How the Public Thinks About the Environment

The environment now ranks last among 15 issues that the public thinks Congress and the President should deal with this year. Only 24 percent of Americans think the environment is an “extremely important” issue. On this score, the environment comes in behind “the situation in Iraq” (27 percent), “taxes” (27 percent), and “illegal immigration” (30 percent) and “gas and home heating prices” (31 percent).

Moreover, when it comes to the trade-off between the economy and the environment, meanwhile, the economy now wins hands down: 54 percent to 36 percent. This is actually a relatively new development. Prior to 2008, the public had never prioritized the economy over the environment. As recently as 2007, the public supported giving the environment priority over the economy 55 percent to 37 percent, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s public opinion was consistently 65-to-25 in favor of environment over the economy, with slight dips in environmental friendliness during recessions.

Not surprisingly, the changes have been most pronounced among Republicans and conservatives. In 2000, conservatives prioritized the environment over the economy 62-to-33 percent; Now they prioritize the economy 70-to-22 percent – a remarkable 38 point shift. Similarly, Republicans overall went from 60-to-34 percent environment first to 55-to-35 economy first.

But even liberals have become less environment first. In 2000, they supported the environment over the economy 74 percent to 22 percent; now it’s 55 percent to 35 percent economy over environment. Same with Democrats overall: In 2000, they favored the environment 69 percent to 27 percent; now it’s just barely: 46 percent to 42 percent.

Certainly, a sluggish economy has something to do with things. When unemployment flirts with double-digits and the economy is in recession, it’s much easier to see the top priority as creating jobs. Moreover, the visible environment is in pretty decent shape these days. The skies and rivers are not brown, thanks to environmental regulations passed in the 1970s. Whatever environmental disasters might exist lurk in the hypotheticals of global warming.

As for the environmental problems that people care about, drinking water comes out first (51 percent care a great deal about it), followed closely by soil (48 percent), and rivers, lakes and reservoirs (46 percent).

But even on the these issues, the public is a lot less worried. In 1989, 72 percent of Americans cared a great deal about the pollution of rivers lakes and reservoirs, as opposed to 46 percent today. Similarly, in 1989, 63 percent cared a great deal about air pollution; today it’s 36 percent. This is a success story, because public opinion reflects the fact that these issues just aren’t the big deal they used to be.

What’s troubling, however, is the extent to which public opinion is becoming less concerned about global warming. Only one quarter of respondents care a great deal about global warming, ranking it last among eight environmental issues. That’s down from 41 percent as recently as 2007.

Similarly,as recently as July 2006, 79 percent of respondents thought that there was solid evidence that the earth is warming, and 50 percent believed it was because of human activity. Now only 59 percent believe the earth is warming, and just 32 percent think it’s because of human activity.

What’s emerged is a partisan divide on the issue. Whereas Democrats have been largely consistent in believing the earth is warming, Republicans have increasingly become convinced that global warming is not a problem.

All of this, however, is too bad for Obama, because environmental stewardship is one of the issues the President polls best on: 55 percent of Americans think he is doing a good job “protecting the nation’s environment” as compared to 33 percent who think he is doing a poor job.

[Cross-posted at the Progressive Fix]

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America. He is a writing a book about the crisis of the American two-party system.