Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.
Skip to content Skip to navigation

E-IPER Dissertation Defense : Samantha Sekar

Date and Time: 
February 21, 2020 - 2:00pm to 3:00pm
Y2E2 299
Contact Email:
Contact Phone: 
Event Sponsor: 
Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources

"Misrepresented: Understanding the gap between US public opinion and policy on climate change"

The US federal government and most state governments have failed to pass legislation aimed at achieving large-scale greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions despite nationwide popular support for those reductions. This dissertation examines three potential causes of this democratic deficit with respect to climate policy: (1) each policymaker is representing their own constituency's preference; (2) policymakers are not aware of their constituents' preferences; (3) constituents need to send a stronger signal about their preferences to policymakers. I address cause 1 by predicting state-level climate change opinion to determine whether support for reducing GHG emissions is clustered in a few states or is present in a majority of states. My results indicate that states overwhelmingly support reducing GHG emissions. I conduct survey experiments on state and local policymakers to study cause two. I find that policymakers consistently underestimate how popular climate policy is among their constituents. I also find that policymakers support slightly stronger emissions reductions policies when they learn that the policies are in fact popular. However, policymakers might not respond to public opinion polls alone, because they might believe that constituents' preferences for climate policy are very weak. Thus, to address cause three, I study the factors that motivate environmental political activism. Through a series of survey experiments, I show that Americans who are in favor of climate policy are most likely to also engage in political activism when they learn that millions of other Americans are doing the same. Overall, my research suggests that climate policy is more popular than we all, including policymakers, tend to believe. However, informing the public and policymakers about its true level of popularity does not seem to be sufficient to motivate the necessary scale of policy action on climate change.