keys to the White House, those hoping for a green revolution are likely to see Biden’s environmental walk fall short of his environmental talk.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that even if the polls are true and voters do care a lot about the environment, Biden may choose to pay the environment lip service in an attempt to secure longer-term political support among less environmentally conscious Republicans and independents. The second is that when it comes to green policies, voters themselves often like to talk the talk while failing to walk the walk.

Political Expedience

Starting with the first reason, Biden is trying to do more than win the presidency: he wants to ensure that his party retains control of the House of Representatives and that it gains control of the Senate. Therefore, his eyes are not only on the 2020 ballot—they are also on the 2022 midterm elections. He knows from his own experience as vice president that a Republican Senate can effectively derail a lot of the policies that he is seeking to implement. He also remembers that during his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, his party lost control of both the House (2010) and the Senate (2014).

To achieve these goals, Biden needs to woo some of the people who traditionally vote Republican, in addition to independents. Climate change remains a polarizing issue: in a February poll, 77 percent of registered Democratic voters regarded climate change as a “very big” problem for the country, compared to only 13 percent of registered Republicans. Therefore, if Biden enacts strongly green policies, he risks losing the political support of swing voters.

Moreover, in the eyes of all Democrats, Donald Trump’s transgressions are so severe that nearly all will vote for Biden no matter how disappointing he is on environmental issues, meaning that Biden need not fear losing his party’s left as he flutters his eyelashes at centrists and moderate Republicans. The calculus was different when he was fighting Bernie Sanders for the Democrat nomination, but since securing that, the party’s left has been firmly under his control.

Commons Problems and Free Riders

The second reason why Biden may leave greens harrumphing is much more complex and interesting than straightforward applications of the median voter theorem: people claim they care a lot about the environment, but they don’t really mean it.

To see why, note that climate change’s properties as a social problem are unusual: it is a global, long-term commons problem infused with partisanship and a unique set of social norms.

A commons problem is one where the efforts of any individual or small group are, in isolation, inconsequential: everyone needs to sacrifice to realize the shared goal. This creates a strong incentive for people to free-ride on the sacrifices made by others. In fact, it is completely rational to want other people to use their cars less, to recycle more, etc., while you continue to choose the cheapest and most convenient consumption option.

Solving a commons problem is difficult but not impossible. However, it becomes very difficult when it is a long-term one, i.e., where the consequences of everyone free-riding are not immediately felt but are borne predominately by future generations. This is a result of human psychology: we have evolved to exert a lot of effort tackling problems that require immediate attention, such as a war or famine, at the expense of problems that can be kicked down the road. Climate change definitely falls into this category: while its supposed impacts are increasingly tangible and salient, such as extreme weather, melting glaciers, and forest fires, the cataclysmic effects are yet to materialize for the overwhelming majority of the US public, and so it is hard for them to get too worked up about it.

Another example of a long-term commons problem is rising public debt. Not surprisingly, the United States has, like many other democracies, a huge public debt problem that is getting steadily worse. However, with the exception of Ross Perot, politicians correctly perceive voter indifference to the problem of a looming default on the public debt and generally ignore it. Why does the environment get attention where the public debt does not?

This is where partisanship and social norms play a role. A social norm has emerged, among Democrats in particular, that protecting the environment is a moral responsibility, like denouncing racism or violence. Social norms work by socializing people into feeling guilty—or by explicitly sanctioning them socially (think cancel culture)—for violating the social norm, and so this creates an incentive for people to claim to support the environment even if they do not, deep down. In the case of the public debt, no such movement has caught on yet (no one is being labeled a “public-debt denier”), and so there is no social pressure for people to demand that the public debt be addressed.

So why do so many Republicans seem happy to ignore this social norm? Because the social norm about climate change is partisan-based, with members of each party using their stated views regarding the environment as a way of articulating their political affiliation.

Stated versus Actual Preferences

The wedge that social norms drive between people’s stated and true preferences can be seen by looking at data on actual behavior. There are many polls and academic papers demonstrating convincingly that registered Democrats verbally support green policies much more than do Republicans. However, when we look at data on the difference in green behavior, we see a much smaller gap. For example, a 2006 survey found that Democrats and Republicans recycled in approximately equal measure. A 2008 study found that self-identified conservationists consume approximately 10 percent less electricity than non-conservationists—a nontrivial difference, but one that falls considerably short of the green rhetoric outwardly exhibited by conservationists.

Similar patterns are seen in the arena of charitable contributions and redistributive taxation. Democrats claim to strongly support high taxes in an effort to tackle inequality and poverty, yet detailed surveys of charitable contributions have found that Republicans actually donate more, even controlling for income levels. Subsequent research has found that perhaps there is no significant difference between the two parties, but there is little doubt that the Democrats’ fervent support for higher taxation is not matched by elevated donations to charitable causes.

As an experienced politician, Biden knows all of this. Even if he will not adopt green policies, he is aware that acting as if he will is important for securing grassroots support that goes beyond votes, because many people’s self-image concerns require them to support a leader who is at least willing to talk the talk.

One issue that Biden will need to tackle that is certainly not a commons problem is unemployment and falling living standards for many Americans due to the coronavirus. Should he win in November, this will surely take priority over the environment. While green policies and job creation are not necessarily conflicting goals, many of the most effective climate change policies, such as reducing oil and natural gas production and taxing carbon, will likely cost jobs in the short run, and so they are unlikely to be adopted. However, getting into the White House first requires presenting a white lie to those who want to believe that the president will tackle climate change. Given Trump’s propensity to be economical with the truth, Biden’s supporters are unlikely to be too upset by his reneging on his environmental commitments.

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