Authors’ Blog: The Relationship Between Climate Change Policy and Socioeconomic Changes in the U.S. Great Plains

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available in OnlineFirst.


Andy Hultquist
Robert Wood

Rebecca Romsdahl

 One of the most fascinating puzzles associated with climate change policies in the United States over the past two decades has been the emergence of states and cities as policy leaders.  In developing policy approaches to many previous environmental concerns such as clean air and water, species protection, and the clean-up of hazardous waste, the federal government took the lead by establishing regulatory standards and guidelines that shaped subsequent city and state responses.  Sub-national governments could certainly adopt their own policies that went beyond these standards, but this tended to be atypical in practice.
Not surprisingly, initial models for addressing global climate change also favored a national top-down model.  In this case, the approach was based on two previous successes: the permit-based system developed to address acid rain and the international treaty structure that was used to address ozone depletion.  In contrast to these earlier examples however, the issue of global climate change has become highly politicized in the United States, and this fact has substantially limited the pursuit of the sort of Congressionally led, top-down approach that was used for previous issues. 


In this context, the emergence of climate protection policies in states and cities is unexpected, particularly for policies that provide few tangible co-benefits to residents. Yet a majority of states and thousands of cities have adopted policies aimed at both mitigating their level of greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change that are now widely viewed as inevitable. What motivates cities, in particular, to adopt these policies? And what characteristics differentiate them from similar cities that do not adopt climate protection policies?
These questions have spawned an impressive level of academic research in recent years, but one that has focused almost exclusively on understanding the policy choices and motivations of large, often coastal metropolitan areas. This focus has left a gap in the research with a number of important potential relationships that have yet to be explored. In this article, Andy Hultquist, Robert Wood, and Rebecca Romsdahl move the conversation forward a bit by looking at the influences shaping policy choices in the smaller cities of the Great Plains region. Using data from their own 2012 survey of 232 mayors in 10 states across the Great Plains region, they find substantial variation in the number of climate protection policies in place at the time of the survey. They then develop a model to explain this variation as a function of three clusters of variables across two distinct time periods.

   The three clusters of variables used in the model – the policy environment, the attitude of government toward climate change, and the atmosphere in the community with regard to climate change – reflect the inherent complexity of this policy issue.  Cities are not equal in their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, nor are they equal in the resources they might bring to bear to combat it.  They vary also in the characteristics of their population and the level of support they receive from their state.  These are examples of the factors shape the environment within which policy choices are made.  

Yet because of the highly politicized status of climate protection policies, the attitudes and beliefs of local policymakers and citizens also play an important role in shaping policy choices.  These influences are captured in the model through the government and community attitudes clusters.  Each cluster includes direct measures taken from survey responses as well as indirect measures drawn from secondary sources.

With regard to the policy environment and community atmosphere, the model also tests whether changes in community characteristics during a previous time period were significant in shaping the policies in place at the time of the survey.  The rationale for looking at changes in conditions over time comes primarily from John Kingdon’s *multiple streams* theory of policymaking.  Kingdon’s theory argues that changes in conditions over time can trigger a “window of opportunity” during which an alert “policy entrepreneur” can link his or her preferred policy solution to the problem as a superior alternative to the status quo.  According to Kingdon, changes occuring in either the “problem stream” (relating to the nature of the problem itself) or the “political stream” (relating to the political and social characteristics of the community) can open a window of opportunity and increase the likelihood of policy change.

Six measures of change are included in the policy environment cluster (population, per capita income, population with a college degree, median age, average annual temp, and average annual drought), with another (Percent Democrat Vote: President) as part of the community atmosphere.  Four of the seven are statistically significant when all climate protection policies are modeled together.  When mitigation and adaptation policies are disaggregated, two of seven measures of change remain statistically significant for mitigation policies,  while three remain significant for adaptation policies.  The only variable reflecting change over time to remain significant across all models was the drought index.
Overall, the results suggest three lessons that might inform future conversations on climate protection policies.  First, that the factors shaping mitigation policies are substantially different from those shaping adaptation policies.  Though these policies are often considered as two parts of the same whole, these findings suggest that on the issue of climate protection policies, disaggregation matters. 

Second, that leadership matters.  State Climate Action Plans, City Manager systems, and the strength of the Mayor’s personal commitment to cities to act on their own initiative provide the largest marginal impacts on climate protection policies in the model.  Vulnerability and resources are clearly important considerations, but commitment and leadership from policymakers would appear to be essential.

Third, that change matters. Changes in the physical world as well as in the ideological composition of communities between 1990 and 2000 are shown to have significant influence on climate policy choices in the subsequent decade.  These findings support Kingdon’s notion that change can trigger a window of opportunity, leading to policy change in a subsequent time period.  They also raise a number of interesting questions about the necessity and role of policy entrepreneurs that can be investigated through future research.  

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  1. Let a thousand flowers bloom – BlueMarble notes

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