Do Disasters Rally Support for Climate Action? It’s Complicated.

Environmental disasters like wildfires can ignite awareness of climate change and boost eco-friendly politicians’ careers. But do voters perceive a tradeoff between environmental policies and local economic growth?

In Brazil, home to a majority of the Amazon tropical rainforest—known as the lungs of the planet—voters in adjacent soybean and cattle-raising regions seem to think so, finds a recent working paper co-authored by Harvard Business School assistant professor Paula Rettl.

“What we’re trying to show is that, for some people, [natural disasters] do increase the salience [of environmental issues].”

When climate-change-fueled fires destroy areas of rainforest, people in nearby municipalities tend to rally behind candidates supporting “green” policies. But in agricultural areas with a concentration of soy farming and cattle ranching, where newly cleared land means near-term economic opportunity, voters respond to fires in the opposite way. In other words, voters exposed to fires in these areas tend to turn against politicians who support climate-saving measures instead, the authors write.

“What we’re trying to show is that, for some people, [natural disasters] do increase the salience [of environmental issues]. But because they may profit from this disaster or event that is connected to climate change, somehow, they don’t become more green,” Rettl says. “They get this information, but still go more anti-environmentalist.”

That’s because in areas covered by forest and natural vegetation in Brazil, large fires can create economic opportunities through the illegal but common practice of “land-grabbing” sometimes via unofficial or false documents.

Rettl conducted the study with Silvia Pianta, a scientist at the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment. The work raises important considerations about the complicated financial motives that arise out of the climate crisis and hints at ways to align incentives for environmentally friendly businesses.

Testing support for a green candidate after a fire

The authors examined municipal-level backing in 2018 for Brazil’s leading green presidential candidate, Marina Silva, to gauge how climate events affected political choices.

Silva had served as environment minister under a previous administration and is the leading environmental voice in Brazilian politics. In the 2018 Brazilian elections, Silva ran on a “marked pro-environmental platform” and was knocked out of the second round.

Brazil’s presidential elections require two rounds, one to winnow down the field and a final round to select a winner. The researchers focused on the first round. For comparison, the authors also examined 2010 and 2014 presidential elections in which Silva also ran.

They then compared municipalities impacted by large-scale fires the week before the election with a control group of municipalities without. The authors focused on large-scale fires because the disasters are “usually initiated by human activity that grow out of control due to weather conditions,” they write.

A fiery awakening, then an election day boost

The authors crunched fire and weather activity data from Brazil’s national space agency, INPE. They also gathered municipal election data maintained by the country’s Superior Electoral Court and figures for the soy and cattle farming sectors in 2017, the year before the 2018 election, from the Brazilian Ministry of the Economy.

They found large-scale fires boosted Silva’s vote share in the seven days before the 2018 election. The effect is sizable and, at the municipal level, ranges from an increase of 0.7 to 1.6 percentage points, depending on the model specification. Silva’s average vote share was 8 percent between 2010 and 2018.

Yet, in municipal areas where jobs in soy farming and cattle ranching abound, large-scale fires did not increase and might even have decreased Silva’s support, the authors show.

Economics and culture

In some regions of Brazil, acquiring land and succeeding in agribusiness such as soy, one of the country’s biggest exports, or cattle production, is seen as progress toward modernity rather than planetary harm, says Rettl, citing work by Jeffrey Hoelle, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Even if alternative jobs are created, getting people to think of them as an option may be difficult, Rettl says.

“Something that we try to highlight in the paper, although we don’t test it directly, is that economics and culture are very intertwined,” Rettl says. “Even if you have activities that are more profitable and people could work in the standing forests, maybe there’s something cultural that means they would still prefer to work in another type of activity, like cattle production.”

“It’s important to understand that it’s critical to address the problem in a way that at least the most vulnerable people are protected.”

The work has far-reaching implications for other industries that seek to help mitigate climate change, such as solar energy or electric vehicles, Rettl says.

It’s crucial for democracies to support workers transitioning into industries that will thrive under more environmentally friendly conditions, Rettl adds. Examples include supporting coal miners in Spain to transition to green energy industries or providing workable subsidies for electric cars in the US.

“It’s important to understand that it’s critical to address the problem in a way that at least the most vulnerable people are protected,” Rettl says. “If they get this help to transition from an industry that is becoming irrelevant, they are not going to be as dissatisfied, as disenchanted with not just some political parties, but sometimes even with the entire system and democracy generally.”

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Designer’s note: This illustration above was created using an image generated by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool, and AdobeStock/ahirao.

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