Who tend to own houses exposed to sea level rise? Climate change partisanship in residential decisions

A recent article published in the Journal of Financial Economics shows that houses exposed to sea-level rise are increasingly more likely to be owned by Republicans, and less likely to be owned by Democrats. This suggests that partisan rhetoric about climate change is more than just talk; residents are“voting with their feet” for salient risks or disamenities that are forward-looking. In this blog, I will discuss and explain how the paper came to its conclusion.

Background: The reported partisan divide on climate change

The results of the 2020 Pew Research Center survey, which directly examines the relationship between partisanship and climate change beliefs, show that “climate change” was the number one topic that Republicans most disapproved of. By contrast, this is the topic Democrats most agree on. This meant it was the topic with the largest partisan gap.

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Figure 1: Pew Survey:% who say the issue is a top priority in 2020.

(The survey asked U.S. adults whether they agree that a given topic should be a “top priority for President Trump and Congress.”


However, the variation in worries about climate change does not simply because of the differential geographic exposure. The results of the 2018 Yale Climate Study show that there is at least a 20% positive Democrat-Republican partisan gap in every single one of the 435 congressional districts in the country.

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Figure 2: 2018 Yale Climate Survey:% that “think that global warming is happening” by Congressional District.

(This study asked participants “Do you think that global warming is happening?”


Empirical results: Republicans are more likely to own exposed properties

By comparing homes that have similar locations and amenities (which eliminate coastal amenity differences between properties), but with substantial variation in SLR exposure(variation comes both from within interval variation in elevation, and the topology of the terrain surrounding the property), the authors found that:

Firstly, even moderately SLR exposed properties have a partisan residency gap of more than 5 percentage points, reflecting an 11% higher Republican share in exposed residences. And this conclusion is robust after considering other individual demographics and a variety of granular property characteristics, including the value of the home.

Secondly, partisan sorting is substantially larger for houses with more imminent SLR exposure, but, consistent with anticipatory investment changes in the face of these long-run risks, occurs even for houses where concerns are more temporally distant.

Thirdly, partisan residential sorting only exists among owners, no matter whether they occupy the property or not, but not among renters. This phenomenon shows that Democrats is acting on concerns about long-run SLR risks with their housing ownership decisions.

Moreover, this gap more than doubled between 2012 and 2018.

Implications: For political science, economics, and geography

Predicting the difficulties for policy decisions in Climate risk adaptation activities

The presence of partisan-based sorting with respect to SLR exposure is likely to impact climate change responses. Since the growing share of those bearing the burden of future climate change may also be those least concerned, they perhaps unlikely to support adaptation/mitigation efforts and vote against climate-friendly policies.

Projecting future migration in response to climate change.

Current models that predict the future effects of climate change migration are mostly based on migratory patterns and economic effects once inundation or local devastation occurs. This study provides evidence of people’s anticipatory sorting far in advance of any disamenities, which suggests that projections of those models could change substantially if the selection occurs along partisan lines far in advance of an actual disaster.

Understanding how partisan divides are reflected in substantive actions.

Despite massive partisan divides now, whether partisan divide manifests in differential behavior or is just superficial rhetoric is still unclear. This study provides evidence that the partisan residential sorting pattern comes from partisan differences in beliefs regarding the long-run effects of climate change.

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Bernstein, Asaf, et al. "Partisan residential sorting on climate change risk." Journal of Financial Economics (2022).

photo: Go_greener_oz/Flickr Creative Commons