The climate policy disconnect: It’s rural voter over-representation

It’s puzzling to many observers why political support for international environmental measures lags so far behind the apparent popular support in each country.

But a new paper finds that over-representation of regional voters can make a significant difference to public policy on both gasoline taxes and international climate change agreements.

This is what they found when correlating the malapportionment of votes to the length of time ratifying the Kyoto Protocol:

Broz and Maliniak, University of California

Source: Broz and Maliniak, University of California

Here is the nub of the argument by J. Lawrence Broz and Daniel Maliniak:

Malapportionment results in a “rural bias” such that the political system disproportionately represents rural voters. Since rural voters in industrialized countries rely more heavily on fossil fuels than urban voters, our prediction is that malapportioned political systems will have lower gasoline taxes, and less commitment to climate change amelioration, than systems with equitable representation of constituents. We find that malapportionment is negatively related to both gasoline taxes and support for the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (where “support” is measured as the duration of the spell between the signing of the Protocol and ratification by the domestic legislature).

They point out (as we’ve written here before) that variations in support for the Kyoto Protocol, at least among Annexe 1 countries, can’t be explained by differences in development levels.

However, rural voters are more likely to oppose environmental taxes – even when urban/rural divides in education levels, exposure to actual pollution, and political ideology are all controlled for. They found a similar inclination amongst urban dwellers. The authors argue this is completely rationale – rural residents bear a a heavier burden from environmental taxes. Meanwhile:

Residents of cities should be more willing to support international environmental agreements if the burden of GHG reduction falls more directly on rural citizens. According to Dodman (2009), cities are not to blame for global warming. In high-income countries, residents of major cities generally push heavy polluters outside their borders while urban density helps create the environmental efficiencies that make cities less harmful overall. As a result, suburbs and rural areas produce a larger share of the pollution. However, as argued in previous sections, the very density that creates these environmental efficiencies may harm urban dwellers’ political voice if malapportionment exists.

The correlation makes perfect sense when considering the US, for example – the authors point out that “(Wyoming) has 2 senators per million voters, while the most populous state (California) has but 0.06 senators per million voters”.

The upper house in Australia, which has also seen its attempts to introduce a cap-and-trade system stumble, has similar problems with representation: each state has six senators, meaning Tasmania, with barely half a million residents, has the same number as New South Wales, with almost 7m. The case is perhaps better made for Queensland and particularly Western Australia, which both have strong fossil fuels industries, relatively rural dwelling patterns, and populations of about 2m and 4.5m respectively.

It’s a little cliched, but compare that to China, which is aggressively shoring up future supplies of both fossil fuels and renewable energy with little need to seek political support on either front.

The full paper, which was presented at an international political economy conference, is here. H/T The Monkey Cage via Matthew Yglesias.

Related links:

Why we don’t do much about climate change (FT Energy Source)
Why are China and the US different? (FT Energy Source)

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