Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Carbon Geography: The Political Economy of Congressional Support for Legislation Intended to Mitigate Greenhouse Gas Production

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Carbon Geography: The Political Economy of Congressional Support for Legislation Intended to Mitigate Greenhouse Gas Production

Article excerpt


The U.S. Congress has recently voted on several pieces of legislation with the direct intent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The June 2009 vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) is the most well known. This legislation embodied many initiatives for mitigating climate change including creating a comprehensive domestic cap and trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. If this bill had become law, the United States would have demonstrated credible leadership on the climate mitigation issue and this could have nudged China and India and other developing nations to join a global coalition to overcome the fundamental global free rider problem.

But, in the summer of 2010 in the midst of a deep recession the Senate chose to not bring the issue for a vote. (1) Both Gallup Polls and investigations of Google search trends (Kahn and Kotchen 2011) suggest that the recession has played a causal role in diminishing the desire to address the medium-term threat of climate change. The 2010 election resulted in a Republican control of the House of Representatives and their increased representation in the Senate. Today, few believe that the Federal government will soon enact significant carbon mitigation legislation

While the Congress has chosen not to take significant actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the votes that individual Congressional members have cast provide revealed preference evidence on the correlates of support for greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. This paper uses a unique data set on Congressional district carbon emissions, and more standard sociodemographics of the district and characteristics

of the Congressional representative to test for the role that a Congressional district's income, greenhouse gas emissions, and political ideology each play in determining voting on carbon mitigation legislation. We study recent voting patterns on major pieces of carbon mitigation legislation including the 2009 ACES.

Recent Congressional voting patterns on such carbon legislation offer the opportunity to test several political economy theories of support for environmental regulation. Cross-country studies such as Seldon and Song (1995) and Hilton and Levinson (1998) have emphasized that richer nations are more likely to enact more stringent regulation. We test whether voters who live in richer Congressional districts are more likely to support anti-carbon legislation. Political economy studies such as Peltzman (1984) emphasize the importance of "price" as a determinant of voting behavior. If a piece of legislation is likely to be costly to a specific jurisdiction, then it is intuitive that its political representatives will oppose this piece of legislation. In the case of carbon legislation, it is difficult to predict the full incidence of such legislation. (2) We test the second hypothesis by proxying for the "price" of voting in favor of carbon legislation using a Congressional district's per-capita carbon emissions.

Our third main hypothesis focuses on the role of political ideology as a key determinant of voting patterns. Traditional political economy theories of voting have often stressed the importance of self-interest as the key determinant (Pashigian 1985; Peltzman 1984). In the case of environmental politics, political ideology may also play a key role in determining Congressional voting patterns. Peltzman (1984) notes that on social issues, ideology matters more than in the case of economy policy. The broad issue of climate change mitigation represents a hybrid of both economic policy and social policy. After all, there are major economic industries such as oil, coal-fired electric utilities, and energy intensive industries whose costs would be directly affected by a carbon tax or a cap and trade carbon policy. (3) The Midwest agricultural sector has a deep economic stake in having subsidies enacted for the production of corn-based ethanol to achieve the low carbon fuel standard. …

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