Beliefs, politics, and environmental policy

The public often perceives environmental problems differently from the experts who study them. The regulatory response to these problems also often does not coincide with experts’ recommendations. These two facts are mutually consistent – it is unlikely that regulations based on factual claims that are substantially different from voters’ opinions would be political feasible. Given that the public’s beliefs constrain policy choices, it is vital to understand how they come about, whether they will be biased, and how the inevitable heterogeneity in people’s beliefs filters through the political system to affect policy. We survey recent theoretical and empirical work on individual inference, social learning, and the supply of information by the media, and identify the potential for biased beliefs to arise. We then examine the interaction between beliefs and politics. We ask whether national elections and votes in legislatures can be expected to result in accurate collective decisions, how heterogeneous beliefs may induce strategic political actors to alter their policy choices, and how persuasion by experts and lobbies affects the information at policy-makers’ disposal. We conclude by suggesting that the relationship between beliefs and policy choices is a relatively neglected aspect of the theory of environmental regulation, and a fruitful area for further research.