Earth Day and the polling of America 2014

At age 44, Earth Day has reached middle age, as has the modern environmental movement. And while Earth Day celebrations have become part of the social fabric around the world — with activities in schools, communities, parks, companies and just about everywhere else — public opinion about the environment has become stodgy, at least in the United States.

As is typical of middle age, Americans’ environmental attitudes seem stuck between the exuberant, energetic idealism of youth and the wisdom and awareness that comes with older years.

That’s my conclusion from reading the latest crop of public opinion surveys and polls, as I do every year about this time. This is my eighth annual reading of the tea leaves, combing through mind-numbing data to assess America’s environmental zeitgeist. (Here are reports from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

The 2014 edition finds that despite extreme weather events; the warnings of impending doom from the world’s scientific community; increased and cost-competitive choices for renewable energy, fuel-efficient cars, green cleaners and organic foods; and the collective green marketing efforts of both business and government — well, we’re kind of stuck.

“There has not been much change in Americans' climate and environmental values over the past two years,” concluded ecoAmerica’s VALS-based climate and environmental values research series. Indeed, it found, traditional environmental values were trending "very slightly downward" in 2013 from prior years.

Americans are less inclined to believe in economic and technological benefits of solving environmental problems. The association between environmental protection and economic growth also dropped, from 82 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2013. This may be a result of an active campaign by climate deniers to undermine support for climate solutions.

According to ecoAmerica, large pluralities of Americans say they are “somewhat” or “very” convinced that climate change is happening (71 percent) and that humans “definitely” can or “might be able to” reduce climate change’s impacts (76 percent). “These statistics seem encouraging for climate solutions advocates — but they obscure a more complicated reality,” say the authors:

Amidst the Americans who are convinced that climate change is happening are two different groups of people with different attitudes and motivations. Most Americans are only “somewhat convinced.” They don’t associate climate change with their other priorities and are not inclined to support action. Only the “very convinced” are willing to take action. This group tends to be made up of higher-resourced Americans with greater wealth, health and education.

One challenge is that Americans don’t seem to know whether the environment is getting better or worse, according to Gallup’s annual environmental pulse-taking. Gallup found that 50 percent of Americans think environmental problems are getting worse and 42 percent think they are getting better. Compare that to 2008, when 68 percent thought the environment was getting worse and 26 percent thought it was getting better. That suggests Americans are more optimistic about the fate of the Earth than they were six years ago, although it’s unclear why.

But that doesn’t square with other Gallup data, which concluded:

The percentage expressing a great deal of worry about pollution of drinking water, as well as contamination of soil and water by toxic waste, increased by seven percentage points. Worry about climate change and global warming, on the other hand, went up by no more than two points versus last year.

Americans' generally low level of concern about global warming compared with other environmental issues is not new; warming generally has ranked last among Americans' environmental worries each time Gallup has measured them with this question over the years. Concern about pollution of drinking water generally has been at the top of the list.

Overall, says Gallup, Americans remain more negative than positive about the environment. They are less likely to see environmental quality in the U.S. as "excellent" or "good" (44 percent) than to see it as "only fair" or "poor" (55 percent). More broadly, Americans are not very concerned with the climate, at least compared with other issues.

To buy or not to buy?

Surveys about consumer attitudes toward buying green products and services continue to be optimistic — overly so, in my opinion — continuing a trend that has persisted for 25 years.

More than half of shoppers in 24 countries say they “care what efforts brands are making to help the environment,” according to Ipsos OTX, the global innovation center for market and opinion research firm Ipsos. Shoppers in Argentina (70 percent give a rating of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale), Mexico (68 percent) and Indonesia (66 percent) lead the pack, with U.S. consumers right in the middle at 52 percent, roughly the same as Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Sweden.

Those most likely to agree they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products are from: Indonesia (59 percent), India (59 percent) and China (58 percent). Just under a third (32 percent) of U.S. consumers agreed, tied with Russians.

Environmental issues get personal when it comes to food. Americans say they are “willing to sacrifice variety and dollars in order to eat more consciously,” according to the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker. Although family satisfaction reigns supreme (97 percent), shoppers consider health and nutrition (93 percent) and sustainability (77 percent) important factors when deciding what to buy.

(Let’s not overlook the fact that questions like this are annoying, if not dangerous: they telegraph to participants that conscious eating or environmental shopping requires them to “sacrifice variety and dollars,” as in this survey, or quality and convenience in other surveys. As has been well proven, environmentally conscious shopping and eating can be convenient, affordable and enjoyable, without sacrifice.)

One might find solace in the results of a survey (PDF) conducted by the University of Michigan Energy Institute. It found that 60 percent of respondents worried "a great deal" or a "fair amount" about the environmental impact of energy use. By comparison, 55 percent worried a great deal or fair amount about energy affordability. The two concerns, researchers say, basically were equivalent.

"That was an eye opener for us," said professor John DeCicco. "I wouldn't have guessed that we would have gotten, statistically speaking, an equally strong response."

Could it be that Americans are finally recognizing that the price of energy may not reveal its full cost, in terms of its environmental and social impacts?

I’m reading a lot into this in the hopes that somewhere in this year’s crop of data is something hopeful.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group