Trade and Green Voting

Exposure to International Trade Lowers Green Voting and Worsens Environmental Attitudes
Trade and Green Voting

Protecting the environment and addressing climate change are big challenges for leaders worldwide, requiring political support from voters. To promote green agendas in democracies, we need to know what motivates people to support environmentalist parties and candidates. While a growing literature investigates the role of individual characteristics such as age and education, we have limited knowledge about the role of structural economic factors in affecting green voting.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (Bez, Bosetti, Colantone and Zanardi 2023), we explore how changes in the economy affect support for the environment. Our main conjecture is that when people are struggling economically, the salience of environmental issues decreases, and this leads to lower support for parties that are more environmentalist. Focusing on the United States and 15 European countries between 2000 and 2019, our study explores how economic shocks causally impact the way people think about climate change, and the extent to which they support environmentalist parties.

As a plausibly exogenous source of variation in economic conditions, we focus on exposure to international trade. In recent decades, globalization has produced economic growth and aggregate welfare gains at the level of countries. Yet, when we look within countries, there have been winners and losers of trade. In particular, import competition has generated employment and income losses in areas that were historically specialized in import-competing manufacturing industries (e.g., Autor, Dorn and Hanson, 2003, 2021). Such trade-related economic grievances may have implications on green attitudes and voting.

The guiding intuition behind our work is that situations of economic distress may lead to a deprioritization of environmental issues as economic concerns become more salient. This may happen through several, complementary theoretical channels. (1) When people are struggling economically, they might care more about materialist values such as job security and financial stability, and less about post-materialist values such as environmentalism. (2) People have limited mental and emotional resources; if trade-related problems make them worry more about jobs and money, they might not worry as much about environmental issues. (3) People usually care more about the environment as their income grows; hence, if import competition has a negative impact on incomes, concern for the environment might also decrease. (4) Environmental concern is negatively related to income inequality; if trade exposure increases inequality by creating winners and losers, it can reduce the overall support for environmental policies. (5) Individuals that are harmed by trade may oppose environmental policies due to fear that such policies could generate further economic harm, as per the “jobs versus the environment” narrative. (6) Import competition pushes the losers of trade to support protectionist, isolationist, and radical right parties; since these parties tend to be less environmentalist, this may tilt individuals to further downplay climate change issues.

To empirically answer our research question, we proceed in two steps. First, we look at how trade exposure affects voting, both at the regional and at the individual level. Second, we analyze how trade exposure affects people's attitudes about climate change and the environment. Our main explanatory variable is a measure of how much a place is exposed to imports before elections or surveys are conducted. Stronger import exposure is assigned to areas that were initially specialized in industries where imports subsequently grow faster. We consider exposure to imports from different types of countries, and we employ an instrumental variable approach that is common in empirical studies of international trade.

In line with our conjecture, we find evidence of lower support for more environmentalist parties and candidates in areas that become more exposed to international trade. In the US, this effect is robust to accounting for people’s self-reported partisan ideology (e.g., Democrat, Republican, independent, or other). It seems people respond to import competition rather uniformly, regardless of differences in individual characteristics such as gender, education, or occupation. This is referred to as a “sociotropic” response of voters. For Europe, the effect is robust to excluding from the analysis people who report voting for a radical-right party. We also consider possible differential effects for different groups of people, such as unemployed, females, white-collar workers, and more educated people. For all these groups, the impact of import competition is relevant, although it does vary somewhat in magnitude.

Moving to attitudes, in the US, people who live in areas with increasing exposure to trade are less likely to think that climate change is correctly assessed by the news or to worry about it. They are also less likely to consider themselves environmentalists, less likely to mention environment-related issues as important problems, less likely to think that environmental protection is more important than job availability, and less likely to support requirements for renewable fuels. In line with the idea of deprioritization of environmental issues as economic concerns rise, people living in areas more exposed to import competition are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to have a high household income.

Similarly, in Europe, people living in regions that become more exposed to trade are less likely to view climate change as a serious problem, and are less likely to believe that efforts to fight climate change can benefit the economy and jobs. They are more likely to feel that their income is not sufficient to attain an acceptable standard of living, and more likely to expect their country's economic situation to worsen in the next year. Consistently, these individuals are less likely to agree that environmental protection should be a priority vis-à-vis economic growth.

In conclusion, our article shows that when international trade hurts people economically, they might not focus as much on environmental issues. Policies helping those communities disproportionally affected by trade may have important implications in generating support towards climate change agendas, thus fostering the political acceptability of much needed environmental policies.

Beyond focusing on international trade's political effects, it would be useful to also investigate the impact of other facets of structural economic change, such as automation, that have strong distributional consequences. Overall, it is important to further explore the connections between economic factors, inequality, and support for climate action, especially given the potential distributional impacts of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.


The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States. American Economic Review, 103(6), 2121-2168, 2013, David Dorn, David Autor and Gordon Hanson.

On the Persistence of the China Shock. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Fall 2021, 381-447, 2021, David Dorn, David Autor and Gordon Hanson.

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Political Science
Humanities and Social Sciences > Politics and International Studies > Political Science
International Trade
Humanities and Social Sciences > Economics > International Economics > International Trade
Climate-Change Policy
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Environmental Sciences > Environmental Social Sciences > Climate-Change Policy
Environmental Policy
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Social Policy > Environmental Policy
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Social Psychology > Attitudes
Regional and Spatial Economics
Humanities and Social Sciences > Economics > Regional and Spatial Economics