Need Proof That Environmentalism Works to Make Your State Greener?

We often might feel like our voices aren’t heard and that the rich have more say when it comes to affecting policy on climate change, but a new study shows that environmentalism and electing candidates with solid green credentials really can push state policies in an environmentally-friendly direction.

The research, which was conducted by scientists at Michigan State University and published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at how far politics can help to play a role in steering states toward meaningful greener policies which in turn benefit the environment. It is based on previous research that has shown that the richer a state is, and the more people a state has, the worse its environmental impact tends to be. The researchers specifically wanted to know whether environmentalism and action to elect candidates with strong green credentials might lead to positive change.

To assess this, the researchers looked at a range of standard data points that are collected from across the states including carbon emissions and how environmentally conscious a state was based on congressional voting data that was compiled by the League of Conservation voters, with the idea being that the green credentials of the state’s elected officials in the U.S. Congress was likely (though admittedly not guaranteed) to reflect the general feeling of the state on environmental policies.

The researchers then looked at every single state using data from the 1990s until now to track changes in the state’s congressional delegation, as well as the environmental policy within the state. After controlling for the two larger factors of population and affluence, the researchers found that environmentalism within the state as indicated by choosing congressional leaders who were more green conscious, really did appear to feed back into the state and serve to drop carbon emissions. While the effect differed slightly by state, the researchers found that on average for every one percent the state scored in environmentalism awareness in its congressional delegates, its carbon output went down by about half a percent.

While undoubtedly the influence was much smaller than other big factors, this is still the first study to really focus on whether environmentalism and in particular having environmentally conscious politicians can push a state toward greener policies.

“Efforts to mitigate emissions take a variety of forms at the state and local level and may have substantial impact even in the absence of a unified national policy,” the researchers say in the paper. “Existing regulations can be applied strictly or less stringently, and programs can be pursued enthusiastically or given a low priority. Even without formal policy and programs, the importance of reducing emissions can be widely accepted by individuals and organizations and result in actions that have substantial impact.”

The reason why this should be encouraging for many environmental campaigners is that Congress is in fact at a standstill on many progressive issues right now, especially when it comes to environmental policy. That means that campaigners need to look to individual states in order to make progress, and this research seems to show that environmentalism can translate to political influence.

“We’ve used new methods developed over the years … and find that politics and environmentalism can mediate some environmental impact,” co-researcher Thomas Dietz of the MSU Foundation is quoted as saying in a release. “Environmentalism seems to influence policies and how well policies that are in place are actually implemented, and it also influences individual behavior and the choices people make.”

This research shows the environmental advocacy can contribute to meaningful change, but are the researchers’ findings solid?

Admittedly, the study makes some guesses. For instance, the voting record for a congressional delegation doesn’t necessarily highlight a state’s overall environmental awareness and so can’t establish a direct causal link. However, because the researchers looked at data going back to the 1990s and not just data from one or even five years, it is more likely that they were able to get a sense of a consistent pattern. Future research will be needed to corroborate this fact but, while the study isn’t perfect, researchers not involved with it have said they think its findings are important.

“Lots of people who study culture and politics think they are important [drivers of emissions levels], but it hasn’t been demonstrated with data in the past,” Rachael Shwom, environmental sociologist at Rutgers University, is quoted as saying. “That they found the strength of the environmental movement mattered … is a really important finding.”

So what kinds of things do you need to look for in political candidates to know they have a solid commitment to the environment. If they are regularly mentioning topics like energy efficiency, commitments to recycling as part of an overall sustainable policy, and a commitment to reducing pollution of all kinds, then you might have a candidate who is willing to commit to real environmental policies. If you’d like to explore how environmentalism and local governments in particular can create change, Care2 has a great overview here.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

Hussein Khalil
Hussein Khalil2 years ago


Jan N.
Jan N2 years ago

I live in Florida. The powers-that-be believe in golf courses, water for industry, and that the way to handle industrial wastewater is to direct it to larger bodies of water so it's more diluted. But we have no climate change, by decree of Lord Voldemorte, so at least we have that going for us.

Anne Moran
Anne M2 years ago

Yeah,, but we all know, that politicians say, what the public wants to hear..

To follow through with it afterwards, is a whole different ballgame...

pam w.
pam w2 years ago

Until they realize and BELIEVE that our lack of concern for the planet will kill us all...many people will just stick their silly heads into the sand and ignore everything except their profits.

Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago


Chris C.
Chris C2 years ago

Everyone needs to listen to Pope Francis!

Kamia C.
Kamia T2 years ago

Sorry, but I've found that living in one of the poorer states in the U.S. has it's pluses and minuses. One of the minuses is that people are so busy just trying to make ends meet, and demanding jobs where there are none, that environmentalism goes by the board in favor of income and business.

Ullrich Mueller
Ullrich Mueller2 years ago

The driving force behind politicians' decisions is largely obscure, but I suspect most motivations are far from honorable like reciprocating a favor, supporting campaign contributors, providing your own clan with jobs and influence or guaranteeing a lucrative job after the political career and others.