Understanding Public Opinion About the Environment

green 3 Understanding Public Opinion About the EnvironmentOn January 22, a piece in the New York Times discussed public opinion data on the environment and global warming and noted that support for protecting the environment was slipping in U.S. public opinion polls. According to Andrew C. Revkin:

“The latest in an annual series of polls from the Pew Research Center on people’s top priorities for their elected leaders shows that America and President Obama are completely out of sync on human-caused global warming…. According to the survey of 1,503 adults, global warming, on its own, ranks last out of 20 surveyed issues. Here’s the list from top to bottom, with the economy listed as a top priority by 85 percent of those polled and global warming 30 percent: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, education, energy, Medicare, health care, deficit reduction, health insurance, helping the poor, crime, moral decline, military, tax cuts, environment, immigration, lobbyists, trade policy, global warming.

On January 22, a piece in the New York Times discussed public opinion data on the environment and global warming and noted that support for protecting the environment was slipping in U.S. public opinion polls. According to Andrew C. Revkin:

“The latest in an annual series of polls from the Pew Research Center on people’s top priorities for their elected leaders shows that America and President Obama are completely out of sync on human-caused global warming…. According to the survey of 1,503 adults, global warming, on its own, ranks last out of 20 surveyed issues. Here’s the list from top to bottom, with the economy listed as a top priority by 85 percent of those polled and global warming 30 percent: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, education, energy, Medicare, health care, deficit reduction, health insurance, helping the poor, crime, moral decline, military, tax cuts, environment, immigration, lobbyists, trade policy, global warming. Although the more general issue of protecting the environment ranked higher than climate (named by 41 percent of the poll subjects) that figure was 15 percentage points lower than in the same poll a year ago.”

The data reported here is accurate, but the data can be interpreted in several ways. I think it is a mistake to assume that the public’s support for protecting the environment is declining. The reporter is drawing his conclusion from Pew’s own survey analysts, and there is no question that the urgency of environmental issues has shifted due to the current economic crisis. However, we need to look a little deeper to really understand what is happening here. Let’s start by looking at the question that was posed by the survey. It reads: ” I’d like to ask you some questions about priorities for President-elect Obama and the Congress this year. As I read from a list, tell me if you think the item that I read should be a top priority, , important but lower priority, not too important, or it should not be done“.

The overall finding of the Pew report is that people are much more focused on domestic issues than foreign policy. This general concern for issues of immediate impact may work against issues like the environment and global warming. Accurate or not, many people do not see the environment as having a direct effect on their daily lives. The study also reports, as you might expect, increased priority placed on the economy. Survey researchers like to pose questions like this because they encourage people to make tough choices and express priorities. This provides a greater intensity of response than typical questions. However, this type of rating question tends to understate the latent power of a political issue. These questions are better at measuring intensity of feelings than the public’s overall, considered judgment of the issue’s importance. Excellent social scientists such as the ones at Pew know that public opinion is difficult to measure and use “multiple indicators” to measure opinion from a variety of perspectives. For that reason, when you see a piece of poll data it is important to ask: What opinion is being measured with this question and why is this trend taking place?

For example, during the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency the environmental issue kept rising in the polls. We saw the same phenomenon during the most recent Bush Administration, once the public realized that Bush’s “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forest” initiatives were public relations efforts to mask anti-environmental policies. We have seen a gradual rise in support for environmental issues over the past several years. However, once the public regains confidence in the legitimacy of government’s environmental programs, concern over the urgency of environmental issues starts to drop. When President Reagan brought back William Ruckelshaus as EPA Administrator in 1983, support for environment in some public opinion polls began to drop. Some of the drop seen in the recent Pew poll, may in fact reflect President Obama’s name being used in the question. People know that President Obama is pro-environment and the urgency of the issue may have receded after November’s election.

Public opinion on an issue’s priority has at least two components to it: 1. How important is the issue overall? 2. How confident am I in the work that government is doing to solve the problem? If I have little confidence (as we all do today about the economy) it becomes a mega-priority. If I feel that it’s moving along OK, I may not express a great a sense of urgency when responding to this question. In the Pew survey, 83% of those responding still think the environment should be a top or important priority. About 67% felt that way about global warming. While not as highly rated as the economy, it is not a minor issue either.

We see a similar phenomenon on polling about crime. The overall issue remains central to people’s perceptions and lives- certainly here in New York City. But with crime rates going down, people do not consider it an urgent issue and it does not rate very high in local surveys of critical issues. That does not mean that people want the police department’s budget to be cut. All it would take is one crime wave and the issue would jump to the top of the polls. People expect government to protect them. They expect their streets to be safe, and they expect their air and water to be clean. Remove that safety and you will discover the enormous latent power of those issues.

There is another factor at work here which we could call a “crisis effect”. Some of the priority shuffling we see in the latest survey is undoubtedly a reflection of the urgency of the economic crisis. When there is a crisis such as the economy or the 9-11 terrorist attack, all priorities are suddenly no longer equal. Crises tend to crowd out other priorities. As important as the climate issue is to our long term survival, the issue of jobs and the economy is so important, that we are willing to hold off on those long term issues-for a short time-while we deal with the crisis.

This is a normal human response to emergencies- probably hard wired into our genetic code-and one of the reasons we have survived so far. If I get a call that one of my daughters is ill, and I need to take her to the hospital or doctor, as important as my job is to me, I will drop everything at work and take care of that emergency. When the emergency is over, I can return to “normal” priorities. As I’ve written before, everyone of us has that image in our head (probably in black and white) of unemployed folks on a bread line during the Great Depression. The fear of losing the ability to provide for ourselves and our families is a powerful force that can drive out our other concerns.

One of the problems with some environmental issues such as global warming is that they do not pose the immediate threat people feel from other issues, like toxic waste or “not-in-my -backyard” land use development. It does not have the urgency that the wild beast at the cave entrance had for our ancestors. When we feel an immediate crisis, our ability to deal with powerful long term threats is reduced. That does not mean that we’ve forgotten about the long term threat. It just means that in order to get to the long term, we need to survive over the short term.