Two weeks ago, the Environmental Defense Fund called on the Bush administration to go beyond setting voluntary industrial pollution standards, saying, "Adding yet another voluntary program for private companies is no substitute for the administration's failure to mandate cuts in greenhouse gas pollution" (see Related Site).
The statement highlights an important political reality: whether the issue is oil drilling, global warming, or auto emissions, some of today's biggest environmental issues are also energy issues. In following environmental politics, one would think the country is divided into two camps: 1) environmentalists, who put protecting the Earth's ecosystem and biosphere above economic concerns and the preservation of Americans' gas-guzzling lifestyles, and 2) consumerists, who are most concerned with developing and preserving America's oil supply, letting the environmental chips fall where they may.
This may or may not be an accurate simplification of the battle over energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C., but does it describe where the general public stands?
Public Opinion on the Environment and Energy
Most Americans could be considered "environmentalists." In a March 2002 Gallup Poll*, 70% of Americans described themselves as either active in the environmental movement or sympathetic to it. About one quarter were neutral, leaving 5% who were unsympathetic. An even higher number, 83%, told Gallup in 2000 that they agreed with the goals of the environmental movement.
Yet in sharp contrast to the alarmist tone set by the nation's environmental groups, particularly over global warming, Americans are fairly complacent about environmental conditions today. Gallup's January 2003 Mood of the Nation survey** found 55% of Americans saying they are satisfied with the quality of the environment in the nation. Virtually the same number, 54%, told Gallup in a different January survey that they approved of President Bush's handling of the environment.
Now let's turn to public attitudes about energy. In contrast to Americans' general satisfaction with the environment, the public is divided in its ratings of the nation's energy policies. Forty percent are satisfied with the policies, while 43% are dissatisfied.
Americans don't necessarily see environmental and energy policies as two sides of the same coin; otherwise the two ratings would be identical. The table below shows how the ratings compare. A majority of Americans in each environmental group hold similar views on energy policy. That is, 55% of those who are satisfied with the nation's environmental quality are also satisfied with the nation's energy policies. Similarly, 61% of those who are dissatisfied with the environment are also dissatisfied with energy policies.
Recalculating these figures as a percentage of all Americans, we can see that a slight majority (55%) of all Americans have convergent views on energy and the environment. This includes 30% who are satisfied with both environmental and energy policy and 25% who are dissatisfied with both. But there is substantial difference in views as well. A substantial minority of the public, 45%, holds divergent views -- where they are satisfied on one and dissatisfied on the other -- or have no opinion on one or more of the issues.
In March 2002, 56% of Americans told Gallup they opposed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration. Three-quarters or more of Americans also favored setting higher emissions standards for autos, business, and industry.
Despite this, to date there has been no public backlash against the Bush administration for its support of oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness or its opposition to U.S. participation in the international Kyoto global warming treaty aimed at limiting greenhouse gases. To the contrary, Bush's job approval scores on both environmental and energy policy have increased slightly over the course of his presidency.
A large part of the explanation is that Americans' positive evaluations of the president in other areas -- particularly foreign policy -- may cast a positive glow across all his ratings. Another reason is that the environment is not high on Americans' list of policy concerns. Out of 14 national issues rated in January, the environment ranked second to last (higher only than abortion) as an issue that Americans considered very important for the president and Congress to deal with this year.
And perhaps for this reason -- the fact that the environment is not currently a very salient topic to the public -- barely half appear to be making strong linkages between the nation's energy policies and the "environmentalist" concerns to which most purport to be highly sympathetic.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 4-7, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 13-16, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.