Commentary

EPI’s The Pulse—Environment

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What do people think about the environmental movement?
Data collected just prior to Earth Day 2000 suggest that Americans believe that considerable progress has been made. A Newsweek poll conducted in April 2000 reported that 70% of the respondents felt that since the first Earth Day 30 years ago, major or minor progress has been made toward solving environmental problems, while 23% felt that no progress has been made or that things have gotten worse. A Gallup poll also conducted in April 2000 found that 26% felt that we have made a great deal of progress since 1970 in dealing with environmental problems; 64% said only some progress, and 9% said hardly any progress at all. According to the Gallup poll, 75% of the respondents felt that the environmental movement in this nation has, definitely or probably, done more good that harm.

Many Americans are supportive of the goals of the environmental movement. The Gallup poll conducted in April 2000 found that 47% of the respondents said they considered themselves an environmentalist and 52% did not. Furthermore, 16% considered themselves active environmentalists; 55% considered themselves sympathetic but not active in the movement; 23% were neutral; and only 5% claimed to be unsympathetic. In this same poll, 83% of the respondents said they strongly or somewhat agree with the goals of the environmental movement. (The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as an environmentalist seems to have decreased over the last decade — click here for details).

Are Americans concerned about the environment?
Americans seem to be concerned and not very optimistic about the future. In an October 1999 poll sponsored by the Washington Post, 51% of the respondents reported worrying a great deal about pollution and other environmental problems getting worse, and only 13% said they were not worried at all. A Gallup poll conducted in April 2000 found that 55% of the respondents considered environmental problems to be an extremely serious or very serious problem facing our country, while 39% felt it was somewhat serious, and only 5% felt it was not serious. The Gallup poll conducted in April 2000 found that only 18% expressed a great deal of optimism that we will have our environmental problems well under control in 20 years, while 60% expressed only some optimism, and 21% said they had hardly any optimism. A Harris poll conducted in November 1998 found that 55% felt that by the year 2020 the country’s environment would be worse and 42% felt it would get better. A Gallup/USA Today poll conducted in September 1998 found that 54% expected the quality of the environment not to be better in 2025, but 40% expected the quality to be better. When given the option of saying the environment would be the same in the future, as in a poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research in November 1998 for the Shell Oil Company, 44% thought the environment would be worse in 30 years; 36% thought it would be better; and 19% thought about the same. However, the April 2000 Gallup poll found that people did seem to feel that citizens can have an effect on solving these problems: 34% said that they can have a great deal of an effect, 33% said a fair amount, and 32% claimed citizens’ efforts could not have very much impact.

Similar to the ways in which Americans feel more positive about their own local schools and health care services as opposed to the nation’s, respondents feel that the national environment is in trouble even though many feel positive about their own. For instance, a Harris poll conducted in May 2000 found that 69% of the respondents felt good about the quality of the air, water, and environment near where they live or work, but 29% did not. Furthermore, when asked by Harris and Associates in October 1998 about what level of improvements their community needs to make in terms of cleaning air and water, 23% said major improvements, 27% said minor improvements, and a sizable 50% said conditions are generally okay.

What do Americans want done about the environment?
Many Americans want more regulation and more spending on the environment. Strikingly, 58% of the respondents in an April 2000 Gallup poll think that the U.S. government is doing too little in terms of protecting the environment, with 30% saying amount is about right, and only 10% saying too much is being done. A Wirthlin Worldwide poll conducted in October 1999 found that 42% said that there is too little government regulation and involvement in the area of environmental protection, 28% say about the right amount, and 29% said there was too much. Similarly, Wirthlin found in September 1998 that 41% said too little was being done, 29% said about right, and 29% said too much. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in October 1999 found that 83% of the respondents completely (41%) or mostly (42%) agreed with the statement, “There need to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” A Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University poll conducted in August 1998 found that 60% of the respondents thought that a lot of government regulation is needed to protect consumers’ interests in the area of environmental hazards (26% said some regulation was needed, and only 8% said very little).
(Click here to view the full report in PDF format).

A May 1997 poll conducted for Pew Research Center found that 46% would increase federal spending for environmental protection, 38% would keep it the same, and only 14% said decrease it. The General Social Surveys conducted throughout the 1990s found that majorities of respondents feel that we are spending too little on improving and protecting the environment, with 60% saying this in the most recent 1998 survey. In a CNN/USA Today poll conducted in April 1999, 35% said that laws and regulations for protecting endangered species of plants and animals have not gone far enough, 45% said they had struck the right balance, and 18% said they had gone too far.

What about the costs?
In the April 2000 Gallup poll, when asked which statement came closer to their views, 67% said that protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth, while 28% said that economic growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent. A January 2000 CNN/USA Today poll reported similar results of 70% and 23%, respectively. However, many Americans do not think there has to be a trade-off. In an October 1999 survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, 68% said that there does not necessarily have to be a choice between economic growth and environmental quality, while 24% said that economic growth should be sacrificed for environmental quality, and only 4% said that environmental quality should be sacrificed for economic growth. This same survey found that 64% somewhat or strongly agreed that protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high, and cont
inuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost (35% disagreed strongly or somewhat). The same items included in a Wirthlin poll conducted in September 1998 produced equivalent results. In July 1999, Pew Research Center found that when asked to compare two statements, 65% agreed that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the costs (50% strongly and 15% not strongly) while, 28% agreed that stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy (19% strongly and 9% not strongly). A Washington Post poll conducted in August 1998 found that when asked to choose between two values, 52% said that protecting the environment was more important to them personally, while 37% said that increasing jobs and economic growth was more important to them (10% volunteered that both were equally important).

What price are Americans willing to pay?
A October 1999 Pew Research Center poll 56% completely or mostly agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment, while 42% completely or mostly disagreed. In July 1999 the Pew Research Center found that when asked which statement comes closer to their views, 67% agreed strongly that this country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment, and only 5% agreed strongly that this country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment. A Newsweek poll conducted in November 1997, found that 82% reported being willing to buy a more energy efficient model when replacing a kitchen appliance, even if it costs $50 more; 16% said they would not be willing. In the same poll, 74% said they would be willing to buy a vehicle with higher fuel economy when buying a new car, even if it means paying an extra $200 or not being able to buy today’s largest sports utility vehicle, but 21% said they would not make that trade-off. When asked about their own shopping and living habits over the last five years, 31% said they had made major changes to help protect the environment, 58% said minor changes, and only 11% said they made no changes.

Conclusions
Largely, Americans are sympathetic toward the environmental movement. While many Americans feel that progress was made over the last 30 years, they are not optimistic about our future environmental health. Many Americans support regulations and spending to protect the environment. Far from feeling that businesses are over-regulated, a large majority of Americans feel that we either have the right amount or need more regulation. While a majority supports environmental protections at any cost, many do not think that protecting the environment demands a trade-off. The available data suggest that many Americans are willing to make personal sacrifices for the health of the environment; however, the recent increase in ownership of large sport utility vehicles, for instance, may soon put these sentiments to the test.

Last updated October 5, 2000