Federal legislators lag behind the public on environmental policy.

By Will Jarrett

Two years ago, a bill came into the US Senate that would have seen meaningful limits imposed on carbon emissions from power plants.

The idea behind the bill was popular across the country. Opinion polling shows that 68% of people in the US were in favor of setting strict emissions limits on coal-fired power stations, and there was not a single state in which public opposition outweighed support. Even in Wyoming, the coal capital of America, 52% approved of limits. The public appetite for meaningful action on climate change was strong and this could have been a step in the right direction.

The bill was shot down in flames. It failed 41 votes to 53.

This failure was not an outlier, but part of a pattern in which Congress consistently lags behind public opinion on environmental and climate policy, according to analysis of data from Yale University and the League of Conservation Voters. Partisan politics and the influential fossil fuel lobby have helped see green laws rejected even when they have widespread support from the public.

The climate-conscious majority

is underrepresented in Congress.

% of the public

who want Congress to do more about climate change

60%

% of the House

who vote for green legislation more than half the time

55%

% of the Senate

who vote for green legislation more than half the time

47%

0

20

40

60

80

100

The climate-conscious majority is underrepresented in Congress.

% of the public who want Congress to do more about climate change

60%

% of the House who vote for environmental legislation more than half the time

55%

% of the Senate who vote for environmental legislation more than half the time

47%

0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

“The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” wrote Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, experts in policy and public opinion at Princeton University, in their controversial 2016 report on how decisions get made in America. They argued that special interest groups (especially ones with buckets of money) are the key drivers of the legislative agenda.

Using state-by-state opinion polling from Yale and aggregated voting data from the League of Conservation Voters, we can see that public opinion on climate change does seem to correlate with environmental legislative action – but perhaps not as much as one might hope or expect.

In every state except Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia, all of which are heavily invested in fossil fuel, a majority of the public wants Congress to do more to combat climate change. But last year, representatives from the House and Senate in half of US states voted against environmental bills more often than they voted for them.

In 47 states, the public wants Congress to do more

about climate change. But half of states vote against

environmental bills the majority of the time.

% votes for

green laws

Republican

controlled

Democrat

controlled

House

100

80

60

40

20

0

40

50

60

70

% of public who want Congress

to do more about climate change

Senate

100

80

60

40

20

0

40

50

60

70

% of public who want Congress

to do more about climate change

In 47 states, the public wants Congress to do more about climate change.

But half of states vote against environmental bills the majority of the time.

% votes for

green laws

Democrat

controlled

Republican

controlled

House

100

80

60

40

20

0

40

50

60

70

% of public who want Congress to do more about climate change

Senate

100

80

60

40

20

0

40

50

60

70

% of public who want Congress to do more about climate change

This analysis reveals that voting is deeply partisan. States with Republican federal representatives are far more likely to vote against environmental bills, and Democrats are likely to vote in favor.

The partisanship is most pronounced in the Senate. For example, in 2020, six in every ten Floridians were in favor of Congress doing more for the climate. That proportion is more or less reflected in the voting records of their House representatives. But their two Republican Senators voted in favor of environmental legislation less than 10% of the time last year. In the sharply divided Senate chamber, where every vote counts, politicians appear to be more likely to toe the party line.

It is not just party allegiance that has the potential to dictate votes. According to OpenSecrets, the oil and gas industries have poured upwards of $100 million into lobbying every year for the past decade. Although Democrats take their fair share of fossil fuel money – $1.6 million went to Joe Biden in 2020 – more than three-quarters ends up in the hands of Republicans.

And this money appears to affect policy. Members of Congress from states where votes typically go against environmental bills get more than twice as much fossil fuel money as those from pro-environment states.

States with lots of fossil

fuel lobbying vote against

green bills more often.

% Congress votes

for green laws

Democrat

controlled

Republican

controlled

100

80

60

40

20

0

0

40

80

120

160

200

240

Fossil fuel lobbying money

per Member of Congress ($1000s)

States with lots of fossil fuel lobbying

vote against green bills more often.

% Congress votes

for green laws

Democrat

controlled

Republican

controlled

Democratic states

tend to vote for

green laws – and

receive less money

from fossil

fuel lobbyists

Montana, Louisiana, and

Georgia get the most

lobbying money per

Member of Congress

100

80

60

40

20

0

0

40

80

120

160

200

240

Fossil fuel lobbying money per Member of Congress ($1000s)

“If it seems like the government isn’t working for the people, part of the problem is they’re effectively being bribed, very often by lobbyists,” reads a statement by Represent Us, an anti-corruption campaigning group.

“Because they’ve become dependent on money from lobbyists to fund their political careers, Congress ends up passing laws to keep the lobbyists and their clients happy, instead of laws that benefit the American people.”

Some Members of Congress even have substantial personal stakes in fossil fuels. Greg Gianforte, now the Governor of Montana, was the state’s sole representative in the House from 2017. As well as benefitting from lobbyists, he had just shy of $5 million in fossil fuel investments as of 2019. Gianforte uniformly voted against climate change measures during his time in the House, and he recently accused Biden of pandering to “radical environmentalists” for opposing the Keystone XL pipeline – despite a recent poll showing that a majority of registered voters with an opinion on the matter support cancelling the project.

With today’s announcement that the US is aiming to cut carbon emissions to 50% of 2005 levels in the next ten years, the pressure will be on Congress to pass strong climate policy in the immediate future. It remains to be seen whether Congress will catch up with popular opinion and meet the country’s new, ambitious target, or if party politics and vested interests will continue to keep environmental bills from being signed into law.


Methodology

I used data from the Yale Climate Opinion Maps to find state-by-state opinions on climate-related positions; data from the League of Conservation Voters to find voting records of each Member of Congress on environmental policy; and data from OpenSecrets to find how much every Member of Congress gets from fossil fuel lobbyists.

I grouped the voting records of every House Representative and Senator into their states in order to plot them against state opinion polls. For the final graph, I grouped House and Senate votes together, with equal weight given to both chambers, to come to a culumative state environmental voting record.

The color gradient for Democratic/Republican control was arrived at by dividing the number of Democrats by the total number of Congresspeople. This gave a 0 to 1 range that was mapped onto a red-to-blue scale. For the final graph, I again grouped the House and Senate together with equal weight given to both chambers. This method does exclude independents, but using a color scheme that included them seemed to confuse the article without changing the conclusions.

Graphs were made in Altair and tweaked in Illustrator. I used the New York Times’ aitohtml tool to make the images responsive, and included different versions for viewing on mobile.

This methodology plots opinions on climate change against votes on environmental legislation. Climate change policy is a major part of environmental policy, but it is important to note that the two are not identical. Votes on the environment more broadly were used here because 1) the data was more readily available, 2) far more data exists for general environmental policy, making it more possible to find trends, and 3) positivity towards environmental legislation correlates strongly (and overlaps) with positivity towards climate legislation, making it a reasonable proxy.

Header photo credit Andy Feliciotti