April 17, 2023

The importance of local activism

Daniel Hungerman discusses the long-run effects of the first Earth Day celebration.

Marchers protest for climate justice in Toronto, Canada.

Source: bloodua

A wave of political demonstrations in recent years has grabbed headlines and helped to reshape the political landscape. But it’s an open question as to whether these protest movements actually change opinions in the long run.

In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, authors Daniel Hungerman and Vivek Moorthy found that activism can have a lasting impact on local communities. In particular, they found that areas with unusually bad weather on the original Earth Day in 1970, which would have presumably lowered the participation rate, saw weaker support for the environment and worse newborn health outcomes 10 to 20 years later.

Hungerman says that while climate change is a global phenomenon, their work is a reminder that bringing people together still makes a difference at the local level.

He recently spoke with Tyler Smith about how the first Earth Day shaped communities’ views about the environment and what his research contributes to the broader conversation around climate change.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.



Tyler Smith: What inspired you to study the long-term impacts of activism?

Daniel Hungerman: A lot of my work is on charitable giving and voluntary actions. Some of it's about religious participation, but also demonstrations, protests, and things like that. They've all been interesting to me, and I've always felt they're understudied in economics. There are a lot of important examples in society of people coming together to protest, and it's in a sense expensive. If you think about the resources and the opportunity cost of time of all the people when they gather together to do something like that, there's a really big question out there of whether it makes any difference at all. With Earth Day protests and protests for climate change, a lot of critics—and even sometimes proponents—say that this doesn't matter. I wanted to put that to the test.

Smith: You're looking into what might be the long-term effects of environmental activism. But with such a long time horizon, that's challenging because there are so many different factors besides activism that could be influencing future outcomes. How did you go about isolating the impact of Earth Day activism?

Hungerman: In the context of economics, we refer to some of these concerns as endogeneity. Actions to celebrate Earth Day might not be random or exogenously assigned, in the parlance of applied microeconomic work. To put that a little bit differently, you might imagine that a place that would have a really big Earth Day celebration back in 1970 would be Boulder, Colorado, and a place where you'd see less of a celebration might be Gary, Indiana. It would be a mistake to compare Boulder and Gary and then conclude any differences between them are because of Earth Day celebrations. With that in mind, our approach was to use rainfall and look at how rainy it was on the exact day in question, April 22, 1970, and use that to develop a methodology.

Smith: Presumably the idea is that if it's rainy, not many people are going to want to go out and do anything.

Hungerman: Exactly. We can't run an experiment here. We can't randomly assign Earth Day anywhere, but we can look at whether places got more rain than they typically do or less rain than they typically do. We can take that random variation in the rain and from it do a kind of experiment where we compare places that got lucky with rain—they were experimentally treated with a big Earth Day effect. And then places that unexpectedly got really lousy weather on Earth Day, they are treated with a kind of non–Earth Day celebration. By making that comparison, you're going to do something that's much more compelling in terms of isolating the effect of Earth Day than a simple Boulder versus Gary comparison.

Smith: When you looked at these weather patterns, what did you ultimately find?

Hungerman: First, we found that weather on Earth Day really mattered for attitudes about the environment. We use a survey called the General Social Survey—a very commonly used survey for attitudinal questions like this. If you go to that survey in the 1980s and you ask people in the community about their environmental opinions and attitudes, what you find is that even 10 or 20 years later, people's environmental attitudes are influenced by how rainy it was on April 22, 1970, where they live. In places with more rain, you see lower support for the environment.

On Earth Day, it's a good time to remember that there are lots of ways we can take action to protect the environment, whether they have to do with climate change or keeping, for instance, our local water supply clean.

Daniel Hungerman

Smith: Was there anything that really surprised you about these results?

Hungerman: The magnitude of the results and how long lasting they were genuinely surprised me. In particular, we looked at measures of child health for children born in the 1980s—more than a decade after Earth Day happened. What you can see is that rainfall on April 22, 1970, is off-the-charts predictive of child health in the 1980s. Children are less healthy in the 1980s if they're born somewhere where it was rainy on April 22, 1970. But rainfall on other days in April 1970 had absolutely no impact on child health 15 years later, as you'd expect.

Smith: How do you see this research contributing to the broader conversation around climate change and sustainability?

Hungerman: Right now we're seeing a lot of community activism—protests and communities coming together to make demonstrations about the importance of climate change. Our work suggests that looking back in time—at another point in history when people came together to do that—that it made a real difference. Often research has shown the number one limiting factor for whether people decide to do anything like that isn't any belief in whether the environment is in trouble, it's instead a belief about whether your participation matters. Our work shows that participation matters.

Secondly, we think that this work highlights the importance of local activism. This work shows that Earth Day matters in your community. For Earth Day, for instance, there’s a lot of scholarship that's shown that Earth Day was really important for helping create the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, and federal legislation that led to cleaner water, etc. Our results really aren't about any of that at all. They're about looking at a particular community in time and seeing if, many years before, the conditions on Earth Day matter for a local community. One of the things we hope people take away from this work now is that climate change is a global problem, but that meaningful activism and meaningful benefits of activism can happen even in your local community. You don't want to lose sight of that. 

Finally, climate change is a potentially existential crisis in the world today. But there are many other examples of environmental challenges that people can keep in mind and where people can make a difference. On Earth Day, it's a good time to remember that there are lots of ways we can take action to protect the environment, whether they have to do with climate change or keeping, for instance, our local water supply clean.

Every Day Is Earth Day: Evidence on the Long-Term Impact of Environmental Activism” appears in the January 2023 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.