New Research on Voter Responses to Climate Change in Malawi and South Africa

August 5, 2016

Ballots being counted in the 2014 Malawian presidential and parliamentary elections.

Elected officials in Africa who advocate for adoption of climate change policies may actually lose voter support, according to new research by public policy scholars at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University.

The research is published in the August 2016 issue of Environmental Science and Policy.

Brigitte Zimmerman, an assistant professor of public policy in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Nick Obradovich, a postdoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s John. F. Kennedy School of Government, conducted interviews with elected officials and party representatives in Malawi and South Africa. They also ran a survey-based experiment during the 2014 Malawian election and followed that up with a cross-national survey experiment.

One Malawian Parliament member said, “Most people in Malawi don’t know much about climate change. If you talk of climate change, you are guaranteed to lose votes.”

“Africa is the continent most dramatically affected by climate change and therefore most in need of such resources,” Zimmerman said. “But we found that politicians see investing in climate change policy as an imprudent political strategy.”

Why is this so? Obradovich offers a possible answer.

“It is likely a combination of both a lack of knowledge on the part of voters about the probable costs of climate change, coupled with the reality that there are far more pressing issues that voters want to see addressed,” he said. “When people lack food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, health care and more, they aren’t terribly concerned about what might happen decades down the line. Short-term needs eclipse future considerations.”

By 2020, the United Nations Green Climate Fund intends to provide tens of billions of dollars per year to African nations to support climate adaptation and mitigation policies. But Zimmerman and Obradovich argue that the current approach tends to be “top down” in nature, with the international community determining many policy choices without assessing the domestic feasibility of implementation.

“The results suggest the importance of bringing domestic politicians and local officials in developing nations to the global discussion table,” Zimmerman said.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Center for Effective Global Action.