Advocacy coalitions, beliefs and climate change policy in the United States

Published date01 September 2017
AuthorTuomas Ylä‐Anttila,Anna Kukkonen,Jeffrey Broadbent
Date01 September 2017
Advocacy coalitions, beliefs and climate change
policy in the United States
Anna Kukkonen
| Tuomas Ylä-Anttila
| Jeffrey Broadbent
Department of Social Research, University of
Helsinki, Finland
Department of Sociology, University of
Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, USA
Anna Kukkonen, Department of Social
Research, Unioninkatu 35, PL 18, University
of Helsinki, Helsinki 00014, Finland.
The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) asserts that disagree-
ment over policy core beliefs divides organizations into competing
coalitions. We apply Discourse Network Analysis to 1,410 state-
ments in the Wall Street Journal,New York Times and USA Today to
investigate what kinds of beliefs contribute to coalition formation
in the climate change policy debate in the news media in the
United States. We find that the beliefs concerning the reality of
anthropogenic climate change, the importance of ecology over
economy and desirability of governmental regulation divide organi-
zations into three advocacy coalitions: the economy, ecology and
science coalitions. Policy preferences such as cap and trade do
not; they find support across coalition lines. Based on these find-
ings, we suggest that ACF theory could be clarified to better
account for how beliefs concerning policy instruments contribute
to coalition formation. In some policy domains, policy instruments
are where opposing coalitions find agreement. In others, they are
more divisive.
The Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1988, 1999) is one of the most prominent theoreti-
cal frameworks for examining the features of policy processes and change. The ACF asserts that organizations group
into competing advocacy coalitions on the basis of shared policy beliefs and that the coalitions have a crucial role in
influencing policy outcomes. The ACFs strength comes from its broad view of politics as it focuses on the relation-
ships between various organizations who aim to influence the normative orientations and outcomes of a specific
policy subsystem (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1999; Jenkins-Smith et al. 2014a).
According to the ACF, the most important factor tying advocacy coalitions together is shared policy core beliefs
(Sabatier 1998, p. 103; Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1999). Policy core beliefs are generally defined as including basic
orientation and value priorities for the policy systems, or whose welfare in the policy system is of utmost concern,
as well as assessments of the seriousness of the problem, its basic causes and the preferred solutions for addressing
it(Jenkins-Smith et al. 2014a, p. 191). Policy core beliefs are contrasted with deep core beliefs that are too general
to form a basis for coalition formation, and with secondary beliefs, that are too specific to play this role. However,
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12321
Public Administration. 2017;95:713729. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 713
assessing three decades of scholarship on the ACF, the creators of the framework have identified considerable vari-
ation in conceptualizations and measurement of belief systems, and called for an effort to clarify the theoretical
distinction between policy core and secondary aspects(Jenkins-Smith et al. 2014a, p. 196).
In this article, we heed this call through empirically analysing coalition formation in the media debate on climate
change in the United States. We separately test the influence of different types of beliefs on coalition formation.
We find that the empirical and normative beliefs, such as those concerning the validity of climate science and priori-
tization of ecological over economic objectives, do contribute to coalition formation, while beliefs concerning policy
instruments, such as cap and trade, do not. Comparing these results with those of earlier studies, we suggest that
ACF theory could be refined to better account for the role of beliefs concerning policy instruments in coalition for-
mation. In some policy domains and moments in time, such as the one studied here, policy instruments are where
opposing coalitions find agreement. In others, they are more divisive.
Our main contribution, thus, is theoretical: clarifying the role of different types of beliefs in coalition formation.
For this reason, our data are from an exceptional time period in the history of US climate change policy-making. We
analyse the years 200708, during which climate change was a more salient issue in the US public debate than ever
before or after: climate change legislation was making progress in an unprecedented way at the federal and state
levels (Knox-Hayes 2012). This time period, during which old disagreements dividing coalitions remained but some
consensus was also forming, provides the best data for our task, which is to investigate what kinds of beliefs divide
organizations into opposing coalitions and what kinds find support across coalition lines. Our intention, therefore, is
not to provide an overall picture of the climate change debate in the US, nor to analyse coalition formation in this
policy domain more generally both of these tasks have already been taken up in earlier studies (e.g. Fisher
et al. 2012; Knox-Hayes 2012; Dunlap and McCright 2015; Farrell 2015). Our results should be read with this
in mind.
The overall picture of US climate politics painted by earlier studies is one of policy stagnation. No government
has been able to pass federal climate laws, and the task has been delegated to subnational efforts instead (Rabe
2009). Studies have particularly underlined the strategies of the climate change counter-movement which includes
influential organizations with links to the fossil fuel industry. These organizations have actively mobilized in various
forums to advocate scientific uncertainty and economic threat scenarios in order to shape public perceptions of cli-
mate change (McCright and Dunlap 2000, 2003; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Pooley 2010; Greenberg et al. 2011;
Farrell 2015, 2016; Boussalis and Coan 2016). The counter-movements strategies seem to be working. Public opin-
ion on climate change has become increasingly polarized along ideological lines (McCright and Dunlap 2011; Brulle
et al. 2012), and almost half of Americans still cast doubt on anthropogenic global warming (Leiserowitz et al. 2016).
Around the years 200708, however, the positions presented at congressional hearings on climate change
became more consensual across partisan lines, especially concerning the policy instrument of cap and trade (Fisher
et al. 2013). This increase in consensus almost resulted in policy change when the American Clean Air and Security
Act, aimed at establishing a federal cap and trade policy, went all the way through the House of Representatives
before hitting a wall in the Senate (Rabe 2010). Since then, the counter-movement has regrouped and polarization
of beliefs concerning climate change has continued (Dunlap and McCright 2015).
The remainder of this article is organized as follows: first, we present the current state of the theoretical debate
on the role of beliefs in coalition formation in the ACF and our research questions. Second, we present our newspa-
per data and the method of Discourse Network Analysis. Third, we show that the policy subsystem as presented
in the media is divided into three coalitions, the Economy Coalition, the Ecology Coalition and the Science Coali-
tion, based on their diverging policy core beliefs, and look at the composition of the coalitions and their arguments.
Fourth, we show that beliefs concerning specific policy instruments such as cap and trade do not contribute to the
formation of opposing coalitions; rather, there is quite a widespread consensus on these instruments. Finally, we
discuss the implications of our findings for the empirical literature on climate change policy-making in the US and
for the conceptualization of the belief system in the ACF theory. We will also address the limitations of our study,
related to the use of media material in identifying coalitions.

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