In general, the public is supportive of environmental protection. This is true across countries. It is particularly true for high visibility environmental issues (such as air pollution).
However, the views of the public do not always have easy avenues for expression in policy making. In non-democracies, this expression is severely limited.
Even in democracies, it is often the case that those who participate at lower levels (especially youth) have the strongest support for environmental protection.
Thus, when participation increases, more of these pro-environmental voters enter the system and policy makers are forced to take notice. There is also grass-roots expression of pro-environmental positions that can influence policy-makers (boycotts, protests, etc.), but if this is not backed up by voting participation the policy effects are limited.
Does the increasing voter apathy from liberals, who would ordinarily be the strongest proponents of environmental protection, mean that environmental protection is a lost cause?
- First: apathy does not explain lack of participation. More often, structural barriers keep people from voting.
- Second: voter participation ebbs and flows. We cannot generalize off of a couple of elections. As recently as 2008, voter participation from liberal groups was high and Democrats had control of all three branches of the federal government in the US. This certainly could happen again under the right conditions.
- Third: most voters, regardless of ideological perspective, favor environmental protection. It is the politicians who are creating the barriers.
The problem on the non-liberal side is voters not taking the environment into account rather than expressly voting against environmental protection.
You earned your Ph.D. in in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and your research has centered around environmental policy, what made you interested in environmental research and how did your interest develop throughout your academic career?
I did not start out doing environmental policy. My dissertation is actually on social welfare policy. My main interest has always been how election participation and choices affect policy.
My interest in environmental policy began to grow as I saw the increasing polarization between the political parties in the US on this issue. This interest has gradually developed throughout my career (and my interest in social welfare issues has waned).
If you had to give advice to a student thinking of pursuing a PhD specializing in environmental policy, what advice would you give them?
Develop a stronger scientific background than I did. Environmental policy is really a synthesis of science and politics and a strong background in science would be helpful. I did not have one, so I have had to learn as I went along.
What would the layman find most interesting about your research, and how are you contributing to the scientific body of Political Science?
Voting choices do matter. The parties, especially in the US, are different. Who you choose (or if you do not choose) creates the policies we have. In the case of the environment, these policies can have dramatic consequences.
\Where do you see your specialty headed within the next few years?
Trump has given us a lot to talk about (unfortunately). The message that elections matter is terms of policy has not been getting through to the voting public.
The challenge of the next 20 years is to get that message out and make our research more accessible to the layperson.
(Remember to sign up for email updates at polypsych.org where we attempt to do exactly this)
If you were able to go back to the day you received your PhD, what would you have done differently with the focus of your research?
I would have started with the environment and had a few more years of research on that topic. Also, a little bit more focus in terms of my research agenda would have helped.
Dr. Kelso has contributed to The Environmental Presidency which is available on Amazon.com. Purchase through our link to support the polypsych.org.