In Local Politics, Environmentalism Counts

Little Kids Picking up Trash

(DGIwire) — Are voters concerned with environmental policies and issues at the ballot box? Research shows that at national-level elections, the environment barely comes to the surface. Instead, voters are prioritizing many other issues: the economy, national security, health care, education, immigration. Americans—even self-identified environmentalists—put the environment and climate change near the bottom of their list of worries when considering national elections. However, when the politics are local, environmental discussion can influence elections greatly.

The 2016 presidential election has had more of an environmental focus than any other in history and a few mentions here and there, but far less than the amount of attention devoted to a myriad of other issues. This is reflective of the prioritization of voters, only two percent of whom say that climate change will be the most important issue to them in making their electoral decision. However, this is not indicative of the country’s overall concern about the environment, only those aspects of policy that we view as national.

Sole of the Shoe with dirt and garbage, the theme of ecologyWithin environmental issues, voters care far more about the local than the distant. The closer an environmental threat is to our own backyard, the more likely we are to care about it. American concern is much higher for water and air pollution than climate change or species extinction because those issues are viewed as concrete, immediate threats. Polluted drinking water has a majority (61 percent) of Americans expressing “a great deal” of worry. Environmental issues hold the most salience when they are tied to health, which is why local pollutants—both air and water—draw the most human concern. Since the health effects of contaminated drinking water and polluted air are tangible and immediate, citizens turn to their local elected officials for protection.

Even climate change action can draw local support when the issue is framed not as a global problem but in terms of the locally relevant benefit of solutions—such a decrease of pollution-related health risks through emissions regulation or lowered electricity bills through energy efficiency standards. Local candidates pushing for these types of environmental solutions can garner the support of their communities.

The biggest barrier to environmental voting is that citizens are often unable to tell the difference between candidates’ environmental agendas. Environmental platforms are usually not very well publicized. However, research shows that when they are—as through the advertising and voter outreach campaigns often conducted by advocacy groups—voters are much more likely to factor environmental concerns into their electoral decisions. Thus it serves local candidates to bring more attention to their environmental platforms with which they can distinguish themselves from opponents in tight races.

Contributor Anne Tewksbury studied Environmental Policy and Politics at Williams College. She can be reached for further discussion at anne.tewksbury@gmail.com

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