Environmental Politics in the United States

In this recently completed project (with Quan Mai and Jessica Schachle), I analyzed rare national- and state-level membership data in the Sierra Club, one of the world’s largest environmental advocacy organizations, from 1892 to 2016. Specifically, my colleagues and I worked to explain why the Sierra Club has grown and/or declined across various states & across each year in our dataset.

I have also published several articles on environmental politics in the United States with David Hess. In line with the “new political sociology of science,” these articles consider the effect of social movement organizations, blue-green coalitions, and other civil society actors on environmental science and policies in the United States. Substantively, these articles have a special focus on the politics surrounding the green energy transition in the United States. Summaries of these research projects are below. Copies of published papers can be made available on request.

Coley, Jonathan S., and Quan D. Mai. 2022. “The Ecology of Environmental Association: Density, Spillover, Competition, and Membership in Sierra Club, 1984-2016.” Sociological Focus 55(4): 405-427. (external link)

What factors affect the size of advocacy organizations? Some theories suggest that the existence of political opportunities, resources, and grievances in a locality influence advocacy organization size. In this article, we advance an ecological approach to the study of advocacy organizations, arguing that the presence of other collective actors in a locality may also impact the size of advocacy organizations. Analyzing cross-sectional time-series data on membership in Sierra Club from 1984-2016, we find evidence for the positive role of environmental organization density and spillover from a state’s Democratic Party, but the deleterious effects of competition from labor unions and a state’s Republican Party, on the number of Sierra Club members in a state. Furthermore, we report mixed evidence that a state’s economic resources and environmental grievances affect membership in the Sierra Club. The findings hold significant implications for the study of advocacy organizations, social movements, and contentious politics more generally.

Coley, Jonathan S., and Jessica Schachle. 2021. “Growing the Green Giant: Ecological Threats, Political Threats, and U.S. Membership in Sierra Club, 1892-Present.” Social Sciences 10(6), 189. (download)

A growing body of research examines questions related to the emergence of environmental organizations and the growth of the environmental organizational field in the United States, but we need to know more about why particular environmental organizations grow or decline in terms of membership size over time. In this article, we draw on both qualitative and quantitative data to assess factors contributing to the growth of the Sierra Club, one of the United States’ oldest and largest environmental organizations. First, through an analytic narrative that synthesizes insights from secondary accounts of the history of the Sierra Club, we identify a variety of ecological and political threats that have led to growth in the Sierra Club from its founding in 1892 to the present day. Then, through time-series analyses of quantitative data, we show that two particular types of environmental and political threats—growth in carbon dioxide emissions and the presence of Republican Presidents—have led to growth in the Sierra Club from 1960 (when it began mass recruitment of members) to 2016. We contextualize these findings within the broader social scientific literature on neoliberalism and its consequences for environmental degradation and environmental mobilization. Overall, our findings provide support for threat-based models of mobilization and hold significant implications for research on environmental organizations.

Hess, David J., Jonathan S. Coley, Quan D. Mai, and Lucas R. Hilliard. 2015. “Party Differences and Energy Reform: Fiscal Conservatism in the California Legislature.” Environmental Politics 24(2): 228-248. (download)

Research building on political economy and ecological modernization theories has paid increasing attention to the conditions that affect the prospects for environmental reform. Much work focuses on variation among political units in support of a single type of energy policy, whereas we examine within-state variation in support of a wide range of energy reform policies. Applying multilevel analyses to the 2011-2012 legislative session in California, we identify bill characteristics associated with divisions between Republicans and Democrats. Expanding the size or scope of government (through spending, government commissions, and business regulations) reduces support for energy reform among Republicans, whereas promoting transparency and other ‘good government’ initiatives reduces support among Democrats. In contrast with the standard view that Republicans oppose almost all energy reforms proposed by Democrats, we identify bill characteristics that increase the likelihood of support from both parties, namely tax reductions and credits, including for bills that promote renewable energy.

Hess, David J., and Jonathan S. Coley. 2014. “Wireless Smart Meters and Public Acceptance: The Environment, Limited Choices, and Precautionary Politics.” Public Understanding of Science. (external link)

pubsci Wireless smart meters (WSMs) promise numerous environmental benefits, but they have been installed without full consideration of public acceptance issues. Although societal-implications research and regulatory policy have focused on privacy, security, and accuracy issues, our research indicates that health concerns have played an important role in the public policy debates that have emerged in California. Regulatory bodies do not recognize non-thermal health effects for non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, but both homeowners and counter-experts have contested the official assurances that WSMs pose no health risks. Similarities and differences with the existing social science literature on mobile phone masts are discussed, as are the broader political implications of framing an alternative policy based on an opt-out choice. The research suggests conditions under which health-oriented precautionary politics can be particularly effective, namely, if there is a mandatory technology, a network of counter-experts, and a broader context of democratic contestation.

Coley, Jonathan S., and David J. Hess. 2012. “Green Energy Laws and Republican Legislators in the United States.” Energy Policy 48(1): 576-583. (external link)

energypolicyIn this study, we draw on a database of 6,071 votes on RPS (renewable portfolio standards) and PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) laws by individual state legislators in the United States to examine the factors shaping Republican votes for green energy laws from 2007–2011. We find that votes on these laws are becoming increasingly partisan, with Republicans supporting RPS laws especially less than Democrats. However, Republicans’ support for these laws is higher in states with weaker fossil fuel industries, suggesting that Republicans are motivated by economic interests. Furthermore, Republicans tend to support the laws where median household income is lower, environmental organizations are weaker, labor-environmental coalitions are absent, and the proportion of Democrats in the legislature is lower, suggesting a reactive effect against green energy policies in more progressive settings.

Hess, David J., and Jonathan S. Coley. 2012. “State Government Votes for Green Energy Laws.” In Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy: Making and Keeping New Industries in the United States. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (external link)

goodgreenjobsThis appendix to David Hess’ book examines a wide range of green energy laws passed by state legislatures in the United States from 2006-2011, with a special focus on those states where the green energy transition is most deeply embedded, including California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Maryland.