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June 15, 2015

Environmental activism works, study shows

The environmental movement is making a difference – nudging greenhouse gas emissions down in states with strong green voices, according to a Michigan State University study.

Social scientist Thomas Dietz and Kenneth Frank, MSU Foundation professor of sociometrics, have teamed up to find a way to tell if a state jumping on the environmental bandwagon can mitigate other human factors – population growth and economic affluence – known to hurt the environment.  

“We’ve used new methods developed over the years and new innovations Ken has developed to add in the politics – and find that politics and environmentalism can mediate some environmental impact,” Dietz said. “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.”

The study, in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows a state-level win for environmental activism that hasn’t been apparent on a national scale.

The authors compared greenhouse gas emissions between all 50 U.S. states and within each state over time going back to 1990, and determined how emissions correlated with population, gross state product per capita, employment rate and environmentalism. They calculated environmentalism by the environmental voting record of a state’s congressional delegation, as rated by the League of Conservation Voters.

The combined influences of population and affluence have been regarded as the core of environmental stress – and have tended to guarantee an annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions. But the paper, “Political influences on greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. states,” adds what the MSU researchers say is an important layer to understanding human impact on climate change. They show that a 1 percent increase in environmentalism tends to reduce emissions by more than enough to compensate for the typical annual increase in emissions.

“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 paper notes. “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.”

Dietz notes that understanding activism is a strong first step to understanding many kinds of environmental stresses, such as air pollution.

“We’ve always said this is laying the groundwork for more study. Ken came in with subtle ways to look at how the world works,” Dietz said. “This is just the start of a conversation.”

Both Dietz and Frank are members of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. Other authors are MSU graduate student researchers Cameron Whitley and Jennifer Kelly, and Rachel Kelly. MSU AgBioResearch supported the research.

By: Sue Nichols