Research - 27.08.2021 - 00:00

Survey on the CO₂ Act: Climate protection a question of deliberation and intuition

How can climate protection gain the support of the majority in referendums? A survey by the Institute for Economy and the Environment at the University of St.Gallen (IWÖ-HSG) on the referendum campaign for the CO₂ Act in Switzerland indicates deficiencies in climate communication to date. The analysis provides clear evidence of the role of emotions in opinion forming.

27 August 2021. Researchers from the Institute for Economy and the Environment at the University of St.Gallen (IWÖ-HSG) analysed emotional and content-related dynamics in the referendum campaign for the CO₂ Act during a post-referendum survey.

Despite high levels of agreement initially, the CO₂ Act was rejected by 51.6 per cent of the electorate on 13 June 2021. What brought about this change of opinion? What might be learnt from this in order to enable future Swiss climate policy to gain the support of the majority? A research team headed by Martina Rothenberger and Professor Rolf Wüstenhagen at the University of St.Gallen (HSG) devoted itself to answering this question using a representative survey of 757 voters following the referendum. Alongside the content of the arguments put forward, the researchers focussed particularly on emotional dynamics in the referendum campaign. This topic has been discussed a great deal in public opinion research since Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election in 2016.

Climate policy a matter of intense feelings

The topic of climate policy awakens mixed feelings among the electorate. The researchers asked those surveyed to note down the first three thoughts or images that came to them with respect to the topic of climate policy and then to rate these three associations on an emotional scale. It is evident that the opponents of the CO₂ Act largely express negative associations, yet even advocates of it predominantly come up with thoughts or images that are not associated with positive feelings.

This reflects a structural challenge of the climate problem: many citizens have little motivation to grapple with the topic. The more evident the consequences of climate change are, the more strongly people feel a sense of fear and other negative emotions. To motivate those who are entitled to do so to vote in favour of future climate policy decisions, it is important to focus on the positive impacts of climate protection more – for instance, health benefits thanks to lower pollutant emissions, greater independence from other countries with respect to energy and the pleasure of climate-friendly travel.

Anger at climate activists and climate sceptics

Both climate activists and climate sceptics trigger strong emotions. Activists polarize: 48 per cent of those who voted for the CO₂ Act are happy with them, while 50 per cent of opponents feel anger at climate activists. There are less significant differences with respect to climate sceptics. Fear and anger dominate in both camps in this respect, with the latter clearly more prevalent among yes voters at 63 per cent than among no voters (38 per cent). Even in the no camp, only about 4 per cent of those surveyed feel enthusiastic about climate sceptics, which indicates that earlier discussions about the existence of climate change met with little response.

Heated opponents, chilly supporters?

In the run-up to a referendum, issues are often hotly debated, and the more heated the campaign gets, the stronger the mobilization effect tends to be. The research team wanted to know from those surveyed what they had perceived the mood to be like in both camps in this respect. Using a temperature scale of “chilly” (0 °C) to “heated” (30 °C), the opposition camp to the CO₂ Act was on average ascribed a higher temperature than the supporter camp. The perception of this difference was particularly pronounced among those who agreed with the Act: in their view, in the no camp the temperature was 3.5 °C higher than in the yes camp, with the latter campaign being considered relatively chilly.

Overestimated costs, unclear benefits

As has already been seen in other voting analyses, it is evident in the data of the St.Gallen researchers that the no campaign struck a nerve among voters with the terms “expensive, useless, unjust”. In an open question about the three key reasons for rejection, around half of the no voters used the word “expensive” without any support.

Interestingly, this assessment was not always based on a precise perception of the actual situation. For example, the revised CO₂ Act included different taxes for flights: a tax of around CHF 30 was planned for flights within Europe (which make up around 80 per cent of Swiss flights) and up to CHF 120 for intercontinental flights. More than half of no voters (57 per cent) and almost half of yes voters (45 per cent) wrongly considered it to be correct or relatively correct that, upon the acceptance of the Act, a new tax of CHF 120 would be introduced for all flight tickets. Around half of the electorate thus overestimated the amount of the intended tax for the vast majority of the flights affected by a factor of four.

This distorted perception is further strengthened by the fact that the reimbursement of the CO₂ tax to the population, which already exists in the current CO₂ Act, remains largely unnoticed. Just 32 per cent of yes voters and 23 per cent of no voters answered yes to the question “Do you think that you have received a reimbursement of CO₂ taxes via health insurance fund premiums in the last year?” In reality, 100 per cent of the population received a reimbursement of around CHF 87 per person in the last year from the redistribution of environmental taxes via their health insurance fund. Better visibility with respect to this flow of money could increase acceptance of steering taxes in future.