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Politics, lack of progress drive cities to drop climate-protection commitments, study finds

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


LAWRENCE — As a response to Congress' decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, many American cities initiated efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Between 2005 and 2010, climate protection became the cause du jour for many cities. In subsequent years, however, a notable number have backed away from their climate protection commitments. Mainstream political conservatism influenced these decisions and this effect was more likely for cities that had achieved fewer environmental milestones, according to a new study led by a University of Kansas researcher.

Rachel Krause, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration, was the lead author of the study, which examined municipalities that terminated their membership in ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability — by 2012, just two years after the association reported a peak number of members in 2010.

"Especially in the United States where not a lot of action has been taken to address climate change on the national level, cities have been pointed to as climate protection leaders. Recently, though, the tide seems to have shifted," Krause said. "Our research finds that the factors driving this change include a lack programmatic follow-through and 'mainstream' political opposition to climate initiatives. The latter is interesting because, despite the loud voice it often has in opposing local planning and climate protection efforts, Tea Party activity does not seem to have influenced cities’ decisions on a large scale."

The Policy Studies Journal published the researchers' findings earlier this year. Co-authors with Krause were Hongtao Yi, assistant professor in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, and Richard Feiock, professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University. Krause also wrote a blog post about the research for the London School of Economics and Political Science.

ICLEI prescribes a process of policy milestones geared toward helping cut emissions and reducing energy in both city government operations and the community at-large: conducting a greenhouse-gas emissions; adopting an emissions reduction target; developing a climate-action plan; implementing actions, and monitoring and verifying results.

From 2005 to 2010, the number of local governments that joined ICLEI increased almost fivefold to approximately 700 members, and it was generally considered the most important organization facilitating local climate protection efforts in the U.S. However, by 2012, membership had dropped by more than 20 percent.

The researchers examined the role that political opposition, weakened fiscal health and programmatic ineffectiveness had on cities’ decisions to end their membership.

Krause said because climate change is often entrenched in partisan conflict in the United States, the researchers examined the political makeup of voters in cities ICLEI member cities along with the strength of the local Tea Party movement, economic conditions and the each city's effectiveness at implementing ICLEI-prescribed milestones or policy.

Fiscal conditions provided the weakest influence, Krause said. The involvement of the Tea Party movement in each city also appeared to have little effect on local government action despite the group's vocal opposition to climate-protection efforts, she said.

"Traditional political partisanship appears to matter more than does Tea Party activism in influencing city governments to end their ICLEI membership," Krause said.

The researchers concluded that for every additional 1 percent of the vote went to GOP presidential candidate in 2012, a city was 0.7 percent more likely to drop its ICLEI membership.

The other major factor found that a city's success on implementing environmental policy made them more likely to remain in ICLEI.

"With every additional milestone completed, out of a possible 10, a city is between 3.4 and 4 percent less likely to drop their membership," Krause said.

So cities that didn't achieve any milestone or implement meaningful environmental policies were less likely to see the value in continuing as ICLEI members.

Krause said this finding was important because it allowed researchers to discount economic reasons, such as a city's foreclosure and unemployment rates, as factors that would influence environmental policy at the local level. 


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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