Why The Swiss Electorate Put The Brakes On Climate Policy

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Saturday, Oct 09, 2021 - 09:20 AM

Authored by Hans Rentsch via,

On June 13th, the revised CO2 law failed at the Swiss ballot box. Judging from the rather confused debate following the rejection of the bill, one can hardly say that the shock in the politically competent circles had a beneficial effect in favor of more realism. Many commentators were surprised that the electorate put the brakes on climate policy, and many seemed puzzled about how to interpret the will of the people as expressed in the vote. In the referendum of May 2017, the revised Energy Act had been approved by a clear majority, but four years later a tight "no" to the revised CO2 Law followed.

No Inconsistency in Voting Behavior

Both legislative revisions are to be viewed as interconnected partial steps in the former energy minister Doris Leuthard's Energiewende (energy transition project). First yes, then no - and that looks quite inconsistent. The VOTO and VOX studies from the follow-up surveys allow a comparison of the two votes. The crucial point sounds almost trivial: The electorate that approved the Energy Act in May 2017 was not the same electorate that voted against the CO2 Act four years later - even disregarding the demographic shifts. The main difference lies in the much higher voter turnout for the CO2 Act - almost 60 percent, versus just 43 percent for the Energy Act.

This high mobilization, well above the average of 46 percent, was due to the four other proposals that were voted on the same day, above all the two popular initiatives aiming at a reorientation of the agricultural policy. Due to radical requirements regarding the protection of drinking water and the use of pesticides for agriculture as well as upstream and downstream industries, these had led the farming sector to expect drastic consequences. In an extensive and expensive campaign, the associations of the agricultural sector fought the initiatives and lured many people to the polls in rural regions. According to an analysis by the survey institute GFS Bern, a double no to the agricultural initiatives is the strongest explanation factor for a no to the CO2 law. Obviously, it didn't take a lot of additional energy to also write a no on the voting slip for the CO2 law. 

A detail from the VOTO-study is also worth being mentioned. Although the conservative Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP) was the only major party to support the referendum against the Energy Act in 2017, the party was unable to mobilize its supporters. Only 38 percent took part in the vote, the lowest percentage of any party. The SVP, on the other hand, mobilized its supporters most strongly in the vote on the CO2 Act in June this year: 73 percent of SVP sympathizers took part in the vote - because of the two strongly mobilizing agricultural initiatives. The CO2 law, so to speak as the sidecar, bore the consequences. 

The Urban-Rural Divide and Other Gaps

Many comments on the vote complained about a growing urban-rural divide. As if this were something new! The same would have been visible in other referenda if one had looked more closely. The urban-rural divide only depicts the different political positions: urban Switzerland ticks left, rural Switzerland non-left. Instead of superficially complaining about a divide between town and country, it is worth looking at other ditches. It goes without saying that the differences between left and right are particularly great when it comes to issues that are as ideologically and morally charged as energy and climate policies. Supporters of the Green Party voted in favor of the Energy Act with a yes share of 94 percent, while only 16 percent of SVP party supporters voted in favor. Almost the same gap appeared in the referendum on the CO2 law: 93 percent versus 17 percent.

There are also astonishing divides within parties. The official voting recommendation of the national pro-business and pro-market party "FDP. Die Liberalen" was yes in both votes, but some cantonal FDP sections opposed the national pro decision. And a majority of the FDP party supporters voted against the official party line. In the referendum on the new Energy law, 53 percent rejected the bill, and no less than 63 percent voted against the revised CO2 law. In an opinion poll amongst party members before the elections to the lower house in autumn 2019, the party leadership was able to win support for a green "last-minute" swivel, obviously under the influence of the "Fridays for Future" strikes, very much inflated by the compliant media. However, such surveys typically produce declamatory statements at zero cost, while referenda on new legislation are about concrete measures and noticeable effects.

There was a very special divide in the sphere of influence of the traditional farmers' party SVP, which was the only significant party in both referenda to oppose the bills. But in the case of the revised CO2 law the Swiss Farmers Association had recommended adoption, thus departing far from its political base. The informed observer suspects, that the Swiss Farmers Association had entered into an logrolling deal with economic interests that fought for the law, who in return promised to respect agricultural protection interests, especially in the case of new Free Trade Agreements.

Since the research institutes mandated to produce the VOX or VOTO studies still collect genderrelated data, somewhat old-fashioned, according to binary-biological gender, a gap between men and women becomes visible. Women had voted in favor of the Energy Act with a pro share of 64 percent, men only with 53 percent. In the referendum on the CO2 Act, women approved the law with a yes majority of 52 percent, while men produced only 45 percent yes votes. The difference was somewhat smaller than in the case of the Energy law. But the gender divide was of a more serious quality, because men dominated women by overturning the law approved by a majority of women.

The Educational Elite as the Spearhead of the Energiewende (energy transition)

There is also a wide gap in voting behavior based on the level of education. Highly educated people owning a university degree emerged from the referenda as the most convinced "energy transitioners." The group with only basic vocational training or an apprenticeship rejected the Energy Act with around 55 percent no votes. In contrast, people with a tertiary education voted for the law with a three-quarters majority. In the vote on the CO2 bill, the differences were smaller, but with a pro share of around 70 percent, the bracket of the highly educated was still well above the approval rates of the groups with a lower level of education. These are typically people who have to cope with their everyday life and usually have other worries than using scarce material resources to express some ideal values.

An orientation based on certain morally rewarding values is widespread among the materially privileged educated elite. Such attitudes are often used for personal image cultivation, but such behavior is associated with costs. Just think of the high prices for "ethical consumption." In an article in the leading Swiss daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the cultural scientist Wolfgang Ullrich wrote that to orient one's life towards higher values is the bliss only of elites. Their privileged social position enables the "new moral nobility" to implement a value-conscious lifestyle and thus to rise above other people. The fact that the support for the Energy and the CO2 bills was so strong in the university educated and the cultural milieus can primarily be explained with this value orientation and not with a superior technical or economic insight into the effects of the new legislation. The prominent American moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt said in a speech, only slightly exaggerating, that highly educated people are not, as they themselves would think, better informed than others, they are just more adept at justifying their prejudices.

The rough categorization "highly educated" also blurs an important fact. In terms of numbers, the predominant university degrees stem from "soft" subjects generally referred to as humanities (typically with female over-representation) such as languages, psychology, journalism, media, law, political science, sociology, history, geography, ethnology and medical-social subjects. In contrast to the political-ideological spectrum of the entire electorate, there is a pronounced left-green "value bias" among university graduates in the above-mentioned fields of study. Such orientation towards self-defined values also reflects a tendency towards illusory social goals and a massive overestimation of political will and ability in the sense of: all we want is also feasible.

Farewell to Illusions: The Paris 2015 1.5 Degree Target

It goes without saying that the electorate's no to the new CO2 law does not fit into the officially promoted path towards the projected energy transition and the intermediate targets of CO2 reduction in line with the Paris 2015 commitments. But how is the will of the people to be derived from the two seemingly opposed outcomes in the referenda on energy and climate policy? On the one hand, the participating electorates in the two votes differ greatly in many respects. On the other, the voting results obviously depend on whether a bill is presented to voters as a single issue or in a package with other projects of legislation.

In times of rising alarmist voices, nothing would be more useful than to engage in a sober analysis of the situation without prejudice and to part from all the illusions that shape current energy and climate policy. This applies in particular to the Fukushima-fueled Swiss Energiewende. 

The 1.5 degree target from the Paris 2015 conference and agreement and the connected grandiose "zero carbon" oaths are the great basic illusions. Unattainable goals are bound to make climate policy a constant failure. Why should the world state of 1850 at the end of the Little Ice Age with a CO2 concentration of 280 ppm represent a natural climate optimum for the environment, health, and nutrition? Furthermore, since the average global temperature has already increased by 1.1 degrees since then, and since the temperature reacts with a delay to today's CO2 concentration of 415 ppm, the 1.5 degrees would probably also be exceeded, even if the human world were to stand still tomorrow.

Nonetheless, our responsible authorities continue to announce unperturbed that the 1.5 degree target of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement can be achieved, if we only want it. The blurred meaning of "we" is confusing the message. We in tiny Switzerland have nothing to do with reaching the 1.5 degree target. We have only made commitments to reduce greenhouse gases in solidarity, in the hope that the other Paris 2015 committed countries will do the same and stick to their nationally determined contributions (NDC). In light of the free-rider problem, this hope is built on sand. If, on the other hand, "we" is meant globally, it is outside of Switzerland's political responsibilities and competencies.

The enormous technological and economic progress and the high level of prosperity in the societies of mass consumption in the western welfare states and in successful Asian countries as well as the development in poorer countries are outright unimaginable without the availability of fossil energy. From simple logics, it can be concluded that a brutal decarbonization of economies would be an extremely costly project - social costs expressed, economically correct, as opportunity costs. (Note: If scarce resources are put to a new use, they are missing elsewhere. The added value that is lost from the next best or even better use of these resources are economic costs). Moreover, the distribution conflicts to be expected from a radical decarbonization policy, both within and between states, would hardly be politically resolvable. Anyone who throws the catchphrase "climate justice" into the debate in order to remind rich countries of their special responsibility takes a narrow view. Because it is the technological and economic achievements of the countries shaped by western values that have massively reduced extreme poverty and child mortality worldwide and have more than doubled the average life expectancy since 1900 - with the greatest progress in the (formerly) poor countries of Asia and Africa. 

The public debate about the costs and benefits of an "ambitious climate policy" is characterized by vague warnings and illusions. The best-founded cost estimates of the long-term damage caused by climate change and the costs of climate policy are due to the American Yale economist William Nordhaus. In 2018, he received the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the "calculus" of climate policy. Nevertheless, his findings seem to have no effect on the usual current climate policy, which is by and large based on grandiose declamations, spilling scarce resources with mostly symbolic effect. Among climate activists of all kinds who live in the illusionary world of Paris 2015, Nordhaus has few supporters anyway. No wonder, because according to Nordhaus' estimates, a climate policy that seeks to achieve the 1.5 degree target is unaffordable in practice. In the trade-off between the costs of climate policy and the damage caused by climate change, a warming scenario of around 3.5 degrees does best in the model simulations of Nordhaus. Even if many may doubt these model-based results or outright dismiss them as cynical, such cost-benefit comparisons are indispensable, not least because the model assumptions realistically reflect the way people think and act. The choice of a realistic discount rate for calculating present values of costs is of utmost importance here, but an ongoing debate among economists on this issue would call for a separate discussion.

An Energy Transition Without Nuclear Power?

The illusions cultivated in Switzerland, including "fake facts," also disseminated by official bodies in the federal administration, concern alleged savings in electricity consumption despite the planned electrification of mobility and buildings, the grossly overestimated future expansion of renewable energies wind, solar and hydropower, availability of electricity imports to cover the massively growing winter electricity production deficit, and the vague hopes for technological breakthroughs in electricity storage and in carbon capture and storage. All this has been reported in detail elsewhere, with no visible effect on current policies and projects. Political Switzerland is a heavy steamer with many actors in the engine room and at the helm.

The approval of the Energy Act in 2017 was primarily a vote in favor of phasing out nuclear energy. In the VOTO follow-up survey, four out of five respondents expressed a wish for a nuclear-free Switzerland. The images of the reactor explosion in Fukushima were still firmly imprinted on people's minds. "Hard cases make bad law" is an old political adage that pops up here. We could have learned a lot from the Fukushima hard or even worst case, if we had analyzed the consequences more calmly, instead of announcing an "energy transition" two months after the disaster with the phasing out of nuclear energy. Winston Churchill is credited with observing that security lies in the multitude of variables that are available as options for action. If, based on costless wishes and on vague hopes, a county's voting population restricts options for action, it must also be prepared to deal with a reality that might behave differently than hoped for.

After all, voices are now gradually being raised calling for a reassessment of nuclear energy in times of ruthless but very fragile targets for "net-zero 2050." Due to the highest possible democratic legitimation by a popular vote, an exit from the nuclear phase-out currently seems practically impossible in Switzerland. What makes a turnaround even harder: the fundamentalistic rejection of nuclear energy is a central element of the mission and self-image of politically influential persons, parties and NGOs. A sober reassessment would be a betrayal of a fundamental position, to which one has been completely devoted for decades. Finally, if around four-fifths of those eligible to vote are in favor of phasing out nuclear energy, it takes civil courage to stand up and give the remaining fifth a vote.

A counter-experience to Fukushima that could stir up people's mindset in a similar way favoring a more realistic energy policy, would be an electricity blackout provoking the failure of important systems. Such an event is not unrealistic under the pressures and constraints of the announced energy transition. Relevant warnings can be found in official risk scenarios for Switzerland. With the ongoing and increasing uncoupling from the European electricity network due to Switzerland’s rejection of an institutionally binding general agreement with the EU, these risks are rising. But as long as the perception and the media communication of accidents in the energy sector - not least thanks to the specters "Fukushima" and "Chernobyl" - are so distorted at the expense of nuclear energy, the prevailing opinions in the population should not be overestimated. Perhaps in a few years we shall see a climate youth on strike who - in contrast to today's ideologically blind Fridays for Future activists - is calling for an exit from the "nuclear exit." All to the benefit of ambitious climate targets.

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(Note: This essay expresses a personal opinion and in no way presents an officially approved perspective of either the CCRS or the University of Zurich).