Experience of extreme climate events in Europe (especially warmer temperatures) makes people more concerned about the environment. This is making people more likely to take political action — most notably, voting for Green parties, a new study suggests. For the researchers, this could help better understand the drivers of public support for climate action in the region and elsewhere.
In the past years, Europe has seen its warmest years on record, leading to an increase in climate-related risks. In the summer of 2021, for example, the number of wildfires doubled that of the annual average in the past decade, with several western European countries like Germany experiencing their most devastating floods in decades.
The EU has committed to cut at least 55% of its greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2030. This requires big changes in production and consumption involving all sectors, and in order to achieve this transition, public support is crucial. While in 2002 just 5% of Europeans said the environment should be a priority, this proportion tripled in 2019, especially in Nordic countries.
This was reflected in the last European Parliamentary elections in 2019 when there was a big rise in vote share of the Green parties. Between 2004 and 2019, the percentage of seats held by Green parties in the Parliament increased by 74% from 5.7% to 9.9%. In several European countries, environmental parties have become a significant force. Observing this trend, a group of European researchers wanted to further explore it, identifying its main drivers.
Key voting trends
Roman Hoffmann, Jonas Peisker, Raya Muttarak, and colleagues investigated the effect of more frequent and intense experiences with climate extremes on environmental concerns. Basically, they analyzed to what extent changes in concerns translate into actual political support for Green parties. They used EU surveys and Parliament election data to test their theory.
“With the issue of climate change becoming more concrete and salient, people’s willingness to engage in and to support climate action increases, including at the political level in the form of voting for pro-environmental parties. These changes can contribute to shifts in the political landscape at a larger scale,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers found that exposure to temperature variations, heat waves and drought events can increase environmental concerns as well as the vote share of Green parties. For example, if every month in a year had an additional unusually warm day, green concerns and voting would increase by 0.8%, respectively, according to their findings.
However, there were major regional variations. Extreme weather had a stronger effect on environmental concerns and voting in regions with a temperate and colder climate compared to Mediterranean regions with a warm, arid climate. This could be because the Mediterranean climate is already hot and dry, hence temperature increase may have a reduced effect.
The researchers also found that the effects of experiencing climate extremes on environmental concerns and voting are less pronounced in regions with lower income levels. In other words, when the economy is bad, people will not prioritize environmental issues over other problems, Hoffmann and Muttarak told ZME Science.
“Obviously, exposure to climate change impacts is not the ideal way to promote public concern and action. Climate communication and education can help fill the experience gap. Studies have shown that carefully designed messages can reduce the psychological distance and promote mitigation behaviours,” the researchers wrote. “Beyond personal experiences, peer groups and (social) media play an important role”
Asked about trends in other parts of the world, not covered by the study, the researchers said that the US case might be different because of their long history of political divide. The political system is also an important difference, with the US being essentially a two-party country, while in Europe, there is generally a political pluralism with more parties involved.
Other parts of the world might have a similar trend to the EU in climate change concerns, but may not have any Green parties to focus their votes on.
The study was published in the journal Nature.