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The State of the Environment—An Overview - Public Opinion On The Environment

percent environmental people figure

Quality of the Environment

In March 2004 the Gallup Organization conducted its annual poll dealing with environmental issues. As shown in Figure 1.6, participants were asked to rate the overall quality of the U.S. environment as excellent, good, only fair, or poor. Only 4 percent of those asked gave the environment an excellent rating. Another 39 percent rated the environment in good condition, while 46 percent considered it in fair condition and 11 percent rated it in poor condition. In general the breakdown is similar to that obtained in previous polls. There has been a slight, gradual increase since 2001 in the number of people rating the environment in poor condition.

Another poll question asked if people believed the quality of the environment as a whole was getting better, getting worse, or staying the same. In 2004 a majority of respondents (58 percent) expressed the pessimistic view that the environment is getting worse. Another 34 percent believed that the environment is improving and 6 percent thought it is about the same. This breakdown has remained relatively constant since the question was first asked in 2001.

Figure 1.7 shows the opinions expressed in previous years from Gallup polls about the future of the environment and what actions should be taken to prevent major disruptions in it. In 2003 a majority of those surveyed (approximately 56 percent) felt that some additional actions need to be taken. Nearly a quarter (approximately 23 percent) believed that immediate drastic action was required. Another 20 percent felt that the same actions the U.S. has been taking will be sufficient to protect the Earth from environmental problems. The percentage of people calling for immediate and drastic action has decreased since 1995 when 35 percent of those asked felt it was necessary.

Specific Environmental Concerns

Gallup also asked poll participants to rate various environmental issues in regard to the amount of concern they feel about them: a great deal, a fair amount, a little, or none. The ten issues assessed were as follows:

  • Acid rain
  • Air pollution
  • Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste
  • Damage to the Earth's ozone layer
  • Extinction of plant and animal species
  • Greenhouse effect (global warming)
  • Loss of tropical rain forests
  • Maintenance of the nation's supply of fresh water for household needs
  • Pollution of drinking water
  • Pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs

Figure 1.8 shows the ranking of issues for which people said they felt a great deal of concern. Pollution of drinking water topped the list with 53 percent, followed by pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with 48 percent, and contamination of soil and water by toxic waste, FIGURE 1.6
Public opinion on the overall quality of the nation's environment, 2004
also with 48 percent. In general, water-related issues garnered the most amount of concern.

Rating the Government's Role

In general, Gallup poll results indicate dissatisfaction with the government's role in protecting the environment. (See Figure 1.9.) In 2004 a majority of those asked (55 percent) felt that the government was doing too little in this regard. More than a third (37 percent) thought the government was doing about the right amount, and 5 percent believed the government was doing too much. The percentage of people who believe the government is doing too little to protect the environment has decreased since 1992 when 68 percent expressed this view.

In a separate poll conducted during 2003, Gallup asked participants to rank various federal government agencies based on their performance. As shown in Figure 1.10 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was rated dead last behind seven other agencies. Only 39 percent of the people polled felt that the EPA was doing an excellent or good job. This compares with 66 percent who believed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was doing an excellent or good job.

Personal Participation

Despite an apparent dissatisfaction with government actions regarding the environment there is no indication that Americans feel more compelled to become actively involved in environmental issues. Figure 1.11 shows that in 2004 only 14 percent of the people polled considered themselves active participants in the environmental movement. Far more (47 percent) were sympathetic to the movement, but not active. Another 30 percent expressed neutral feelings about it and 8 percent were unsympathetic.

Overall the percentage of people considering themselves either active or unsympathetic has changed little since 2000. The biggest loss over this period was in the number of people expressing sympathy for the movement, but who are not active participants. This figure fell by 8 percent between 2000 and 2004. The greatest gain is seen in the number of people expressing neutral feelings about the environmental movement. This figure increased by 7 percent, perhaps reflecting an overall sense of apathy among Americans about many sociopolitical affairs.

This assessment appears to be supported by the March 2003 poll results shown in Figure 1.12. A majority of people asked had not personally been active in environmental FIGURE 1.7
Public perception of the seriousness of environmental problems, selected years 1995–2003
protection groups or in political activities related to environmental issues during the previous year. More than 40 percent of those asked had contributed money to groups involved in environmental protection, conservation, or wildlife preservation. Far more people (72 percent) had based purchasing decisions on environmental concerns or reduced their household's use of energy (80 percent). The largest percentage of people (89 percent) indicated that they had voluntarily recycled household items within the previous year.

During that same poll participants were also asked whether they had personally changed their shopping or living habits over the previous year to help protect the environment. (See Figure 1.13.) Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) claimed to have made minor changes in their habits. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) said they had made major changes, while 15 percent said they had made no changes.

Competing Interests: Environment, Energy, and Economy

For many years the Gallup Organization has polled people about which should take priority: the environment or economic growth. The results are shown in Figure 1.14. The vast majority of polls conducted between 1984 and 2000 showed strong support for the environment even at the risk of curbing economy growth. In all of these polls at least 58 percent of the people asked agreed with this view. The tide began to turn during the early 2000s as economic growth began to gain in priority.

The March 2004 poll showed that 49 percent of those asked believed that environmental protection should be given priority even if it risked curbing economic growth. Nearly as many (44 percent) felt that economic growth should be give priority even if it meant that the environment would suffer to some extent. According to Gallup, a small percentage (4 percent) advocated giving equal priority to environmental protection and economic growth.

According to Wirthlin Worldwide, a Virginia-based marketing research and consulting company, there is a relationship between unemployment rates and public support for the environment. In its report Environmental Support Softens amid Economic Uncertainty (McLean, VA, 1998), FIGURE 1.8
Americans expressing a great deal of concern about environmental problems (2002–2003)
Wirthlin noted that environmental support in the United States generally moves in accord with the economy. The report compared unemployment rates with poll data and found a statistically significant inverse relationship between unemployment rates and support for environmental protection. The report concluded that when the economy is healthy, public concern for the environment runs high; when the economy is bad, the environment becomes a much less important issue in people's minds.

A similar effect is evident in Gallup poll results concerning the competing priorities of environmental protection and developing U.S. energy supplies (such as oil, gas, and coal). As shown in Figure 1.15 support for giving the environment the priority fell by 4 percent between 2001 and 2004 from 52 percent to 48 percent. Support for giving priority to the development of energy supplies grew by 8 percent over the same time period, from 36 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2004.

Young Americans Rank the Country's Problems

In polls conducted during 2002 and 2003 the Gallup Organization asked young adults aged 18 to 29 to rank a list of problems facing the United States in terms of the amount of worry they felt about each problem. As shown in Figure 1.16 the quality of the environment ranked fifth on the list of problems for which young adults expressed a great deal of concern. The environment was outranked by terrorism, healthcare, crime and violence, and the economy.

How Reliable Are Polls on Environmental Issues?

Some experts suggest that opinion polls are an unreliable guide to how voters actually feel about environmental issues. Although polls of Americans indicate that concern for environmental issues is substantial, this same level of concern does not manifest itself when it comes to actual voting and purchasing decisions. Some observers suggest that people often claim in polls that they are interested in environmental issues because they are trying to give the pollster the answer that he or she wants to hear. In other words, they are giving what they think is the "right" answer. In actuality, respondents may be more interested in other issues and, in the voting booth, may vote other than their poll answers would indicate.

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