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Divesting, Fast and Slow: Affective and Cognitive Drivers of Fading Voter Support for a Nuclear Phase-Out

Rinscheid, Adrian, Wüstenhagen, Rolf
Ecological economics 2018 v.152 pp. 51-61
carbon, coal, cognition, decision making, ecological economics, energy, longitudinal studies, nonrenewable resources, nuclear power, politics, relapse, risk perception, Switzerland
Overcoming reliance on non-renewable resources is a key concern of energy transitions worldwide. But as the literature on carbon lock-in has shown, overcoming path dependence is all but trivial. Even well-minded decision-makers tend to relapse into inertia when it comes to making concrete divestment decisions. We investigate one specific case, the 2016 Swiss popular initiative to phase out nuclear power, to explore the cognitive and affective drivers of energy path dependence on the individual level. Within eight weeks of an intense political campaign, support for this initiative dropped from more than 60 to just 45.8% of Swiss voters. Based on a representative longitudinal survey (N = 1014), we show that changes in perceived risk and benefit of nuclear power play key roles in explaining fading voter support for nuclear divestment, and that affect is in turn a significant driver of those changes. By framing it as a choice between the lesser evil of nuclear power or importing German coal power, opponents of the phase-out managed to introduce an asymmetrically dominated option into voters' choice set, leading many to change their original voting intentions. Our paper responds to calls for integrating dual-process theories (“thinking fast and slow”) into research in Ecological Economics.