03/24/2014 09:01 am ET | Updated May 24, 2014

Understanding How Americans View the Environment

Each year, the Gallup organization conducts a poll on America's view of environmental issues. Gallup's polling is typically very high quality and its polling data is always illuminating. Taken together, the survey results provide a high-resolution picture of how Americans see the environment. It is a complicated picture that sometimes raises more questions than answers. This year's survey found that Americans care about the quality of the environment but focus more on immediate environmental insults than on issues like climate, which they consider a long-term threat. Many Americans think that reports of the danger posed by the climate crisis are exaggerated, although some think the dangers are understated. Nevertheless, most do not see a climate crisis and consider most other policy issues more urgent than climate change.

The era of bipartisan environmentalism is long dead, with Democrats now far more supportive of environmental protection than Republicans. However, a generational shift is underway, with young people more supportive of environmental protection than old people. Finally, the decline in environmentalism that occurred during the Great Recession has been reversed as Americans again oppose economic development that threatens environmental quality. Here's my take on the survey's major findings:

Americans Think the Environment Is Getting Worse

The first finding is that we are actually not sure if the environment's quality is getting better or worse: 50% think it is getting worse, 42% think it is getting better. Back in 2008, 68% thought the environment was getting worse and 26% thought it was getting better. The next year, with newly-elected and still-hopeful Barack Obama installed as President, the number of people who thought the environment was getting worse dropped by 17% and the number of people who thought it was getting better increased by 15%. In 2007, before Obama was elected, only 9% of all Democrats thought the environment was getting better, but by 2009 that had grown to 39%. While the views of Democrats shifted dramatically, the percentage of Republican environmental optimists remained in the 40% range for most of the past decade.

This means that some of the response to this question recorded perceptions of the government's environmental performance. In my view, this question does not provide a clear read on people's perceptions of the nation's overall environmental quality because it is measuring a management dynamic: Is the situation getting better or worse? People are telling the pollsters whether they believe that government is making the situation better or worse.

More Americans Give Environmental Quality High Marks than Low Marks

Even though the environment may be getting worse, most people think America's environmental quality is still pretty good. A second question posed by Gallup may provide a better read on Americans' perceptions of environmental quality. This question asks respondents to "rate the overall quality of the environment in this country today". Since Gallup first asked this question in 2001, around 40% of the country rated the environment as excellent or good, and around 10% rated environmental quality as poor. Republicans gave higher marks to the environment with positive responses over the years ranging from 54% to 66%. Democrats' positive assessments of the environment range from 24% to 35%.

While Gallup seems to interpret these data as evidence of a partisan divide on the environment, I wonder if it also reflects differences in objective environmental conditions. Is the air, water and land cleaner in the places that Republicans live than in the places where Democrats live? While the question asks respondents to focus on the country as a whole, it is difficult to know if they actually do that and don't simply report on their own experiences. It would be interesting to compare this question to one that asks a respondent to "rate the overall quality of the environment around here". I'm not sure how anyone can judge the environmental quality of an entire country and so it is unclear what perception the question taps into.

Americans Prioritize a Clean Environment Over Economic Growth

A third Gallup question that provides interesting results is one that I have long taken issue with because it requires respondents to trade off environmental quality against economic growth. Since I think that economic growth requires and even depends on environmental quality, I find the question misleading. Despite the false premise, people have typically believed that protecting the environment should be given a higher priority than economic growth.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, well over 60% of the American public favored protecting the environment even if it harmed the economy, and less than 30% favored economic growth that might damage the environment. The gap between these numbers closed during the George W. Bush administration, and during the Great Recession the focus on growth at all costs grew, reaching a peak in 2009 when 54% favored growth over the environment and only 36% favored environment over economic growth. During the past two years, the traditional pattern has resumed, and in 2014, 50% prioritized environmental protection over economic growth and only 40% favored economic growth over environmental protection.

Gallup's analysts consider the evolution of hyper-partisan politics as the driver of these trends. Before the George W. Bush presidency, both Republicans and Democrats prioritized environmental protection over economic growth. In 2000, 60% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats prioritized environmental protection over economic growth. By 2011, the 60% of Republicans who were environmental advocates declined to 19%, recovering to 32% this year. Similarly, Democrats favoring growth at the cost of environmental damage peaked at 44% in 2009, but over the past several years has declined to 27%. The number of Democrats prioritizing the environment over economic growth grew from 55% in 2013 to 66% in 2014. Clearly, we are seeing a result that combines objective economic conditions with partisan politics. The shock of job loss and economic insecurity dominated our politics from 2008 until 2011, and only in the past several years have we seen the political impact of the Great Recession begin to fade.

There is also a generational factor at play: Those under 30 favor environmental protection over economic growth by 60% to 30%. In contrast, those over 65 years old favor economic growth over environmental protection by 50% to 39%. Since there is no evidence that someone ages out of environmentalism, it is likely that environmentalism will become a stronger force in American politics in the next several decades.

Americans Know that Humans Have Caused the Climate to Change, but Don't Consider Climate an Important Public Policy Issue

Since March of 2001, Gallup has asked respondents if increases in the planet's temperature are more attributable to human or natural causes. Until 2007, about 60% of the public blamed climate change on people, and about a third blamed nature. At the height of the "climate denial movement" in 2010, nature was cited by 46% and humans had slipped to 50%. In the 2013 and 2014 polls, 57% of the public again blamed humans for climate change, with about 40% citing nature. There is a partisan divide to this issue, with 79% of Democrats observing that people were the main cause of global warming, compared to 41% of all Republicans.
Regardless of the cause of climate change, the American public doesn't think it's an important policy issue. When asked the amount they worry about about a series of policy issues, only 24% said they worried a great deal about climate change and 51% reported little worry. Of fifteen issues surveyed, ranging from the economy to crime, climate ranked 14th. While most Americans (65%) believe that the planet is getting warmer, only 36% consider it a serious threat to their way of life.

Moreover, many Americans say that media reports exaggerate the seriousness of global warming. In the 2014 Gallup environment poll, 42% observed that media reports of climate change were exaggerated, 33% said that the seriousness of the issue was underestimated, and 23% thought that reports were generally correct. While it is not clear if this is a commentary on the news media or on the issue itself, it reinforces the impression that Americans are not too worried about climate change. The poll reports that 60% of Americans know that most scientists believe that climate change is underway and, as indicated earlier, Americans understand that humans have made the planet warmer over the past century. They just don't worry about it very much.

Americans Care More about Environmental Issues They Consider Immediate Threats

When you look at these individual questions one at a time, the overall impression may be that the public is just confused, but there is a compelling logic here. Let's think of all of these survey questions as elements of a multiple indicator measure of American environmentalism. Here's what the poll tells us: People know that the planet is under threat, and they are willing to address the most urgent threats -- especially if they directly experience them. In that respect, climate change is a tough issue. It is caused everywhere and its impacts are subtle and largely in the future. Drinking water in Charleston, West Virginia, air pollution in Paris, or toxics in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal can be seen, smelled and felt. Americans understand those issues. They understand the threat posed by climate change, but they consider the threats posed by poisoned land, air and water to be a higher priority.

Americans think that it is government's job to keep the environment clean enough to protect their health and the health of their loved ones. Some think that government is doing a good job in delivering that protection; some do not. But they believe that many other public policy issues are more urgent. They understand and want to see action on environmental issues. It may well be that Americans have judged that government is making sufficient and steady progress in protecting the environment. In that sense, the issue works like crime or education. These issues have great latent potential, but only become a high priority when government is perceived as not doing enough.

The internet brings Americans constant images of pollution in other countries, and they may judge their own situation to be better. As I read the recent Gallup poll, I see a multi-dimensional and complex picture of environmental attitudes. It is a mistake to think that most Americans, especially young Americans, "don't get it" or don't care about the planet. They do.