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Earth Day and the Polling of America, 2007

We have become a nation of polls — a population bombarded by nonstop research projects involving some random sampling of 1,008 or so American adults 18 and older conducted during some two-week period by God-knows-who. Here's what we've learned.

We have become a nation of polls — a population bombarded by nonstop research projects involving some random sampling of 1,008 or so American adults 18 and older conducted during some two-week period by God-knows-who. We love to hear what we think, whether it's about life's big questions or ones we never thought to ask.

And so it is in the world of green — at least every Earth Day, which is preceded by a flurry of surveys proffering opinions about everything imaginable. Some of these seem significant, in that they provide actual insight and information. Others seem designed simply to justify a press release. And then there are the purely partisan affairs: the liberal Center for American Progress reporting that "a majority of Americans look to Washington for meaningful and timely action" on climate change, while the conservative American Enterprise Institute revealing that "In most polls, the 'environment' is a mid-to-low-range problem." Predictable.

Here's a selection of what other surveys have landed on my desktop this Earth Day:

  • Believing in Business: Americans are calling on companies to be proactive in their day-to-day operations when it comes to the environment, according to the 2007 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey. Cone says that Americans "are overwhelmingly looking to companies to act: 93% believe companies have a responsibility to help preserve the environment."


    The vast majority of Americans (91%) say they have a more positive image of a company when it is environmentally responsible. On the flip side, almost as many (85%) indicated they would consider switching to another company's products or services because of a company's negative corporate responsibility practices. . . .

    Advertising is the leading way Americans prefer companies communicate their social and environmental issues and practices (45%), but electronic communications, particularly via company Web sites, are growing in popularity. Communication by way of a company's Web site now falls just behind advertising as the second leading outlet for social and environmental communication (41%), reinforcing the idea that as companies become more environmentally-friendly, their communications vehicles should too.

  • Hope or Hypocrisy? An ABC news poll found most Americans consider global warming the world's biggest environmental problem and that an whopping 94% say they are willing to make personal changes to help the environment. However, 8 in 10 Americans say they oppose increasing taxes on electricity to encourage energy conservation, and about two-thirds are against raising gasoline taxes and prices at the pumps.

    Similarly, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that more Americans than ever -- 60%, up from 48% a decade ago -- believe that global warming has begun to affect the climate. A slightly larger percentage think it will cause major or extreme changes in climate and weather during the next 50 years. But a majority of those surveyed said they wouldn't want a surcharge added to their utility bill if their homes exceeded certain energy-use levels. And most would oppose laws requiring cars sold in the U.S. to dramatically improve their gas mileage or restrictions on development to try to limit suburban sprawl.

  • Meanwhile, a poll conducted by market research company Vizu Corp. and Green Home (Download - PDF) found that people are convinced the global warming phenomenon exists (70%) and is important (74%). However, the public remains unsure of the cause of global warming and is debating whether the culprit is human behavior (26%), natural climate cycles (26%), or some combination of the two (25%). The poll also found a growing divide in how the pubic responds to global warming. Nearly a third indicated they will not change their behavior while almost 20% are doing everything they can. Whether they are realists or cynics, 61% expect the topic to fade with the next major media story.

  • Working It Out: A USA Workplace Insights Survey by the human resources services company Adecco found that a third of American workers would be more inclined to work for a "green" company. About half of employed adults (52%) think their company should do more to be environmentally friendly.
  • About one in five (22%) say their company already does enough or too much, while about one in four (26%) are just not sure. Interestingly, employed men are more likely than their female counterparts to say they know their company's environmental policy (35% men vs. 28% women).

  • Whatever they may think about their jobs, getting to and from them isn't very eco-friendly. The Kelly Services Global Workforce Index found that only 34 percent of the Americans surveyed prefer public transportation over their own vehicle for their daily commute. That's about half the global average of 64 percent and the second-lowest rate among all countries surveyed (Turkey came in at 29 percent).

    But the survey strongly suggests that it may be a lack of convenience and accessibility -- not anti-environment attitudes -- that is steering many Americans to their own wheels. Only 51 percent of those surveyed said they had the choice of public transportation, compared with a global average of 72 percent and as much as 90 percent or more in Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, and Russia.

  • Lagging Indicators: A study by GfK Custom Research North America found that Americans view themselves and U.S. corporations as behind the rest of the world when it comes to taking action to protect the environment.

When asked whether U.S. individuals are ahead, behind or equal to people in other countries in terms of being "green," nearly half (43%) of Americans say their fellow citizens are lagging, 27% say they are ahead and 22% cite them as equal. Similarly, 38% indicate U.S. corporations are behind their foreign counterparts, one-quarter (25%) think they're ahead, and 28% say they are equal with respect to environmentalism.

With the recent wave of media coverage around the environmental steps individuals and businesses are taking, the survey asked if this increased focus reflects a real shift in opinion. While the majority of Americans (55%) say the heightened interest is "real," one in three (31%) claim it is "just a fad."

There's more. A survey of U.S. middle-school children by BrainPop, a New York-based "educational provider," found that kids fear global warming more than the war in Iraq, terrorism, and healthcare. Genesys, "a global multi-media collaboration service leader," surveyed its customers around the world to find that "a full 88% believe that car and air travel to meetings have the largest negative impact on the environment -- far larger than paper and plastic goods used in the course of physical meetings." And the website Priceline found that 72% of travelers "want rental car companies to offer economical, environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles powered by both gasoline and electricity."

I could go on.

So, what do we know that we didn't know pre-Earth Day? Not much. It's business as usual: Americans want clean, affordable, and care-free solutions to climate change and every other environmental challenge. But don't ask most of them to change their habits, spend more, or go very far out of their way.

But for companies, it's a different story. They're the ones we're looking to for solutions — for example, to create products, processes, and policies that solve global warming.

That is, if global warming turns out to really, truly be a problem.

The jury's still out on that one.

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