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Environmental movement has made progress in Western nations, study finds

Thursday, April 02, 2015


LAWRENCE — People in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world have modified their behaviors in recent decades, mindful of helping the environment.

A University of Kansas researcher who studied opinion surveys from the World Values Survey Association in a recent essay, "The Structure and Sources of Global Environmental Attitudes," found that Americans and Western Europeans have increased recycling and modified their personal consumption habits in order to protect the environment.

"People do more and more to protect the environment," said Robert Rohrschneider, KU's Sir Robert Worcester Distinguished Professor of Political Science. "The environmental movement itself has changed character over time. It used to be a protest movement at the fringes of Western societies, but now it has become part of the mainstream. One sign of this is that it is now often second nature for people to do things in their personal households like recycling to help protect the environment."

When the movement began in the 1970s as a protest movement, most of its members saw themselves as outsiders who needed to fight the status quo and political elites. In a way, new data point to a success story as more and more members of the environmental movement are elected to office and a large number of people in the U.S. and elsewhere share the broad goal of environmental protection.

"The movement itself has become much more like a traditional interest group," Rohrschneider said. "But people remain concerned about environmental issues. What is more, the major policymakers are equally concerned with environmental issues."

In the Western world, the best examples of the mainstream character of the movement are found in Western Europe, where a Green Party has flourished in most countries with parliamentary systems, Rohrschneider said. They even can be found governing major democracies, like Germany. However, in the United States, the two-party system has slowed the expansion of the environmental movement among the politically elite, he said.

Americans still have increased their environmentally conscious behaviors, and a January poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future found that half of Republicans supported government action to curb global warming, Rohrschneider said.

That will make it interesting to see how the 2016 GOP presidential candidates handle environmental issues in the primary because it seems that current elected officials and perhaps major donors are much less supportive of environmentally friendly policies, he said. It's also still a divisive issue, because the same poll found that 47 percent of Republicans believed policies designed to curb global warming would hurt the economy.

“Once we move outside the Western world, however, the picture is quite different,” Rohrschneider said, such as in Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Mexico.

"The importance of the issue is pushed to the background because economic issues are the priority," Rohrschneider said. "Political elites in developing countries have not picked up on these issues as they have in the Western world. This is almost ironic because the most severe pollution problems can usually be found in these nations."

The essay on the data appears in the recent edition of "The Civic Culture Transformed: From Allegiant to Assertive Citizens," published by Cambridge University Press.

Rohrschneider also has a forthcoming essay, "Representation through Parties? Environmental Attitudes and Party Stances in Europe in 2013" to be published this summer in the journal Environmental Politics as part of a symposium he co-edits with a colleague from the University of California, Irvine.

The symposium, titled “Environmental Concerns during a Time of Duress,” shows the persistent concerns of people with environmental issues even several years into the economic crisis. They also reveal that major policymakers share people’s environmental concerns, especially in the West. But they also reveal the difficult nature of these policy issues when viewed globally.

“People in less affluent countries are often willing to support international environmental treaties, but only if wealthy nations help pay for the costs to modernize developing economies,” Rohrschneider said. “And people in affluent nations often believe they should pay for it themselves.”

Despite this complexity, the issue isn't going away.

"In the end, I think it will take more influence in policies," Rohrschneider said, "both in the U.S and elsewhere."