Bush and the Environment: Potential for Trouble?

by Riley E. Dunlap
Gallup Scholar for the Environment

The president’s environmental ratings are down, but only moderately

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- It is fair to say that the Bush administration has been unpopular with the environmentalist movement. Since his inauguration, George W. Bush has taken a series of positions, ranging from rejecting the Kyoto global warming treaty to encouraging oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, that have raised the ire of the environmentalist community. The result is that major environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have posted blistering critiques of the Bush administration's policies on their Web sites, while the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters gave the administration an "F" for its environmental record during its first two years.

Despite this criticism, this year's Gallup Environmental/Earth Day poll finds Americans expressing less worry about environmental issues than was the case prior to 9/11. (The same can be said for crime, drugs, energy, race relations, and poverty.)

Just 6 in 10 Americans today (62%) say they worry a great deal or fair amount about the quality of the environment; this is down from 77% who worried this much in March 2001. As is evident in the graph below, most of this drop (11 out of 15 points) occurred between March 2001 and March 2002, spanning the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After a small increase in 2003, the measure dropped another notch (6 points) over the past year.

How Much Do You Worry About
Environmental Quality?

Bush's Environmental Ratings Drop, but Less Than Other Issue Ratings Do

At the same time, though, the 2004 poll suggests that Bush's environmental image has suffered somewhat, particularly over the past two years.

This year's poll, conducted March 8-11, shows a continued decline in the percentage of Americans saying that President Bush is doing a good job of "protecting the nation's environment." As a result, for the first time, slightly more Americans (46%) say the president is doing a "poor job" than a "good job" (41%) on environmental protection. This represents a 10 percentage-point decline in Bush's positive rating and an 8-point rise in his negative rating on environmental protection since March 2001, shortly after he took office. (When the question was first asked in 2001, respondents were asked to predict what kind of job Bush would do.)

Rating the Job Bush Is Doing/Will Do
Protecting Nation’s Environment

It is important to note that the downward trend in Bush's handling of environmental protection is dwarfed by much larger declines in his handling of energy and economic issues. Over the same period of time -- from March 2001 to March 2004 -- the percentage saying the president is doing a good job of "improving the nation's energy policy" has declined from 58% to 34%, while his positive rating for "keeping America prosperous" has declined from 66% to 41%. In comparison to these sizable declines of 24 and 25 percentage points, respectively, on energy and economic policy, the 10-point decline in the positive ratings of Bush's environmental protection policies seems modest. Of course, there are logical explanations for these drops, including a sluggish economy, rising gas prices, and various energy crises.

Another indicator of public reaction to the president's environmental record is a question asking if the nation's environmental policies are being strengthened, kept about the same, or weakened under the Bush administration. (When the question was first asked in March and April 2001, it was posed in terms of what would occur under the Bush administration.)

The trend shows a slight decline in the percentage saying environmental protection policies would be/are being strengthened, from 13% in 2001 to 6% this year, and a concomitant slight rise in the percentage saying such policies would be/are being weakened, from 34% to 39%. These very modest changes suggest that when it comes specifically to the charge that the Bush administration is weakening environmental protection policies, only a fairly small proportion of Americans have revised their views, and a majority (53%) continues to believe that such policies are about the same as in prior administrations.

Evaluation of/Expectation for Bush on
Environmental Protection

The Scientist Controversy

One specific charge leveled against the Bush administration is that it has not paid sufficient attention to scientific evidence concerning environmental problems, ranging from climate change to air pollutants to forest health. In February of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists coordinated the release of a statement signed by 60 highly eminent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, declaring: "The current Bush administration has suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy." The Bush administration has generally dismissed the charge, and at the end of last week, Bush science adviser John Marburger III issued a 17-page rebuttal of the statement: "The accusations in the document are inaccurate," said Marburger. "In this administration, science strongly informs policy."

Two questions were included in this year's Environmental/Earth Day poll to examine the potential impact of the criticism of the administration by scientists.

Two-thirds of Americans say they have heard either nothing at all (26%) or not much (40%) about the scientists' charges.

How Much Have You Heard About
Scientists’ Criticism of Bush
Administration on
Environmental Problems?
March 8-11, 2004

But when asked whom they tend to believe in the matter, a majority (59%) of Americans say they believe the scientists, while 32% say they believe the Bush administration.

Whether this reflects majority acceptance of a negative view of the administration on environmental matters, or a positive halo effect associated with scientists, is difficult to judge. But given the low level of public awareness about the scientists' statement, it is probably not a direct reaction to the controversy. Interestingly, there is virtually no difference in attitudes about the veracity of Bush vs. that of the scientists among those who say they have heard a great deal, a moderate amount, or not much about the issue.

Implications for the Election

We can expect to see increased efforts by environmentalists and Democrats this year to highlight Bush's environmental record, and to contrast it with what is widely viewed as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's staunchly pro-environmental record. But environmentalists should know they are swimming upstream. Historically, the environment has been a relatively minor issue in presidential elections (see Deborah Guber, The Grassroots of a Green Revolution: Polling America on the Environment, MIT Press, 2003).

When coupled with the overall decline in the salience of environmental problems found in this year's Environmental/Earth Day poll, the relatively moderate declines in Bush's environmental ratings suggest he is not especially vulnerable on the environment at this point. With so much public and political attention focused on national security and the economy, that is likely to continue through the election. But with seven months to go, nothing is certain.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,008 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 8-11, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Riley E. Dunlap, Gallup Scholar for Environment, is currently Donner Professor in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Åbo Akademi University in Finland.

11. Next I'm going to read a list of problems facing the country. For each one, please tell me if you personally worry about this problem a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all? First, how much do you personally worry about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Hunger and homelessness

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

35

29

28

8

--

2003 Mar 24-25

37

33

22

8

--

2002 Mar 4-7

37

30

26

7

*

2001 Mar 5-7

45

34

16

5

*



B. Crime and violence

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

46

26

24

4

*

2003 Mar 24-25

45

31

18

5

1

2002 Mar 4-7

49

27

20

4

0

2001 Mar 5-7

62

26

9

3

*



C. The quality of the environment

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

35

27

31

7

*

2003 Mar 24-25

34

34

21

10

1

2002 Mar 4-7

35

31

27

6

1

2001 Mar 5-7

42

35

17

5

1



D. The availability and affordability of health care

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

62

18

13

7

*

2003 Mar 24-25

55

24

12

8

1

2002 Mar 4-7

56

23

14

7

*

2001 Mar 5-7

60

24

11

5

*



Q.11CONTINUED

E. Drug use

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

46

19

20

14

1

2003 Mar 24-25

42

26

20

12

*

2002 Mar 4-7

49

22

19

9

1

2001 Mar 5-7

58

22

13

7

*



F. Race relations

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

19

23

34

23

1

2003 Mar 24-25

22

31

26

21

*

2002 Mar 4-7

23

25

30

21

1

2001 Mar 5-7

28

34

23

15

*



G. Illegal immigration

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

37

22

25

15

1

2003 Mar 24-25

37

26

23

13

1

2002 Mar 4-7

33

25

26

16

*

2001 Mar 5-7

28

24

29

18

1



H. The availability and affordability of energy

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

35

28

25

11

1

2003 Mar 24-25

27

36

25

11

1

2002 Mar 4-7

32

30

29

9

*

2001 Mar 5-7

46

31

16

6

1



I. The economy

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

41

29

24

6

*

2003 Mar 24-25

44

35

15

6

*

2002 Mar 4-7

37

36

21

6

*

2001 Mar 5-7

35

42

19

4

*



J. Unemployment

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

36

25

29

10

*

2003 Mar 24-25

36

29

22

13

*

2002 Mar 4-7

33

30

25

12

*

2001 Mar 5-7

30

33

24

13

*



K. The possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S.

 

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Only a
little

Not
at all

No
opinion

2004 Mar 8-11

42

28

22

8

*

2003 Mar 24-25

49

30

16

5

*

2002 Mar 4-7

49

26

20

5

*

* Less than 0.5%



SUMMARY TABLE: CONCERN ABOUT NATIONAL ISSUES

 


2004 Mar 8-11
(sorted by "a great deal")


Great
deal


Fair
amount

Only a
little/
Not at all

%

%

%

The availability and affordability of health care

62

18

20

Crime and violence

46

26

28

Drug use

46

19

34

The possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S.

42

28

30

The economy

41

29

30

Illegal immigration

37

22

40

Unemployment

36

25

39

Hunger and homelessness

35

29

36

The availability and affordability of energy

35

28

36

The quality of the environment

35

27

38

Race relations

19

23

57



12. Do you think George W. Bush is doing a good job or a poor job in handling each of the following issues as president? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Protecting the nation's environment

 


Good job


Poor job

FAIR/MIXED (vol.)


No opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

41

46

9

4

2003 Mar 3-5

44

43

7

6

2002 Mar 4-7

50

38

7

5

2001 Apr 6-9 ^

49

41

4

6

2001 Mar 5-7 ^

51

38

5

6

(vol.) Volunteered response



B. Improving the nation's energy policy

 


Good job


Poor job

FAIR/MIXED (vol.)


No opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

34

51

8

7

2003 Mar 3-5

39

45

7

9

2002 Mar 4-7

46

36

8

10

2001 Apr 6-9 ^

54

36

3

7

2001 Mar 5-7 ^

58

29

6

7

(vol.) Volunteered response



C. Keeping America prosperous

 


Good job


Poor job

FAIR/MIXED (vol.)


No opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

41

49

9

1

2003 Mar 3-5

44

45

7

4

2002 Mar 4-7

63

26

8

3

2001 Apr 6-9 ^

60

30

4

6

2001 Mar 5-7 ^

66

23

7

4

^

Do you think George W. Bush will do a good job or a poor job in handling each of the following issues as president? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

(vol.) Volunteered response



SUMMARY TABLE: BUSH PERFORMANCE ON ISSUES

 

2004 Mar 8-11
(sorted by "good job")

Good job

Poor job

%

%

Keeping America prosperous

41

49

Protecting the nation's environment

41

46

Improving the nation's energy policy

34

51



13. When it comes to environmental protection, which of these do you think is happening under the Bush administration -- [ROTATED: the nation's environmental protection policies are being strengthened, the nation's environmental policies are being kept about the same, or the nation's environmental protection policies are being weakened]?

BASED ON -- 479 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

 


Strengthened

Kept about
the same


Weakened

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Mar 8-11

6

53

39

2

2003 Mar 3-5

9

53

35

3

2001 Apr 6-8^

13

48

34

5

^ When it comes to environmental protection, which of these do you think is most likely to happen over the next four years under the Bush administration -- [ROTATED: the nation's environmental protection policies will be strengthened, the nation's environmental protection policies will be kept about the same, or the nation's environmental policies will be weakened]?



29. Recently a group of prominent scientists charged that the Bush administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence concerning the seriousness of environmental problems such as global warming. How much have you heard about this criticism before now -- a great deal, a moderate amount, not much, or nothing at all?

 

Great
deal

Moderate
amount

Not
much

Nothing
at all

No
opinion

2004 Mar 8-11

8%

26

40

26

*

* Less than 0.5%



30. Who do you tend to believe in this matter -- [ROTATED: the scientists who claim that the Bush administration is ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems, (or) the Bush administration, which denies ignoring and distorting scientific evidence about environmental problems]?

 

Scientists

Bush administration

No opinion

2004 Mar 8-11

59%

32

9



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