Connecting Extreme Weather to Congressional Votes

July 2, 2013
By Doug Gavel, HKS Communications

Short-term weather events and patterns may not be related to the phenomenon known as “climate change,” but they do affect people’s perceptions and many votes in Congress. Those are two conclusions reached in a new Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Faculty Working Paper. “Weather, Salience of Climate Change and Congressional Voting” is co-authored by Associate Professor Erich Muehlegger.
Muehlegger and his co-author Evan Herrnstadt used Google search data to examine how citizens respond to extreme weather events in their area.
“First, we find a robust relationship between extreme weather and searches related to climate change. Large deviations in temperature (either above or below) long run average are correlated with increased internet search activity as is unusually low snowfall and snow depth,” Muehlegger writes. “Second, the unusual weather that triggers increased search activity differs from state to state. In particular, search activity responds most to unusual weather that impacts local economic activity (e.g. a lack of snow in states with substantial winter tourism).”
The researchers also sought to determine how extreme weather events impacted votes cast by Congressional representatives from those states where such events were prevalent.
“We find that unusual weather (and unusually high search activity related to climate change) in a U.S. congressional member's home state is correlated with an increased likelihood of taking a pro-environment stance when voting on environmental legislation or motions,” Muehlegger says. “We find that the response is stronger for Democrats than Republicans, and stronger for members of the U.S. House than members of the U.S. Senate.”
The research has important implications for policymakers.
“Although climate change is a long-run phenomenon, our research suggests that short-run climatological conditions affect individual interest in climate change. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the effects of unusual weather extend beyond search behavior to observable action on environmental issues, namely the voting behavior of U.S. congressional members,” Muehlegger concludes.
Erich Muehlegger is an associate professor of public policy at HKS. He is also a fellow of the National Bureau of Economics Research, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, and the Harvard University Center for the Environment. His research interests include industrial organization, economic regulation, and environmental policy.

Erich Muehlegger, associate professor of public policy

Erich Muehlegger, associate professor of public policy

“We find that the response is stronger for Democrats than Republicans, and stronger for members of the U.S. House than members of the U.S. Senate," says Muehlegger.


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