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UCSB study on political leadership and fossil fuels has lessons for local, state, national leaders

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Flickr member Mike Baird
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A political science professor at UC Santa Barbara has a new study out on how effective political leaders are at making fossil fuels more expensive as a means to address climate change.

The study found this tactic is mostly not effective and often leads to political blowback — a finding that has implications for not just national and international leaders, but local ones as well.

UCSB political science professor Paasha Mahdavi studies energy and environmental politics, usually on an international scale — though he’s also worked on local issues like oil production on the Central Coast.

Mahdavi said raising taxes on or reducing subsidies for gasoline is a tactic political leaders sometimes use to encourage their citizens to use less fossil fuels, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

He's a co-author on the newly-released study looking into whether or not making gasoline more expensive to discourage fossil fuel use is effective.

In short, it usually isn’t.

“We found by and large that leaders appear to have little to no effect in changing fuel taxes and subsidies," Mahdavi said.

Mahdavi and his co-authors created a new dataset of fuel taxes and subsidies on gasoline for 155 countries. They found that political leaders who tried this method of weaning their nations off of fossil fuels have mostly failed.

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Katie Davis
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Wells operated by ERG, now owned by TerraCore, in Santa Barbara County's Cat Canyon oil field.

Taxes, subsidy cuts and other measures were either quickly rolled back or met with opposition that depleted what Mahdavi calls leaders’ “political capital” — a leaders’ ability to influence political decision-making.

In some countries, making fossil fuels more expensive led to widespread protests — or even more drastic outcomes.

“In one case, it led to an entire revolution in this case of Myanmar and the Saffron Revolution. So that's a huge political cost," Mahdavi said.

Mahdavi said this research matters because it offers a roadmap to how leaders can effectively transition their economies away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. He said it’s better to spend political capital making renewable energy cheaper and more accessible.

It’s just not nation-states that can do this. Mahdavi said state and local leaders can help transition away from fossil fuels through a number of steps, like encouraging public transportation.

Mahdavi said this can all be applied locally. Expanding bus transit between Central Coast cities is one example.

"[For instance], buses that go between not just within the city but between cities in the same area. So between Pismo and SLO, Morro Bay and SLO. And even the longer range stuff, people living in Santa Maria, and so on. So that's a big part of the puzzle," he said.

The study is available online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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