Business influence over environmental policy and regulation is targeted, says author of new book

Business influence over environmental policy and regulation in the United States is strategic and focused, says the author of the new book "Corporate America and Environmental Policy: How Often Does Business Get Its Way?"

Sheldon Kamieniecki. (Jim MacKenzie)
Business interests are more selective about exerting their influence than is commonly believed, and when they do get involved it's on issues that have high stakes for them and for the public, said author Sheldon Kamieniecki, a professor of politics and dean of the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"We've underestimated the strict approach business has taken to environmental politics," said Kamieniecki. "It isn't fair to say they've been involved in everything and are single-handedly responsible for our lack of progress. They have limited resources and choose their fights accordingly."

The book is the first major investigation of business influence over environmental policy in all three branches of government. Through quantitative analysis, as well as six in-depth case studies of such hot-button topics as the management of old-growth forests, toxic dumping in the Hudson River, and the environmental impacts of coal mining, Kamieniecki examined the influence of business since 1970 on Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, and the federal court of appeals.

"My expectation going in was that business was going to be ubiquitous, playing a role in everything having to do with the environment and natural resources," said Kamieniecki, who has studied environmental policy for 30 years. "That's what everyone has been telling us--environmentalists, my colleagues in academia, the media. But I found that not to be the case."

Business generally takes a hands-off approach to environmental and natural resource legislation, exerts little influence in the area of rule making-the work done within federal agencies to shape and implement laws passed by Congress, and wins about half the cases that make it to the federal appeals court, he said.

Rather, Kamieniecki's research suggests that business exerts its influence much earlier in the process, with at times devastating consequences for the environment. "Corporate interests define the issues and frame the debates to their advantage," he said. "When business does become involved, they are a formidable opponent for environmental groups."

For example, corporate players have stymied the public debate over climate change despite strong scientific evidence that human activity is generating greenhouse gases that are accelerating global warming, said Kamieniecki. He likens it to the early days of the debate over the health hazards of tobacco, which are now well-documented and well-understood by the public. "For years, the tobacco industry put forward doctors who said the scientific evidence was unclear, and we now know they knew that wasn't the case," he said.

The implications for environmental groups are straightforward, said Kamieniecki. "In my opinion, environmental groups have dropped the ball by not allying themselves with science. Far more often than not, science comes down on the side of the environment, and environmental leaders have done a poor job of framing the issues in scientific terms and communicating that to the public. It's their ace in the hole."

Despite environmental gains in air and water quality, and protection of endangered species and open space, Kamieniecki maintains that "progress has been slowed by corporate influence, and we've paid a high price-which will be much higher if we don't act decisively on long-term issues like climate change."

Kamieniecki identified three steps that would help speed government action:

. Environmental groups must become much more effective in how they lobby government

. The general public must become much more involved in environmental politics at the grassroots level

. Voter turnout and voter interaction with elected officials at all levels must increase

"When you have weak political parties and low voter turnout, interest groups fill the vacuum," he said. "More grassroots organizing will increase government responsiveness."


Note to journalists: Sheldon Kamieniecki is available to discuss business influence on environmental regulation and policy making; he may be reached at or (831) 459-3212.