Americans Are Environmentally Friendly, but Issue Not Seen as Urgent Problem

by Lydia Saad and Riley E. Dunlap

Concern has dropped somewhat over past decade

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Saturday, April 22 marks the 30th anniversary of the first Earth Day, a day devoted to celebrations, teach-ins, demonstrations and other activities designed to draw attention to the environment. To many, the first Earth Day also represents the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

A new Gallup poll, conducted April 3-9 with 1,004 national adults, takes stock of the environmental movement after 30 years, both in terms of Americans' support for the movement and their perceptions of its success.

In some ways, the findings are positive for environmentalists. Americans widely agree with the goals of the movement and are sympathetic towards it. They express a high degree of concern for many environmental issues, and perceive that there has been a moderate amount of success in reaching environmental goals. At the same time, these attitudes are essentially the same as they have been over the past decade, and to the extent views have changed, it has mostly been in the direction of less rather than more concern. Also, compared to other issues facing the nation, the environment ranks well below crime, drugs and health care as a public concern, and rates only at the middle of the pack of issues Americans say they will pay attention to when evaluating the presidential candidates this year.

Gallup's extensive new survey probing public attitudes on the environment includes these highlights:

  • 83% of Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement, including 43% who "strongly agree."
  • 55% describe current environmental problems as serious, including 17% who describe them as "extremely serious."
  • 66% rate the environment as an important issue to their vote for president, including 26% who rate it as "extremely important."
  • 71% indicate they are sympathetic toward the environmental movement, including 16% who say they are "active" in it.
  • In 1990, only 14% of the public thought a great deal of progress had been made in dealing with environmental problems, compared to 26% today.
  • In 1992, 68% of Americans thought the government was doing too little to protect the environment, compared to 58% today.
Part two will focus on Americans' basic environmental attitudes, including several trends updating public concern. Tuesday's story will focus on the status of the environmental movement: its perceived success and popularity relative to other major social movements of the last half-century.

Environment a Mid-Level Political Issue
Environmental issues have seldom been a major factor in national elections, but this year could prove an exception because of Al Gore's strong and highly visible pro-environmental positions, as laid out in his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," which is just being reissued. However, at this early stage, the evidence is ambiguous concerning the likely impact of environmental issues in the presidential race.

Only one in four Americans, 26%, cite environmental protection as an "extremely important" issue to their vote for president, while an additional 40% say it is "very important." This ranks the issue well below education, health care, crime and Social Security as a campaign issue, but roughly on par with gun control and tax reductions. It is well ahead of abortion and campaign finance reform in stated importance, and slightly ahead of foreign affairs.

Percentage Giving Each Issue High Importance in Vote for President
(Extremely + Very Important)
1. Education 89%
2. Health care 82
3. Crime 81
4. Social Security 80
5. Family values 79
6. The economy 77
7. Gun control 69
8. Environmental protection 66
9. Tax reductions 63
10. Foreign affairs 57
11. Abortion 53
12. Campaign finance reform 40

Still, it is clear that public support for environmental protection remains strong. For example, when asked in this year's survey to choose between protecting the environment and economic growth, 67% choose environmental protection and 28% choose economic growth (with 5% not choosing either one). In 1990, the figures were 71% for environmental protection and 19% for economic growth. But in 1984 (the first year Gallup asked the question), preference for the environment was lower, with 61% choosing the environment and 28% choosing the economy.

Shifting Concerns on the Environment
The new poll updates the amount of concern Americans have for each of 13 different environmental issues, 10 of which were first measured in 1989. In terms of the long-term trends for these 10 specific issues, public concern is stable or reduced on eight of them. The largest reductions are seen for acid rain (dropping from 1989, when 41% of the public expressed a great deal of concern about it, to 34% today), loss of natural habitat for wildlife -- also dropping seven points -- and water pollution (with fresh-water and ocean pollution both down six points). Concern has increased for two items: the loss of tropical rain forests, up nine points -- from 42% in 1989 to 51% today -- and global warming, increasing to 40% from 35% in 1989.

The leveling off of public concern for the environment in 2000, compared to its high-water mark 11 years ago, is likely due to several factors. Perhaps foremost, environmental problems were highly salient in 1989 due to high levels of media attention to the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Also, global warming, ozone depletion and rain forest destruction at the end of the 1980s, as well as the 20th Earth Day anniversary, all garnered enormous publicity for environmental issues during that period. And, as will be discussed below, the public is more likely to perceive that there has been progress in alleviating environmental problems today than in 1989, perhaps leading to a lowering of overall concern about the extent of some environmental problems.

However, public concern about many of these issues has wavered over the past decade, and in several cases it bottomed out in the mid-1990s, so that the more recent trend shows an increase in public concern when compared to measures from last year. For instance, concern over pollution of rivers and other fresh water sources has risen five percentage points, from 61% in 1999 to 66% today. Similar recent gains are seen in the areas of global warming, the ozone layer, air pollution, ocean and beach pollution, radioactivity contamination, drinking-water pollution, and acid rain. Nevertheless, concern on most items still lags behind its position in 1989.

Percentage Expressing "A Great Deal" of Concern
  2000 1999 1989 Change
Since
1989
The loss of tropical rain forests 51% 49% 42% +9
The "greenhouse effect" or global warming 40 34 35 +5
Contamination of soil and water by radioactivity from nuclear facilities 52 48 54 -2
Damage to the earth's ozone layer 49 44 51 -2
Air pollution 59 52 63 -4
Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste 64 63 69 -5
Pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs 66 61 72 -6
Ocean and beach pollution 54 50 60 -6
The loss of natural habitat for wildlife 51 51 58 -7
Acid rain 34 29 41 -7
Pollution of drinking water 72 68 -- --
Extinction of plant and animal species 45 -- -- --
Urban sprawl and loss of open spaces 42 -- -- --

Optimism About Environmental Progress Is Up
The flip side of the decline in concern about the environment since 1989 is that Americans are now more optimistic about gains made in environmental protection. In 1990, only 14% felt a "great deal" of progress had been made in dealing with environmental problems, compared to 26% who feel this way today. Over the same time span, pessimism that "hardly any progress" has been made has fallen from 21% to 9%. While extreme views have shifted in a more optimistic direction, the majority viewpoint remains that "only some progress" has been made (64% today compared to 63% in 1990).

Similarly, Americans are moderately less likely to be critical of the government for lack of attention to the environment today than they were earlier. In 1992, fully two-thirds of the public, 68%, thought the government was doing too little to protect to the environment. Today that figure has dropped to 58%.

Survey Methods
The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,004 adults, 18 years and older, conducted April 3-9, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 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.

Next, I am going to read a list of problems currently facing our country. For each one please tell me how serious of a problem you consider it to be for our country -- extremely serious, very serious, somewhat serious, or not serious at all. [RANDOM ORDER: A-G]

  Extremely
serious
Very
serious
Somewhat
serious
Not serious
at all
No
opinion
A. Hunger and homelessness
2000 Apr 3-9 24% 42 30 4 *
B. Crime and violence
2000 Apr 3-9 33% 49 17 1 *
C. Environmental problems
2000 Apr 3-9 17% 38 39 5 1
D. Poor health care
2000 Apr 3-9 29% 38 28 5 *
E. Drug use
2000 Apr 3-9 38% 45 15 2 *
F. Racial conflict
2000 Apr 3-9 18% 33 43 5 1
G. Illegal immigration
2000 Apr 3-9 15% 30 45 8 2

Now I am going to read a list of some of the issues that will probably be discussed in this year's presidential election campaigns. As I read each one, please tell me how important the candidates' positions on that issue will be in influencing your vote for president -- extremely important, very important, somewhat important or not important. [RANDOM ORDER A-L]

  Extremely
important
Very
important
Somewhat
important
Not
important
No
opinion
A. Health care
2000 Apr 3-9 38% 44 16 2 *
B. Crime
2000 Apr 3-9 38% 43 17 2 *
C. Social Security
2000 Apr 3-9 37% 43 17 3 *
D. Family values
2000 Apr 3-9 39% 40 16 5 *
E. Tax reductions
2000 Apr 3-9 26% 37 30 7 *
F. Abortion
2000 Apr 3-9 26% 27 30 15 2
G. Environmental protection
2000 Apr 3-9 26% 40 30 4 *
H. Foreign affairs
2000 Apr 3-9 17% 40 36 5 2
I. Education
2000 Apr 3-9 46% 43 9 2 *
J. Gun control
2000 Apr 3-9 34% 35 19 11 1
K. Campaign finance reform
2000 Apr 3-9 14% 26 39 19 2
L. The economy
2000 Apr 3-9 30% 47 21 2 *

How much progress have we made in dealing with environmental problems in the past few decades -- say since 1970? Would you say we have made a great deal of progress, only some progress, or hardly any progress at all?

  A great deal of progress Only some progress Hardly any progress at all No opinion
2000 Apr 3-9 26% 64 9 1
1999 Apr 13-14 36% 55 8 1
1995 Apr 17-19 24% 61 14 1
1991 Apr 11-14 18% 61 19 1
1990 Apr 5-8 14% 63 21 2

How much optimism do you have that we will have our environmental problems well under control in 20 years -- that is, by 2020 -- a great deal of optimism, only some optimism, or hardly any optimism at all?

  A great deal of optimism Only some optimism Hardly any optimism at all No opinion
2000 Apr 3-9 18% 60 21 1
1999 Apr 13-14 18% 62 18 2
1991 Apr 11-14 19% 60 18 2
1990 Apr 5-8 18% 58 22 2

Do you think the U.S. government is doing too much, too little, or about the right amount in terms of protecting the environment?

  Too much Too little About the right amount No opinion
2000 Apr 3-9 10% 58 30 2
1992 Jan 5- Mar 31 4% 68 26 2

With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree -- [ROTATED: protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent]?

  Prioritize protection of the environment Prioritize economic growth EQUAL PRIORITY (vol.) No opinion
  % % % %
2000 Apr 3-9 67 28 2 3
1999 Apr 13-14 67 28 -- 5
1999 Mar 12-14 65 30 -- 5
1998 Apr 17-19 68 24 -- 8
1997 Jul 25-27 66 27 -- 7
1995 Apr 17-19 62 32 -- 6
1992 Jan 5- Mar 31 58 26 8 8
1991 Apr 71 20 -- 9
1990 Apr 71 19 -- 10
1984 Sep 61 28 -- 11

I'm going to read you a list of environmental problems. As I read 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-M]

  A great
deal
%
A fair
amount
%
Only
a little
%
Not
at all
%
No
opinion
%
A. Ocean and beach pollution
2000 Apr 3-9 54 34 10 5 1
1999 Apr 13-14 50 32 13 4 1
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 42 32 17 7 1
1991 Apr 11-14 53 26 14 6 1
1990 Apr 5-8 52 27 12 7 2
1989 May 4-7 60 23 11 5 1
B. Pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs
2000 Apr 3-9 66 24 8 2 *
1999 Apr 13-14 61 30 7 2 *
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 56 30 12 3 *
1991 Apr 11-14 67 21 8 3 1
1990 Apr 5-8 64 23 9 4 --
1989 May 4-7 72 19 5 3 1
C. Air pollution
2000 Apr 3-9 59 29 9 3 *
1999 Apr 13-14 52 35 10 3 *
1999 Mar 12-14 47 33 16 5 *
1997 Oct 27-28 42 34 18 5 1
1991 Apr 11-14 59 28 10 4 *
1990 Apr 5-8 58 29 9 4 *
1989 May 4-7 63 24 8 4 *
D. Damage to the earth's ozone layer
2000 Apr 3-9 49 29 14 7 1
1999 Apr 13-14 44 32 15 8 1
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 33 27 25 13 2
1991 Apr 11-14 49 24 16 8 4
1990 Apr 5-8 43 28 15 10 4
1989 May 4-7 51 26 13 8 2
E. The loss of tropical rain forests
2000 Apr 3-9 51 25 14 9 1
1999 Apr 13-14 49 30 14 6 1
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 42 25 21 10 2
1990 Apr 5-8 40 24 19 14 3
1989 May 4-7 42 25 18 12 3
F. The loss of natural habitat for wildlife
2000 Apr 3-9 51 31 13 5 *
1999 Apr 13-14 51 31 13 5 *
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 53 27 15 5 1
1990 Apr 5-8 51 30 12 7 *
1989 May 4-7 58 27 9 5 1
G. The "greenhouse effect" or global warming
2000 Apr 3-9 40 32 15 12 1
1999 Apr 13-14 34 34 18 12 2
1999 Mar 12-14 28 31 24 16 2
1997 Oct 27-28 24 26 29 17 4
1991 Apr 11-14 35 27 22 12 5
1990 Apr 5-8 30 27 20 16 6
1989 May 4-7 35 28 18 12 7
H. Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste
2000 Apr 3-9 64 25 7 4 *
1999 Apr 13-14 63 27 7 3 *
1999 Mar 12-14 55 28 11 5 *
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 62 21 11 5 1
1990 Apr 5-8 63 22 10 5 *
1989 May 4-7 69 21 6 3 *
I. Contamination of soil and water by radioactivity from nuclear facilities
2000 Apr 3-9 52 23 16 9 *
1999 Apr 13-14 48 27 16 8 1
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 44 25 20 10 1
1990 Apr 5-8 48 23 17 10 2
1989 May 4-7 54 24 14 7 1
J. Acid rain
2000 Apr 3-9 34 31 19 15 1
1999 Apr 13-14 29 35 23 11 2
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 34 30 20 14 3
1990 Apr 5-8 34 30 18 14 4
1989 May 4-7 41 27 19 11 3
K. Pollution of drinking water
2000 Apr 3-9 72 20 6 2 *
1999 Apr 13-14 68 22 7 3 *
1999 Mar 12-14 -- -- -- -- --
1997 Oct 27-28 -- -- -- -- --
1991 Apr 11-14 67 19 10 3 1
1990 Apr 5-8 65 22 9 4 *
1989 May 4-7 -- -- -- -- --
L. Extinction of plant and animal species
2000 Apr 3-9 45 33 14 8 *
M. Urban sprawl and loss of open spaces
2000 Apr 3-9 42 31 14 12 1

* Less than 0.5%
(vol.) Volunteered response

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