The conditions of acceptance of environmental public policies: are we evidencing a tragedy of the common in the 21st century?

By Sebastián Irigoyen*

The social discontent currently unleashed worldwide has spread to different geographical latitudes, in which the implosion on two axes of compatible politicians in France, Hong Kong, Brazil, Ecuador and Chile has been clear: the environment and the popular discrediting of government actions. What coincidences can we find in this wave of social discontent?

The Nobel Prize in Economics Joseph Stiglitz (2016) has mentioned in this context that in order to answer this question, we must start by discussing the current economic and social weakness, given the lack of aggregate demand, which is explained by high inequality, low levels of investment in productive infrastructure, jointly motivated by the priority that has been given to austerity policies in recent years at a global level, with a low level of acceptance of economic policies by the population in general. This highlights the necessary agenda to restore growth which must include a carbon price that stimulates environmental investment (increased public investment in infrastructure and renewable energy).

Nevertheless, the excessive use of discursive rhetoric in favour of extremes (with respect to political geometry) has undermined the credibility of state institutions in the face of an imminent increase in inequality in the world and a planetary emergency with few successful responses.

There is the hypothesis that in developed countries there is a greater environmental awareness, when taking into account certain socioeconomic variables can approach us to infer about the profile of individuals and their environmental attitudes. For example, having access to higher education, a high level of income and quality public goods would imply a high acceptance of environmental public policies. However, according to Franzen and Vogl (2013), they estimated empirically, that in Germany, the United States and Japan, it is not clear that there has been a greater environmental awareness among the population in the last 20 years. This finding is currently reiterated with the positions of certain political and business leaders: in the case of the United States with the figure of Donald Trump has maintained a clear position in not signing binding global climate agreements coupled with the little credibility to the scientific studies concerning the planetary emergency, as well as corporate actions of corruption cases with the company Volkswagen in Germany. Both facts show that the individual actions of business and political leaders in developed countries do not really demonstrate the construction of an environmental conscience, and that these have strong (negative) effects on the collective perception by jeopardizing the future of environmental goods.

On the one hand, the rejection of the rise in petrol taxes in France by the so-called « Yellow Vests », has triggered a general malaise and rejection of the management of French President Emmanuel Macron, paradoxically in one of the countries that has been internationally recognized for joining efforts, local and global, in favor of the environment in a constant manner. The explosion of the demonstrators to the measures proposed by the French government, highlight a series of social dilemmas linked to individual and collective emotions, in which Fehr and Schmidt (1999) had already specifically studied the cognitive relations intrinsic in public policies. Beyond the issues linked to the political affiliations of the demonstrating groups, it is in the conduct of individuals where certain paradoxes and dilemmas appear; concretely the social reaction of protest to the implementation of an environmental policy of common ends, seems to denote a greater preference for the individual interest than for the environment in spite of recognizing the future benefit that the taxes could have in the reduction of Co2.

The behavioral science approach complements the perspective of public policy evaluation by quantifying the effectiveness of government actions by taking into account the cognitive aspects of the individual (their attitudes, values and behavior with respect to the entities that represent them). However, there is a tendency to limit the analysis in analyzing extrinsic motivations (taxes and fines) ignoring the intrinsic component of the individual, i.e. taking into consideration the analysis of intergenerational preference such as social preferences (aversion to inequality, trust and altruism), fundamental elements for understanding social behavior. In this case, it allows us to study individual resistance to governmental measures, in the face of low institutional confidence indices, an issue that nowadays disrupts collective, irreparable and irreversible aspects such as the case of a public good. For its part, the economics of behavior allows us to identify the role of individuals and collective decisions around environmental public policies, as well as to understand that the recovery of the credibility of institutions requires greater transparency to preserve the sustainability of public policies.

In the middle of a conjugated crisis between the political and environmental policies acceptance. How possible is it for individuals to organize for collective environmental interests without the direct participation of the State? Elinor Ostrom(2009) (first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics) replied that from the results of empirical studies carried out in controlled and field experiments, it could be seen that in different groups, of dissimilar cultures, the problems of collective action had been solved without the intervention of the State. However, Campos Vázquez (2012;2016), retaking the ideas of Mancur Olson (1971), points out that the problem of collective action falls when individual interests come to limit the common objectives, so that the society in singular actions is restricted to be able to solve environmental type issues (where there are scarce goods and with danger to be destroyed in perpetuity).

In this sense, it is necessary to establish specific incentives, define limits and impose regulations and global consensus to diminish certain behaviors linked to consumption harmful to the planet, hence the historical need for the creation of the State as a regulating agent, necessary for the preservation of a public good of concrete limits such as nature, to avoid what would be enunciated as « the tragedy of the commons » by Hardin (1968).

Sebastian Irigoyen is a PhD student at the Centre de Recherche et Gestion (CREM) Rennes University 1
Twitter: @SebastianIrigo2

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