Despite claims that the environmental movement has been ineffective in driving global or national policies to mitigate the effects of climate change, researchers at Michigan State University say it has the ability to counteract annual growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

A new study shows that a higher degree of environmentalism in politics can mediate the impacts of the two main drivers of anthropogenic climate change: population growth and affluence.

“Although increasing population size tends to increase stress placed on the environment, a strong and widely accepted environmental movement can substantially countervail against that pressure,” says the report, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Looking at a history of the green-voting record by congressional delegates — which is a good indicator of public opinion, business attitudes, consumer behavior and state-level policies on environmental issues — researchers found that “environmentalism completely counteracts the time-trend tendency for increased emissions,” said lead author Tom Dietz, who is also a professor of environmental science and policy, sociology and animal studies at MSU.

According to the report: “Increases in emissions over time are lower in states that elect legislators with strong environmental records.”

Dietz said while it has been accepted for decades that growth in population and affluence are driving climate change, the research team wanted to find out what is being done to ameliorate that.

The five-person team examined greenhouse gas emissions from all 50 states going back to 1990 and compared them with changes in population, economic factors, employment and environmentalism that was measured by the voting record compiled by the League of Conservation Voters. States were compared with each other as well as themselves over time.

In states where environmentalism was strong, emission reductions were more than sufficient to compensate for the annual increase in a state’s emissions.

“Most states fit a general pattern as the more pro-environmental a state is, the lower the emissions are,” Dietz said in an interview.

Two cases that fit the model are Vermont and Wyoming. Vermont has a high level of environmentalism yet emissions are lower than would be expected; the opposite is true for Wyoming, Dietz said.

Midwestern states tended to “pretty much fit the pattern dead on,” Dietz added. For the years examined, Michigan appears a little higher on the level of environmentalism with lower emissions compared to neighboring states. Indiana, meanwhile, saw a higher level of emissions than what was expected given the level of environmentalism there, Dietz said.

“It’s surprising how few states are off the pattern,” he said, noting that the methodology used in the study will be important for researchers going forward when comparing states with each other.

Essentially, the authors show that the environmental movement in politics plays an influential role in mitigating environmental stress. It can result in a range of policy changes involving renewable or energy efficiency standards, transportation policies, building codes or putting a price on emissions.

“Thus, we would expect that environmentalism — the strength of the environmental movement and the acceptance of its goals on the part of the public and elites — to be the major counterbalance to the political forces opposed to considering environmental costs of greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says.

While the authors write that this may seem obvious, “some recent commentators have been skeptical of the effectiveness of the environmental movement especially to climate change.”

And while there may be a lack of global or even national policy on climate change, “the importance of reducing emissions can be widely accepted by individuals and organizations and result in actions that have substantial impact,” the report says.

The researchers acknowledge that the report doesn’t delve into the role specific statewide policies — such as a renewable portfolio standard — play in reducing emissions. Dietz said that could be best handled by individual state case studies.

“However, our results do counter the assessment that the environmental movement has been ineffective in dealing with climate change,” the report says.

Dietz said the conclusions also should not be generalized to apply to other countries that have a different governmental makeup at the local level than the U.S., although the same kind of methodology could be used.

Still, to the critics who say environmental advocacy has done little to combat climate change on a global scale, the report sheds light on the ability to see emissions drop at the local level.

“All of this suggests that ‘business as usual’ growth in population and affluence will substantially increase anthropogenic environmental stress,” the report concludes. “However, the effect of environmentalism is a potentially powerful mediating factor.”

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.