Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Liam Downey

Second Advisor

Lori Hunter

Third Advisor

Stef Mollborn


This research investigates the consequence of a crucial and not yet fully explored problem: the reluctance of the United States to sign and ratify international agreements, like Kyoto, that aim to mitigate climate change and its underlying social and ecological impacts. This unwillingness has inspired local governments, mayors, metropolitan area governance consortia, state governments, and governors to take on the climate challenge without the directive of the federal government. Local areas of the U.S. are experiencing climate-change-related impacts such as receding beach lines due to sea level rise and intense storms, fresh water shortages, and extreme weather events. As a result, researchers have begun to explore the human dimensions of climate change through an inquiry in: among many other topics, the vulnerability of local areas to the impacts of climate change and the forces shaping local areas' contribution to climate change. This study addresses the latter issue using the STIRPAT framework - a reformulated version of the I=(P)(A)(T) formulation that relates environmental impacts (I) to population growth (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). I address three questions that have thus far been poorly answered in prior research: "across the U.S., do local areas differ in the extent of their contribution to climate change?", "what are the causes of variation in energy use and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions across local areas?" and "which social theories best explain the causes of variation in energy use and CO2 emissions across local areas?" To make strides in answering these questions and contribute to the understanding of local level drivers of energy consumption and emissions, this research analyzes the causes of variation in: energy use and CO2 emissions in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in chapter 4, the change in energy consumption between 2000 and 2005 for these metropolitan areas in chapter 5, and CO2 emissions in all U.S. counties in chapter 6. The STIRPAT method is used to test four social theories of environmental degradation - the treadmill of production, ecological modernization, urban ecological transitions, and human ecology theories - by quantifying variables associated with energy use and CO2 emissions drawn from each theory. The specific findings demonstrate that various demographic, economic, and governmental factors are related strongly to metropolitan area energy consumption and county-level CO2 emissions. The human ecology, treadmill of production, and urban ecological transitions theories are important to explaining how and why climate-related impacts differ for a wide variety of local areas in the United States. Related to human ecology and treadmill of production theory, environmental degradation is highest in metropolitan areas and counties with large populations and large economies that have various mechanisms in place to facilitate economic growth. By contrast, some U.S. counties are beginning to remedy their impact on the environment by applying economic and governmental resources toward the mitigation of CO2 emissions, which provides evidence of support for urban ecological transitions theory. However, because climate change is a complex cross-scale global environmental problem and the results in this dissertation confirm that this problem is locally driven by similar population and economic factors also affecting the climate at larger spatial scales, mitigation efforts to reduce energy use and emissions at the local level will be fruitless without a well-coordinated, cross-scale (local to global) ideological shift that puts less priority on economic goals and more on environmental sustainability. These results, and the methodological and theoretical framework applied in this dissertation, thus provide a useful platform for the successful application of future research that specifically addresses mitigation strategies to reduce local-level environmental impacts. This dissertation research, therefore, contributes to the environmental sociology, general demography, and environmental demography disciplines by exploring ways in which population-environment relationships work at the local scale.