Domestic Politics and Greenhouse Gas Emission Control

Publication Date01 Mar 2009
AuthorPierre Martin,Vincent Arel-Bundock
SubjectThe 2008 US Election—Challenges for a New President
IJ Layout Vincent Arel-Bundock &
Pierre Martin
Domestic politics
and greenhouse gas
emission control
Washington’s turn to act
Did the politics of greenhouse gas emissions play any role in the historic
elections of 2008? And, most importantly, will the election of the Democrat
Barack Obama to the White House make any difference for the US policy
on climate change? Although environmental issues were not central in the
voting calculations of the average American last November, there are
fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans on the
environment—particularly on climate change—and it does matter at this
Vincent Arel-Bundock is an MA candidate in political science at McGill University. He also
is a student associate in the chair in American political and economic studies at the
Université de Montréal, where he graduated with a degree in economics and politics. Pierre
Martin is professor of political science and director of the chair in American political and
economic studies at the Université de Montréal. His most recent book, edited with Michel
Fortmann, is
Le système politique américain (Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2008).
| International Journal | Winter 2008-09 | 163 |

| Vincent Arel-Bundock & Pierre Martin |
crucial juncture that Democrats will be in control at both ends of
Pennsylvania Avenue.
We start with a few observations that highlight the differences between
the two parties in this policy area. Then we move on to a brief assessment of
the Bush record, followed by a discussion of the place of the climate change
issue in the 2008 presidential election. We conclude that, after several years
during which most of the initiatives in this area came from state and
provincial governments in the United States and Canada, the election of a
Democratic administration that is seriously committed to greenhouse gas
emission control represents a unique opportunity to make concrete progress
in this area.
Despite a general rise in the awareness of climate change, a number of
indicators reveal deep partisan and geographical cleavages on the issue in
the American public, both in terms of perceptions of the problem and of
policy preferences. For example, a March 2008 Gallup poll showed a 31
percentage point gap in the proportion of Republicans (42 percent) and
Democrats (73 percent) who believe that human activities have had a more
important impact than natural changes on the earth’s temperature over the
last century.1 Policy preferences also differ widely. If 68 percent of Democrats
think not enough regulation is in place to protect the environment, only 36
percent of Republicans are of that opinion (10 percent of Democrats and 34
percent of Republicans think there is too much regulation).2 Of course, these
differences reflect the general attitudes of the two parties’ supporters on
government intervention, but the sources of the differences may be deeper.
A simple look at the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions
and partisan voting patterns yields interesting insights on the politics of
climate change. Across states in the 2008 presidential election, carbon
dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita were strongly correlated (r = 0.65) with
the share of the popular vote for Republican candidate John McCain.3 This
1 “Climate-change views: Republican-Democratic gaps expand,” Gallup, 2008,
2 Harris poll, 16-23 October 2007.
3 The correlation is between the natural log of CO2 emissions per capita (in tons) and
the Republican share of the two-party vote for president in 2008. See Energy
Information Administration and the Census Bureau for state-by-state CO2 emissions
(most recent 2005) and population, and for the vote. The correlations were
0.66 in 2000 and 0.67 in 2004.
| 164 | Winter 2008-09 | International Journal |

| Domestic politics and greenhouse gas emission control |
is not surprising, insofar as those most at risk of incurring high adjustment
costs if stringent regulations were enacted (big emitters) tend to support
candidates who favour less ambitious reduction targets and programs; the
same would certainly be true in Canada. Still, the strength of association
between the two variables is striking and suggests deep structural roots
beneath the Republicans’ reluctance to endorse policies to limit or roll back
greenhouse gas emissions.
The Clinton years saw relatively vigorous climate-change action at the
federal level, but the senate’s opposition to Kyoto, exemplified by the
landmark 95-0 vote on the Byrd-Hagel resolution, ensured that even with Al

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