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How natural disasters can affect environmental concerns, risk aversion, and even politics: evidence from Fukushima and three European countries


We study the impact of the Fukushima disaster on environmental concerns, well-being, risk aversion, and political preferences in Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. In these countries, overall life satisfaction did not significantly decrease, but the disaster significantly increased environmental concerns among Germans. One underlying mechanism likely operated through the perceived risk of a similar meltdown of domestic reactors. After Fukushima, more Germans considered themselves as “very risk averse.” However, drastic German policy action shut down the oldest reactors, implemented the phaseout of the remaining ones, and proclaimed the transition to renewables. This shift in energy policy contributed to the subsequent decrease in environmental concerns, particularly among women, Green party supporters, and people living in close distance to the oldest reactors. In Germany, political support for the Greens increased significantly, whereas in Switzerland and the UK, this increase was limited to people living close to reactors.

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  1. Other studies assess the indirect effects of the War Against Terrorism by showing that combat exposure increases (i) risky behaviors, such as smoking or drug use, among affected soldiers (Cesur et al. 2014), as well as (ii) sleep disorders, psychological problems, and the risk of migraine headache (Cesur et al. 2015).

  2. In addition to these three studies focusing on well-being, Bauer et al. (2013) study the impact of the shutdown of reactors on housing prices in Germany. They find that housing prices decreased by between 6 and 12 %.

  3. Table A4 in the Online Appendix shows simple socioeconomic determinants of environmental concerns. The findings largely confirm the previous literature: Relative to the mean share of very environmentally concerned people in the population, which is 31 %, environmental concerns are (i) 7 ppt higher among females and (ii) 3 ppt higher among disabled individuals, whereas they decrease (iii) by 0.5 ppt for each child in the household, (iv) by 21 ppt for individuals with the lowest educational degree (less than secondary) relative to the highest educational degree (tertiary), and (v) by 6 ppt for individuals who are full-time employed relative to being irregularly employed.

  4. In the empirical models, we take the retrospective nature of these questions into account and use the date 4 weeks after the Fukushima disaster and the policy action as the cutoff dates, i.e., April 11 instead of March 11, 2011, for the Fukushima disaster and June 30 instead of May 30, 2011 for the policy action.

  5. At the time of the disaster, Germany’s parliament comprised five political parties. With 44 % of the votes, the Christian- Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) formed the governing coalition. The Social Democrats, the Greens, and The Left formed the opposition. Accordingly, we generate a variable “Supports Government.”

  6. Traditionally, (inter-generational) geographic mobility is very low in Germany. In a given year, only about 1 % of SOEP respondents move (not shown).

  7. The results are robust to running Logit Models with marginal effects instead of Linear Probability Models. The results are available upon request.

  8. In practice, the fieldwork company that carries out the interviews assigns each interviewer two to three tranches of respondents with addresses to schedule and conduct interviews over a defined time period of a couple of months. Within that time period, each interviewer coordinates the specific interview independently with the respondent. This approach guarantees a relative balancedness of interviewee characteristics over the year.

  9. We also checked the covariate balance with respect to the May 30 and June 30, 2011, cutoff dates for the policy action. Again, none of the normalized differences exceed the threshold of 0.25. The results are available upon request. In addition, we calculated the normalized differences and means for the important outcome variable “environmental concerns” by the policy dates May 30 and June 30 in 2010. We find that, if anything, respondents interviewed later in the year report higher levels of environmental concerns. For the May 30 cutoff date, the mean levels are 0.29 (pre) and 0.32 (post), whereas they are 0.30 (pre) and 0.32 (post) for the June 30 cutoff date. The differences are, however, not statistically significant and the normalized differences are below 0.05 in both cases.

  10. On March 11, 2011, 80 interviews were carried out, the week before 81, the week after 64, and on the last Friday of March, 78 interviews were conducted.

  11. As a referee correctly pointed out, there may be unobserved third factors that vary systematically across seasons and may affect environmental concerns, e.g., air pollution.

    Ziebarth et al. (2014) show that between 1999 and 2008 pollution patterns follow very regular seasonal patterns in Germany. Unless there was an unusual and longer-term spike in air pollution exactly at the time of Fukushima, monthly fixed effects should net out seasonal pollution effects.

  12. We also tested whether the release of the report of the Reactor Safety Commission on May 17, 2011 (the so-called Reaktorsicherheitskommission), which gave a rather negative safety outlook for German reactors, had any impact on environmental concerns, but do not find any evidence for that.

  13. We routinely cluster standard errors at the interview date level (Bertrand et al. 2004, Lee and Card, 2008). However, clustering at the household or state level does not alter the results. The results are available upon request.

  14. When using March 14 as disaster date, the results remain largely robust. The results are also robust to collapsing the three categorical environmental concern questions differently. When we run the same models but collapse the categories “somewhat” and “very concerned,” we find that the share of at least “somewhat” concerned Germans increased by 2 ppt from a baseline level of 89 % after Fukushima. The results are available upon request.

  15. There are several explanations for why climate change concerns significantly increased after Fukushima: (1) It could simply be that the environmental disaster raised people’s awareness about environmental issues, (2) In the short run, shutting down nuclear power plants means replacing the energy production largely with climate-damaging fossil energy, and/or (3) individuals might be confused that nuclear energy and emissions have not been linked to climate change.

  16. In columns (2) and (3) of Table A6 in the Online Appendix, we show that the main results are robust to excluding individuals who live outside a 50-km radius of their birth place and individuals who moved in the previous time period.

  17. The results are robust to alternate cutoff radii.

  18. The fact that we do not find differential effects for those in close proximity, with less than 50 km, may be explained by concern level-based sorting into residencies close to nuclear plants. In extended analyses not displayed, we stratify by the following three measures: (a) whether the closest nuclear power plant will be shut down before 2022 and (b) whether the closest nuclear power plant will not be shut down (exploiting the fact that some Germans live in close distance to nuclear power plants in France and Switzerland, which are not affected by the policy action in Germany). However, we do not find evidence for differential effects by (a) and (b). The results are available upon request.

  19. Unfortunately, we cannot exploit risk aversion measures for the UK and Switzerland since they were only surveyed for one cross section (that also only includes very few post-Fukushima respondents) in both countries (and we show that addition of individual fixed effects matters in Tab A10, also see Hanaoka et al. 2014).

  20. Note that environmental concerns were only surveyed in waves 11 and 13 of the SHP. Since respondents of each wave are interviewed between September and February, the models are essentially comparing individual responses between September 2009 and February 2010 to responses between September 2011 and February 2012. The employed fixed effects models net out individual unobserved heterogeneity and solely focus on changes in the responses between these two waves. Understanding Society does not include environmental concerns which is why we cannot test if they remain elevated for the UK.

  21. Although the Chernobyl catastrophe happened on the evening of April 26, it took 2 days, until April 28, before the media started reporting about it.

  22. The baseline level of environmental concern before Chernobyl (40 %) was higher than before Fukushima (28 %).

  23. Also note that Metcalfe et al. (2011), who study the impact of 9/11 on mental well-being in the UK, still report a relatively large coefficient of 0.18 (which is significant at the 10 % level) one year after the attacks. Since the immediate effect was 0.24, this implicitly means that we do not observe a “return-to-the baseline” effect for 9/11 in the UK.

  24. As in Figure 5, we report daily averages. However, since we plot the daily averages over several years and most respondents were interviewed in the first months of a year, we observe jumps in the graph. To smooth them out, we disregard days with fewer than five interviews.

  25. Meanwhile, the Energiewende is exemplary with at least 65 countries—among them the USA—copying the subsidy (called “Einspeisevergütung”) for renewables (REN21 2013).


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The authors thank the anonymous reviewers, the editor Erdal Tekin, Silke Anger, Peter Eibich, Ronny Freier, Jan Marcus, Jürgen Schupp, Gert G. Wagner, Michael Weinhardt, and participants at the European Economic Association Annual Meeting 2014, Toulouse, the International Association for Applied Econometrics Annual Meeting 2014, London, the European Society for Population Economics Annual Meeting 2014, Braga, the European Public Choice Society Annual Meeting 2014, Cambridge, and the “Public Finances and Living Conditions” Cluster Seminar at DIW Berlin. A special thank goes to Adam Lederer and Eric Maroney for an excellent editing of this paper and to Aline Passlack for an excellent research assistance. The authors take responsibility for all remaining errors in and shortcomings of this article.

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Table 11 Descriptive Statistics—Germany (SOEP)
Table 12 Descriptive Statistics—Switzerland (SHP)
Table 13 Descriptive Statistics—UK (Understanding Society)

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Goebel, J., Krekel, C., Tiefenbach, T. et al. How natural disasters can affect environmental concerns, risk aversion, and even politics: evidence from Fukushima and three European countries. J Popul Econ 28, 1137–1180 (2015).

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  • Fukushima
  • Nuclear phaseout
  • Environmental concerns
  • Well-being
  • Risk aversion
  • Green party

JEL Classification

  • I18
  • I31
  • Q54