The Effect of Public Opinion on Environmental Policy in the Face of the Environmental Countermovement

June 6, 2022 - Tiffany Williams

MSU Sociology PhD student Tiffany Williams has published an article that has been incorporated into a chapter in a brand new edited volume on anti-environmentalism. This article was published in "Handbook of Anti-Environmentalism."

The effect of public opinion on environmental policy in the face of the environmental counter movement
Kerry Ard, Tiffany Williams and Paige Kelly


Who shapes environmental policy in America? Social scientists have long been concerned
with whose interests are represented in the policy-making processes. An ideal democratic
society is one in which elected officials are responsive to public opinion. However, scholars
have argued that the power of public opinion has been eroded with the rise of the political
mobilization of the business class in the 1980s and 1990s (Mills, 1956; Vogel, 1989; Domhoff,
2002). This is of interest to environmental policy scholars who have found in recent decades
there has been a coalescing of industrial interests in opposition to environmental protection
measures (McCright and Dunlap, 2003; 2010; Brulle, 2013). This raises the question of
whether this movement has shifted the relative importance of industrial voices in the environmental
policy making process versus public concern. As some scholars argue, ‘[m]ore power
for organized interests almost necessarily means less power for the general public’ (Burstein,
2014, p. 3). Yet there has been very limited research that considers both how public opinion
and industry influence environmental policy-making. Vandeweerdt et al. (2016) provides
one of the few examples, finding a positive robust relationship between public opinion and
congressional voting on four bills related to cap and trade of greenhouse gases, even when
controlling for campaign contributions from industries considered at odds with these policies.
Yet this study is limited to a small number of bills over a short time frame, and with the rising
political mobilization of the business class, scholars are increasingly arguing that, ‘[b]usiness
interests disproportionately influence U.S. policy’ (Banerjee and Murray, 2020).

The question of whether business or the public is more influential on environmental policy
is important considering the differing positions between these interest groups on environmental
issues. Research has consistently shown the US public has high levels of concern about
environmental issues, with more than half the population on average expressing high levels
of concern (McCright and Dunlap, 2011b). In January 2020, the Pew Research Center for the
first time in two decades reported, ‘nearly as many Americans say protecting the environment
should be a top policy priority (64%) as say this about strengthening the economy (67%)’
(Pew, 2020). However, social scientists have argued that the success of the consumer and environmental
movements of the 1960s through the 1970s led to a backlash among the conservative
business class (Layzer, 2012; Blumenthal, 1986). In the realm of environmental policy,
these issues came to the fore during climate change negotiations in the late 1990s, prompting
the term the Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) to describe the coordinated effort
by certain businesses to lobby against environmental protective measures that run counter to
their perceived economic interests (Dunlap and McCright, 2015; McCright and Dunlap, 2003;
2010; Brulle, 2013). A significant mechanism for groups lobbying, or seeking to influence
politicians’ positions or voting, is through political action committees (PACs) donations.
PACs are formed to represent the interests of businesses, labor or other ideological groups, by
collecting and aggregating donations with the purpose of raising and spending money to elect
or defeat political candidates.

Scholarship on the CCCM has grown substantially over recent years with robust evidence of
a strengthening industry-led movement to lobby against environmentally friendly policy. For
example, Ard et al. (2017) found donations by CCCM PACs increased dramatically from 1990
to 2010. Every increase in 10 000 USD donated to a Congressional representative by a CCCM
PAC increased the propensity of a Congressional member to vote against environmental protection
by 2 percent (Ard et al., 2017). Similarly, Brulle (2013) linked funding records of 91
organizations that promote climate change skepticism with 140 donor foundations. This study
found that a few major corporations, primarily ExxonMobil and Koch Enterprises, played
a major role in funding these climate skeptic organizations and showed, ‘evidence of a trend
toward concealing the sources of CCCM funding through the use of donor directed philanthropies.’
In a follow-up study, Brulle (2018, p. 300) examined lobbying reports from the Center
for Responsive Politics, finding that lobbying on climate change varied from 2 to 9 percent of
total lobbying from the 107th to the 114th Congresses and increased when the ‘Democratic
Party controlled both houses, as well as the Executive Branch, and moved to fulfill its promise
of passing climate legislation.’
While there has been a good deal of work examining industrial lobbying efforts on environmental
legislation, there has been less work examining if these newly bolstered lobbying
efforts have dampened the impact of public opinion on policy-makers in comparison. This
chapter seeks to address this gap in the literature, by directly examining the relative influence
of constituents’ concerns versus industry PAC donations on Congressional representatives’
environmental voting. To do so, we ask three questions: (1) To what extent do different industries’
PAC contributions effect representatives’ proclivity to vote for or against environmental
policies; (2) To what extent does public concern towards environmental issues, among representatives’
constituents, influence those representatives’ environmental voting; and (3) What
is the relative influence of industries’ PAC donations and public concern on representatives’
support for environmental policies? The purpose of this study is to address the extent to which
constituents’ environmental concerns influence the environmental voting behavior of their
Congressional representatives relative to the influence of industries’ PAC donations. In doing
so, we offer insight into whether Congressional members are more responsive to their constituents’
preferences and concerns, or whether they are increasingly responsive to PACs’ interests.
We begin this chapter by reviewing the various theories on the role of public opinion
and interest groups’ influence on policy formation, as well as the history of the drivers of
policy-making. Next, we review the extant literature on factors known to shape environmental
policy-making: industrial donations made via PACs, public opinion and representatives’
demographic characteristics. We then provide primary empirical analyses of how these
various factors influence congressional members’ environmental voting from 1990 to 2010.
We conclude with a discussion of our findings as well as the implications of this work for
future research on environmental policy-making.