Measuring Public Opinion on Environment and Sustainability: How Conventional Wisdom Gets That Way

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Since 1985, the Gallup poll has asked survey respondents to trade off environmental protection against economic growth. This past spring, for the first time, more people chose economic growth than environmental protection. (See Gallup graph) The data is an accurate reflection of public opinion, and there is no question that conventional politics frames the environment as an impediment to economic growth. However, in my view, this survey question taps into opinion that is based on a false premise.  The survey question not only assumes that environment and economic growth are separate concepts, but also that by focusing on one you must sacrifice the other. During an economic downturn, many trade-off questions trading just about anything against economic growth will result in a preference for economic growth. Still, this question needs to be updated and asked in a different way. The problem with the existing survey question is that as long as we draw our wealth and sustenance from the natural environment (you know, things like food, air and water), economic growth will depend on environmental quality. While our political dialogue is often built around the assumption that we can trade off one against the other, we really can’t. No biosphere = no wealth.

It is true that businesses in China and other parts of the world have generated economic growth and short-run profits by disregarding development’s impact on the air, land and water.  As we discovered in the United States, this approach is a short-run strategy. Unfortunately, the costs of clean-up will eventually need to be paid. Every time you pay your water bill, you are paying for environmental clean up here in New York. While survey researchers love the longitudinal data they can obtain when they ask the same question every year, it is not clear that people are really responding to the same question today that they answered in 1985. The issue of economic sustainability and the green economy was not discussed or understood back in the mid 1980’s.  In 2009, companies as diverse as Wal-Mart and Apple (AAPL) Computer have integrated green principles into their business planning. The idea of sustainable business practice was virtually unknown in 1985. Gallup’s web site provides a clear picture of public response to this trade off question from 1985-2009 (See the graph in the slide show above). 
It would be interesting to see what might happen if Gallup’s survey asked respondents if they believed that economic growth and environmental quality were incompatible or interconnected. It would also be interesting to see what might happen if the response of “equal priority” was given as a potential response to Gallup’s survey question. Since 1985, this answer is only coded when volunteered by the respondent. Although the question is attempting to force respondents to choose between environmental protection and economic growth, there are clearly some people who do not accept the environment-growth trade-off.  Such forced trade-offs questions are a staple of survey research methodology, but the trade-off must be meaningful for the technique to be an effective measure of real public opinion. In this case, I am not sure we know what opinion we are measuring.

Perceptions of Global Warming

Another widely reported environmental opinion indicator is Gallup’s measure of perceptions of global warming. Gallup’s question measuring perceptions of global warming asks the public to judge news coverage of the issue. The question does not ask the respondent if they believe that global warming is a serious issue. Rather,  it asks them to do two things: First, think about climate coverage in the news media; Second, judge whether or not global warming’s seriousness has been exaggerated by media coverage. If I were being surveyed, I’m not sure what I would say. I think that global warming is a serious issue, but I believe that everything in the media is exaggerated. I think that exaggeration is the media’s middle name. So I might be seen as a “climate skeptic” in this survey, because I think that the seriousness of the issue of global warming is exaggerated by the media. Does the question asked by Gallup below, measure attitudes toward global warming, or attitudes toward the media?  

The data indicates a decline in the percentage of people who believe that the media reports on the seriousness of global warming are correct, and it points to an increase in the percentage of people who think that the seriousness of the issue is exaggerated in the media.

Gallup is, of course, quite expert in measuring public opinion, and the measures in their surveys are uniformly reliable and valid. However their environmental surveys seem to be almost routinely misinterpreted by the media. Gallup’s own analyses tend to be quite precise and accurate. For example, their analysis of the question on the seriousness of global warming focuses on news coverage of the issue, and they report that most Americans accept the facts of global warming. Unfortunately, there are less objective observers.  For example, on August 10th, The  Drudge Report provided the following interpretation in their teaser:
“GALLUP: Americans Growing More Skeptical Of Global Warming…” 

Public Support for Sustainable Development

In fact, the data indicates a fair amount of consistency in the structure of public opinion on environmental protection. While issues like global warming can be difficult for people to see and feel, the American public knows it’s a real issue and is concerned about it.  Concern for more visible pollution is even stronger, with over 80% of the American public routinely expressing concern about air, water and toxic pollution.  

The media seems to be entranced by the idea that the public’s support for environmental protection declines whenever the economy falters. Some parts of the media can’t seem to shed the idea that the environment is a John Kerry, wind-surf and brie effete liberal luxury item. The fact is that most polling, including Gallup’s own, reports consistent public support for environmental protection. We are also seeing growing signs that the public understands the connection between environmental protection and economic sustainability. President Obama has put this idea at the center of his plan to revitalize the national economy, and polling indicates widespread acceptance of the policy of “green economic growth”.

I am not arguing that every effort to protect the environment adds to our wealth and creates jobs. But the argument that one must always be prepared to trade off environment for growth is outmoded. Mayor Bloomberg’s PlanNYC 2030 considers clean air, water, energy efficiency and access to park land as preconditions for the city’s continued economic growth.  A clean city provides a high quality of life and attracts new economic activity. The Mayor’s plan for New York’s future rejects the old environment-growth trade off, and so should the rest of us.

Measuring Public Opinion on Environment and Sustainability: How Conventional Wisdom Gets That Way