Polls Show Little Interest in Green Agenda

Published June 1, 2004

American voters are generally happy with the condition of their local environment and the performance of their elected representatives on environment issues, according to several recent public opinion polls. As a result, the polls show, environment issues rank near the bottom of concerns for American voters this election season.

Gallup: It’s the Economy

According to Gallup’s annual Earth Day poll, 35 percent of Americans fret over the current state of the environment. The number of Americans who worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about the environment has dropped 15 points since Gallup’s 2001 poll.

According to Gallup, fewer than half of poll respondents felt environmental protection should take priority over economic matters. A “record low proportion of Americans have chosen environmental protection over economic growth,” reported Gallup.

Gallup’s Lydia Saad, one of the architects of the Earth Day poll, noted, “for whatever reason, the public doesn’t see the environment worsening, and that’s why it’s not getting a lot of attention.”

On a list of nine concerns poll respondents were asked to consider, the environment came in a distant eighth place, ahead of only race relations. Concerns such as health care, crime, drugs, domestic terror threats, the economy, immigration, unemployment, homelessness, and energy prices all ranked as more important than environment issues.

According to the Gallup poll, Americans have mixed views of President George W. Bush’s environmental performance, with approval and disapproval ratings largely mirroring party affiliation. Forty-one percent of poll respondents stated Bush is doing a “good job” handling environment issues, while 46 percent said he is doing a “poor job.”

Bush’s numbers, while respectable for a Republican President, reflect a gradual slide in his environmental rating. Bush received a 49 percent approval rating for his efforts on environment issues in April 2001, shortly after taking office, and his approval rating has slid roughly three percentage points per year in each year since.

Nevertheless, with the public generally pleased with the current quality of the environment, Gallup reports, “the relatively moderate decline in Bush’s environmental ratings suggest he is not especially vulnerable at this point.”

AEI Finds Voters Indifferent

On April 14, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a study examining the results of several recent environmental polls. Those polls confirm the Gallup findings.

According to AEI study author Karlyn Bowman, the environment ranks near the bottom of the public’s list of priorities. This is true even among younger voters, historically the most passionate about environment issues.

Bowman reports voters take into account Bush’s handling of environment issues far less often than they consider his performance on economic issues. Only 9 percent of voters participating in exit polls during the 2000 elections rated the environment as one of their top two voting issues. Moreover, according to Bowman, election day exit polls consistently find “only small numbers” of voters identify the environment as the most important factor in their voting decision. Those voters consistently vote Democratic, according to Bowman.

“In early 2004, as several polls in this document show, the environment is not an issue on the front burner for most Americans,” Bowman observed. “Other issues such as the performance of the economy and the war on terrorism loom larger.”

Importantly, most Americans are satisfied with the condition of the environment in their local community. Reported Bowman, “In October 2003, 70 percent told Harris Interactive interviewers that they felt good about the quality of the air, water, and environment in which they lived and worked.” Others polls have confirmed voters are more concerned about safeguarding the condition of their local economy than they are about advancing the agenda of environmental activist groups.

Nature Conservancy Strikes Out

An April 2004 poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy reported fewer than half of Americans agree with much of the group’s anti-growth agenda. For example, fewer than half of Americans believe their communities are growing too fast, and fewer than half believe not enough land is being preserved for environmental purposes.

Those results surprised many environmental activist groups, especially since the Nature Conservancy itself authored the poll questions and was able to “spin” the language and context in order to achieve favorable results.

Similarly, activist groups were disappointed with Gallup’s findings regarding greenhouse gases. While an overwhelming majority of respondents stated they were familiar with global warming theory, few respondents were greatly worried about the pessimistic claims of global warming alarmists. Only 51 percent of respondents claimed to be worried even as much as “a fair amount” about global warming.

“Last year at this time,” said Gallup’s Saad, “Gallup reported that global warming was ‘a bit of a yawn’ to most Americans. Today, one might say the public is practically dozing.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

More information on Gallup’s Earth Day poll is available to subscribers of the Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing at http://www.gallup.com/content/login.aspx?ci=11380.

The American Enterprise Institute’s “Polls on the Environment” report, one of a series of AEI Studies in Public Opinion, is available online at http://www.aei.org/docLib/20040407_Environment2.pdf.