Politics

In U.S., Many Environmental Issues at 20-Year-Low Concern

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Worry about all eight measures tested is down from last year

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are less worried about each of eight specific environmental problems than they were a year ago, and on all but global warming and maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply, concern is the lowest Gallup has measured. Americans worry most about drinking-water pollution and least about global warming.

2009-2010 Worry About Environmental Problems, and Changes in Worry

Over time, Americans' concerns about environmental problems have generally declined. After this year's drop, for six of the eight items, the percentage who worry "a great deal" is at the lowest point Gallup has measured, which in some cases dates to 1989. The two exceptions are global warming (low point was 24% in 1997) and maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply for household needs (35% in 2001).

One major reason Americans may be less worried about environmental problems is that they perceive environmental conditions in the United States to be improving.

The decline in worry over time has been rather dramatic for some of these threats. For example, in 1989, 72% of Americans said they worried a great deal about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Worry about this environmental issue averaged 62% in the 1990s, 54% in the 2000s, and is 46% today.

1989-2010 Trend: Worry About Pollution of Rivers, Lakes, and Reservoirs

Similarly, there has been a 25-point drop since 1989 in the percentage worried a great deal about air pollution, and an equal drop in worry about contamination of soil and water by toxic waste.

1989-2010 Trend: Worry About Air Pollution, Contamination of Soil and Water by Toxic Waste

Not all environmental problems show the same general downward trend over time. For example, concerns about global warming and loss of tropical rain forests were higher in 2000 than they had been prior to that. Concerns about both issues subsequently eased, before rising again until 2007. Now concerns are declining once again, including a sharp nine-point drop this year in concern about rain forests.

1989-2010 Trend: Worry About Global Warming, Loss of Tropical Rain Forests

Gallup earlier reported declines in concern about global warming on several of its other long-term-trend questions.

Water Pollution Usually of Greatest Concern

Typically, Americans express greater concern about threats to water safety and quality than about other environmental issues. This year, the top four concerns all deal with water. Pollution of drinking water again is the top concern, and has been each year it has been included in the list of environmental problems. The year it was not (1989), pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs was the top concern.

Top Environmental Concern, 1989-2010 Gallup Polls

Bottom Line

Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years. That could be due in part to Americans' belief that environmental conditions in the U.S. are improving. It also may reflect greater public concern about economic issues, which is usually associated with a drop in environmental concern. And greater action on environmental issues at the federal, state, and local levels may also contribute to a decline in Americans' environmental worry.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 4-7, 2010. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

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.

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