Politics and the Environment

A chapter from The Handbook of Politics: State and Civil Society in Global Perspective [Kevin T. Leicht and J. Craig Jenkins (Eds.)] that summarizes the key theoretical approaches that define the academic subfield of environmental politics.The following are excerpts highlighted by Drexel Professor Robert Brulle that summarize the literature on unexpected disasters:

For the most part, environmental politics are driven by large long term trends in economic development, demographic change, and the slow degradation of natural systems. The response to the deterioration of the natural environment tends to be incremental and piecemeal. A traditional explanation that has been advanced for environmental policy shifts is the classic  grievance or  strain thesis. Several studies show that grievances and strains affect mobilization (e.g. Walsh 1988; Snow et al. 1998; Jenkins, Jacobs and Agnone 2003) and conventional wisdom suggests that these may influence public opinion and public policy. In this sense, the environmental movement is very similar to other social movements.

 However, one unique characteristic of environmental politics is the policy impact of dramatic incidents. Unlike most social movements, environmental conditions can create large scale incidents that have the power to shift environmental politics. In the U.S, there have been a number of significant environmental incidents that led to rapid changes in environmental policy. These events, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, and the Love Canal Toxic Waste site incident, all catalyzed public and policy concern, and greatly accelerated policy action in these areas (Leiserowitz, Kates and Parris 2006: 50).

 A key framework in examining these events is the notion of punctuated equilibrium developed by Baumgartner & Jones (1993, Repetto 2006). The core idea of their model is that the U.S. policy system is characterized by relatively stable relations, with intermittent shifts in both the nature of the policy discussion and the venue in which the political process takes place. A punctuated equilibrium refers to the situation in which the ways an issue is characterized in the mass media shifts, and new political venues are created in response to these shifting public concerns (Gormley 2007, Baumgartner & Jones 1993, Bosso 1987). For example, early nuclear accidents were virtually unnoted by the mass media and policy-makers in the 1950s (e.g. the Fermi near disaseter), creating no public response, but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl stirred considerable protest and mobilization in the 1980s (Gamson and Modigliani 1989). This was due to a reframing of nuclear incidents as potentially catastrophic in nature.

 In his analysis of environmental disasters and their impact on the policy process, Birkland (2006: 168) centers on the concept of focusing events. He defies focusing events as large disasters that  change the salience of issues and sometimes replace indicator-based analyses with much more emotionally charged examples of policy failure and the need for reform (Birkland 2006:168). His empirical analyses show that focusing events draw increased attention to a problem. However,  increased attention is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for event-related policy change (Birkland 2006:180, 1997). Rather, the increased attention creates a window of opportunity in which political actors can mobilize for new policy directions.

 The news coverage of an event generally focuses on the scope, extent of visible and tangible harm, and the novelty of the event (Birkland 1997: 31-32). Under certain conditions, this event can develop into a longer-term reaction in the policy making community. The response of the political community is dependent on two factors. First is the degree to which the pro-change community is organized.  If no group exists to react to the event, the event will fail to gain more than passing attention (Birkland 1997:43). Thus without an organized institutional advocacy component, the window of opportunity created by a focusing event can pass without any significant policy change. Secondly, the degree of polarization in the policy community impacts the extent of policy change. As Birkland (1997: 39) notes:  The most polarized communities will find that events have relatively little influence on the overall trend in policy. A greater extent of polarization results in a vigorous defense of a coalition’s core beliefs, even in the face of a highly dramatic event. However, if the pro-change community is well organized, and the policy community is not highly polarized, focusing events can lead to a process of event related learning, in which new ideas and information are applied to environmental policy decisions and greater potential for policy change (Birkland 1997: 134, 2006: 22).


Date: 2010
Authors: Robert Brulle
Strategic Approach: Other
Strategic Approach: Other

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