The most important and relevant research for U.S. environmentalists is being conducted by Jon Agnone, a sociologist at the University of Washington. Agnone studies sources of environmentalist power — the first social scientist to undertake a systematic analysis. His comprehensive findings are summarized in “Amplifying Public Opinion: The Policy Impact of the U.S. Environmental Movement” (PDF), appearing in the June 2007 issue of Social Forces.

Agnone compared the relative impact of public opinion, institutional advocacy, and protest on passage of federal environmental legislation between 1960-1998, using a sophisticated analytical model and data drawn from The New York Times.

Three key findings in this first-ever quantification of environmentalist power upend conventional political wisdom:

  1. Protest is significantly more important than public opinion or institutional advocacy in influencing federal environmental law. Agnone found that each protest event increases the likelihood of pro-environmental legislation being passed by 1.2 percent, and moderate protest increases the annual rate of adoption by an astonishing 9.5 percent.
  2. Public opinion on its own influences federal action (though less than protest), but is vastly strengthened by protest, which “amplifies” public support and, in Agnone’s words, “raises the salience of public opinion for legislators.” Protest and public opinion are synergistic, with a joint impact on federal policy far more dramatic than either factor alone.
  3. Institutional advocacy has limited impact on federal environmental policy.

Agnone’s findings demonstrate that protest is neither a historical phase of the environmental movement nor a peripheral tactic: it is the central basis of environmentalists’ power. As Agnone notes, “these results lead to an important conclusion: when both protest and public opinion are at high levels, they jointly influence policy makers in ways that would be impossible if each existed without the other.”

When we stopped protesting, in other words, and began to rely on advocacy and mobilizing pubic opinion alone, we threw away our single most important lever of influence. The accompanying chart shows the correspondence between declining trend lines of environmental protest and passage of federal environmental law:


Every environmental lobbyist knows that our influence is greatest when there are people in the streets (or out in the Zodiacs). Agnone’s painstaking analysis is solid evidence that playing good cop/bad cop is more than good sense, it is our only effective path.

The implications for climate campaigning are significant. “Step It Up” type events and direct action by Greenpeace, Ruckus-trained activists, RAN, and other protest-oriented groups must be seen as our most important undertaking. Given this, a cost/benefit analysis of our present ratio of investment is sobering.