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Two Steps Forward

Earth Day and the polling of America 2015

There’s been a long-held idea that Americans’ environmental concerns tracks the economy. In fact, the opposite is happening.

Common sense would dictate that Americans’ environmental concerns track the economy — that is, that we care more about the planet when we can afford to. Our concern, the theory goes, rises with our fortunes.

In fact, the opposite is happening: As Americans find themselves increasingly satisfied with — or at least accepting of — their economic lot, their concern over environmental issues seems to have flagged. At minimum, our concern hasn’t gone up much during these relatively good times.

I’ve just pored through a dozen public opinion polls and surveys released in 2015 — my ninth annual assessment of Americans’ environmental attitudes. (Hardcore readers can peruse previous assessments from 2007200820092010201120122013, and 2014.) The results should be sobering for the environmental movement. 

Halfway through the decade, Americans' concern over most environmental issues remains stuck at moderate to low levels. The energy boom and concomitant low fuel prices born of increased drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas have made the overwhelming majority of citizens supportive of those technologies and less concerned about their environmental impacts.

And many of the issues of highest concern to environmentalists, like climate change, biodiversity and species extinction — problems that are longer term, abstract and remote for most people — rank lower than more immediate and proximate concerns, like clean air and water.

Steady as she goes

The venerable pollster Gallup has been the source of the most comprehensive polls in recent years. Its latest annual survey found that concern over global warming (Gallup seems to prefer that term over “climate change”) has remained steady, despite what seems like increased media coverage and political debate about climate change and its solutions.

Indeed, the percentage of Americans who believe that “global warming” is happening already, or will happen in their lifetime — 65 percent — is identical to the percentage Gallup found in 1998. The 36 percent who say global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life has dipped slightly from the high of 40 percent in 2008.

Says Gallup: “Even as global warming has received greater attention as an environmental problem from politicians and the media in recent years, Americans' worry about it is no higher now than when Gallup first asked about it in 1989.”

Moreover, climate hasn’t budged in terms of its priority among other environmental issues, says Gallup. “Despite ups and downs from year to year in the percentage worried about the various issues, the rank order of the environmental problems has remained fairly consistent over the decades,” reported Gallup.

Of the list of six environmental problems presented to the poll’s respondents — pollution of drinking water; pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs; air pollution; extinction of plant and animal species; the loss of tropical rain forests; and global warming or climate change — climate/global warming ranked dead last.

Overall, Gallup found, “Americans have become more positive about the quality of the environment in recent years.” Our concern about a series of potential environmental threats "remains on the low end of what Gallup has measured over the past 25 years.”

That is, we’re economically fat and environmentally happy.

First or last?

Not everyone agrees with Gallup’s conclusion. For example, a survey conducted late last year by Tiller LLC, an “advocacy marketing consultancy” to major corporations, revealed “Americans’ deep and growing concern for the environment.” When asked which factor posed the greatest long-term threat to their health and well-being, Americans chose climate change and environmental problems (45 percent) above terrorism (35 percent) and global epidemics like Ebola (21 percent).

“This prioritization is consistent with Americans’ increasing concern over global warming and the belief expressed by more than half of all respondents (57 percent) that the condition of the environment has worsened over their lifetime,” concluded Tiller.

On the other hand, the Pew Research Center’s annual policy priorities survey ranked 23 issues in terms of Americans’ priority for Obama and the Congress. Environment ranked 13th while global warming ranked 22nd — next to last. 

(Of course, climate change matters more when it literally hits home, as satirist Andy Borowitz recently revealed in this report.)

Who cares

Tiller found that women feel a particularly acute sense of concern about the environment. Sixty‐two percent of the women surveyed agreed that the environment is in “very bad shape and that a major environmental catastrophe is inevitable.” In addition, women were more likely than men (64 percent vs. 52 percent) to indicate that their concern over global warming is increasing.

There are generational divides. According to UT Energy Polls, conducted last fall by the University of Texas ahead of the November 2014 congressional elections, 65 percent or more of young Americans would vote for a candidate who supports reducing gas emissions and coal use, increasing science and research funding and expanding financial incentives for renewable energy. In contrast, 50 percent or less of Americans above the age of 65 would vote for a candidate supporting these issues.

Even younger people seem even more engaged. Eighth graders across the United States are not only widely aware of the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” but also near universally agree (94 percent) that climate change is real, according to a study conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Avaaz, a “campaigning community” that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, animal rights, and corruption. Further, more than eight in 10 (85 percent) 8th graders agree that human activity significantly contributes to climate change.

There are ethnic difference, too. A national survey conducted by KSV, a market research firm whose clients include energy companies, looked at Americans’ attitudes toward energy efficiency. Forty-two percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of African-Americans say they are very interested in making their homes more energy efficient. Conversely, only 25 percent of Caucasians make the same claim.

Groundhog Day

As I’ve reported in the past, there’s a certain Groundhog Day aspect to the annual crop of environmental polls that blooms each spring. They often state that most Americans are ready and willing to make purchasing, investing and career choices based on their high levels of environmental concern, even if their actual choices don't reflect such high levels of commitment.

For example, Tiller found that 78 percent of Americans believe it is important to “purchase products from a socially or environmentally responsible company.” Better than two in five (43 percent) said they have declined to buy a product over the past year out of concern for the effect the product or its packaging might have on the environment.

Those seemingly high levels of consumer engagement and action are similar to those of other polls over the past 25 years. However, it’s difficult to assess the say-do gap when interpreting such optimistic views of consumer behavior. Often, that gap is significant.

Case in point: Three quarters of Tiller respondents also said they would like to live a more environment‐friendly life, but doing so is too expensive.

A nuanced win

There was one bright spot of sorts. Respondents to the Tiller survey “did not ascribe altruistic motives to corporations that change their business practices to become more environmentally responsible, believing most do so for regulatory or competitive reasons.” Only 21 percent said they believe a genuine concern for the environment is a major motivating factor for companies that adopt greener behaviors.

That said, 72 percent of respondents said that they do not care why a company goes green as long as they do so.”

That last finding represents a refreshingly nuanced view of corporate responsibility, one I hadn’t previously seen expressed by polls. Pollster questions usually presuppose that being an environmentally responsible company must stem from a deep-held corporate commitment — or, if such a commitment isn’t evident, said environmentally responsible practices must be considered greenwash.

Now Americans say that motivations are less important than outcomes — whether or not companies intend to "do the right thing," their actions should be recognized. That represents progress of sorts.

For now, let’s call it a win and get on with our April 22 festivities.

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