Climate change may speed democratic turnover

Abstract

The electoral fate of incumbent politicians depends heavily upon voters’ well-being. Might climate change – by amplifying threats to human well-being – cause incumbent democratic politicians and parties to lose office more frequently? Here I conduct the first-ever investigation of the relationship between temperature, electoral returns, and future climate change. Using data from over 1.5 billion votes in over 4,800 electoral contests held in 19 countries between 1925 and 2011, coupled with meteorological data, I show that increases in annual temperatures above 21 °C (70 °F) markedly decrease officeholders’ vote share. I combine these empirical estimates with an ensemble of climate models to project the impact of climate change on the fate of future officeholders. Resulting forecasts indicate that by 2099 climate change may reduce average incumbent party vote share across all nations in the sample, with the most acute worsening occurring in poorer countries. If realized, these predictions indicate that climate change could amplify future rates of democratic turnover by causing incumbent parties and their politicians to lose office with increasing frequency.

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    Numerous studies directly link perceptions and personal experience of climate change related events to changes in political attitudes and behaviors regarding climate change. One topic includes literature on the “local warming effect”, or the propensity of individuals to report greater belief in and political concern about climate change when they experience warmer temperatures (Egan and Mullin 2012; Lang 2014; Zaval et al. 2014). Other studies directly examine the underpinnings for political behaviors regarding climate change (Krosnick et al. 2006; Gifford 2011; Myers et al. 2012; Roser-Renouf et al. 2014; Brügger et al. 2015; Linden 2015; Obradovich and Guenther 2016). Here I do not focus on climate change related political attitudes or behaviors themselves but instead on the potential for climatic changes to alter broader political behaviors.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant Nos. DGE0707423, 0903551, TG-SES130013, and 1424091). I thank D. Alex Hughes and the San Diego Supercomputer Center for their assistance and J. Burney, J. Fowler, C. Gibson, B. LeVeck, A. Lo, D. Victor, and members of the UCSD Human Nature Group and Comparative Politics Workshop for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Nick Obradovich.

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Obradovich, N. Climate change may speed democratic turnover. Climatic Change 140, 135–147 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1833-8

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Keywords

  • Elections
  • Democracy
  • Political instability
  • Climate change impacts