Attitudes Toward the Environment Twenty-Five Years After Earth Day 1
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
I bring to the issues you are discussing only a layman's knowledge. My work and that of my colleague Everett Ladd is in public opinion. We conduct no surveys of our own; we rely on data in the public domain—the Gallup, Harris, network/print partnerships such as Gallup and CNN and USA TODAY—to write about public attitudes. We are by no means uncritical admirers of the survey device. It is a blunt instrument ill-suited to many tasks. Still, we believe polls are a useful device to understand a complex public.
We have recently completed a review of public opinion on the environment. Our study focused mostly on attitudes since Earth Day and that will be my focus today. We did, however, review briefly surveys conducted before that time. Our study is different from many we reviewed in preparation for the monograph we wrote because we put views on the environment into context by comparing them to views about other issues. It is useful to know, for example, that in the abstract, Americans say we are spending too little on the environment. But it is also important to know that they say we are spending too little halting the rising crime rate, improving the nation's education system, and improving and protecting the nation's health, and that these issues appear more urgent.
Our review revealed a central weakness of the huge collection of attitudinal data on the environment. Americans have been asked repeatedly in a wide variety of formulations to affirm a core value, in this case the importance of the environment. Each time, not surprisingly, they respond that a clean and healthful environment is important to them. These questions tell us little about what a society with many demands on it is willing to do to advance the value, what trade-offs the public is willing to make for it, or what happens when one important value clashes with another. The pollsters have missed an opportunity to advance our knowledge. Let me briefly outline attitudes today.
WHAT DO AMERICANS WANT?
In 1995 Americans are committed to a clean environment and to economic growth. What is more, we are optimistic about the country's ability to achieve both. We are confident about science and technology and about our ability to make environmental progress. We continue to believe that the federal government has an important role in meeting environmental objectives.
In 17 iterations of the question Cambridge Reports began to ask in 1976, pluralities or majorities have responded that we can combine material progress and a clean environment. But now, in the 1990s, that belief has substantially broader support than previously. In the latest Cambridge Reports survey, 67 percent agreed that we could have both.
The optimism this and other questions reflect is rooted in Americans' confidence in the nation's technical and scientific prowess. The number saying in 1994 that they have a great deal of confidence in those directing science is virtually identical to the number giving that answer twenty years ago, the first time the
question was asked. Only those managing medical care received a higher vote of confidence in the surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Confidence in many other key players (including Congress and the executive branch) was much lower and has dropped sharply since the early 1970s.
Another reason for the belief that we can encourage economic development and protect the environment may stem from the belief that government is doing a good job in this area. In 1994, 46 percent told Roper Starch Worldwide interviewers that protecting the environment was a definite responsibility of the federal government, and 37 percent called it highly desirable. In the follow-up question, a solid majority felt that government was carrying out that responsibility fully or fairly well.
THE LABEL AND THE MOVEMENT
One way to assess support for the environment is to look at how strongly people identify with the movement. In 1987 and in 1994, in Times Mirror surveys, about a quarter of Americans placed themselves at points 9 and 10 on a scale to indicate that the term environmentalist was perfect or near perfect for them. Of the sixteen groups Times Mirror inquired about, only ''a religious person" and "a supporter of the civil rights movement" got broader backing.
A Times Mirror Magazine group survey found that slightly over 20 percent called themselves "active environmentalists." A majority fell into the "sympathetic but not active" group. Almost no one said they were unsympathetic. Any way you slice it, "the environment" and hence "environmentalists" are popular.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE ENVIRONMENT?
That large majorities feel positive about the environment as a social value is important. But politically the real question is how much Americans think should be done now and in the future to advance environmental goals and how much they are willing to do themselves. Answering these questions is not easy because most Americans do not get involved in specific policy issues, nor are they particularly attentive to the details of the debates surrounding them. They offer broad policy direction to legislators that reflects their belief about the importance of the environment.
Many of you are familiar with the work of Robert Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell, a thoughtful commentator on public attitudes toward the environment, has argued that in thinking about any issue, we need to distinguish between salience—"how much immediate personal interest people have" in it—and strength of opinion—"the degree to which people regard the issue as a matter of national concern and are committed to improving the situation or solving the problem." This formulation is useful, but it is not exhaustive.
Salience can be measured by looking at responses to "open-ended" questions,
for example, What is the most important problem facing the country today? that people answer with any response they wish. By this salience measure, the environment ranks low. CBS News/New York Times asked its "most important problem" question ten times between January 1994 and January 1995, and in only one poll did the issue register at even 1 percent. In the early August 1995 question, the interviewers recorded mentions of 26 different issues as "the most important problem." The environment was not among them.
A poll done by Peter Hart Research for the National Wildlife Federation in December 1994 also shows that the environment has been eclipsed by other issues. Those who reported voting in 1994 were asked which two or three issues were important to them in making their choices. The environment was cited by just 6 percent—ranking behind crime (at 24 percent), health care (21 percent), the economy-recession (16 percent), high taxes (15 percent), unemployment-jobs (9 percent), education (8 percent), and efficient government (7 percent). Hart Research then asked those who had not cited the environment why they did not do so: 35 percent said other issues were more urgent; 23 percent, that the candidates did not discuss the environment; 10 percent, that the Clinton administration was doing a good job on the issue. Only 8 percent said that enough had been done for the environment already.
The property that Robert Cameron Mitchell contrasts to salience, the strength of public opinion, can be measured by poll questions asking how serious a problem is, how we view government efforts to regulate the activity, and how much we want to spend on it.
Roper Starch Worldwide asks Americans whether environmental pollution is a "very serious threat these days to citizens like yourself, a moderately serious threat, not much of a threat, or no threat at all." In May 1994, 47 percent called environmental pollution a very serious threat, 39 percent a moderately serious threat, 11 percent not much of a threat, and 2 percent none. A decade earlier, the percentages were roughly the same. This would seem to suggest enormous concern. In fact the poll results merely show that many people do not like pollution. To put the numbers in perspective, in 1994, 77 percent said crime was a very serious threat, 72 percent said illegal drugs were, and 60 percent said drunken drivers on the road were a very serious threat. Many polls like the ones above confirm the view that other problems are far more urgent than the environment for Americans today.
WHAT DO WE WANT GOVERNMENT TO DO?
Survey researchers naturally want to explore just how far the public is prepared to go in terms of taxing and spending and regulation to improve the environment, but it is extremely hard to get at this kind of information in the abstract. Hypothetical questions are almost always a problem in opinion research. Much of the public does not think hypothetically about policy choices. It posits broad values.
Because the public does not put itself in this kind of a judgment situation, responses to questions vary. The wording of a particular question pulls the public in one direction, a change in a few words pulls it in another. Trade-off questions exacerbate the problem.
General questions about the proper level of government regulation show high commitment—once again—to the core value identified earlier, the importance of the environment. More specific questions show a concern about balancing costs and benefits. Since 1989, Roper Starch Worldwide has found that strong majorities or pluralities say that environmental laws and regulations have not gone far enough, with around 30 percent saying that we have struck the right balance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, about two in ten said we had gone too far. That number has since dropped.
A Cambridge Reports question shows that since 1982, solid majorities or pluralities have said that in general there is too little government regulation and involvement in the area of environmental protection. The proportion saying that there is too much has moved up sharply from roughly 10 percent in the late 1980s to 31 percent in 1994.
Polls today show that Americans feel it is important to balance costs and benefits. A January 1995 question by Yankelovich Partners for Time and CNN illustrates the point. Two thirds suggested that "an environmental regulation which addresses a specific risk to people's health" should be "subject to an analysis to determine whether eliminating that risk justifies the cost." It is impossible to know how Americans would have answered that question ten or twenty years ago. These kinds of questions weren't asked then.
Because Americans offer broad values and general conclusions about directions to be pursued, asking them about specific policy choices when people do not really think much about them can produce misleading information. The problem is exacerbated when the nature of trade-offs to be considered is presented in an imprecise and misleading manner.
Consider a question asked by the National Opinion Research Center in 1994: And how willing would you be to accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment? What do the surveyors mean by "cuts"? How big a cut? In what area? What kind of environmental benefits would be achieved? Because these issues are left unresolved, it is impossible to know what to make of the answers given: 31 percent said they would be willing to accept cuts in their standard of living, while 45 percent said they would not be, with 23 percent on the fence. The numbers suggest that the strong backing for the environment is not unconditional. But we already knew that. This question does not tell us anything new. The actual proportions yielded by it are almost meaningless because of the imprecision and confusion about what is being asked.
Because the public affirms the general value of a clean environment and is not engaged in specific policy choices, the wording and timing of questions that ask people to engage in specific policy choices can be extraordinarily important. Four questions asked by CBS and the New York Times in 1992 and early 1993 illustrate the point. The public switched its view from May to September about whether protecting the environment was more important than stimulating the economy. Negative coverage of the economy in the fall of 1992 was making people more anxious about economic prospects, and that atmosphere probably explained the shift in responses.
The second pair of questions was asked in September 1992 and in March 1993. People were asked whether we must protect the environment even if it means jobs in your community are lost because of it. The public split evenly in September, 45 to 45 percent; in March 1993, 60 percent agreed with the statement. Had people changed their minds about anything related to the environment over the ten months those four questions were asked? Of course not. An election campaign took place, and a new president was inaugurated. The political context in which the questions were asked shifted from negative coverage of the economy to more positive coverage of a new president. Americans use polls to send messages to their governors—to indicate subtle changes in moods, as they did over these ten months.
When a value such as the importance of the environment occupies a substantial position in public thinking opinion researchers need to take care not to attribute specific conclusions to it mistakenly. Consider the familiar question about whether we are spending too little, too much or the right amount on the environment. The National Opinion Research Center has asked Americans that question nineteen times over the past twenty years. Strong majorities have consistently told the pollsters that we are spending too little. The proportion saying we are spending too much is always small. policy-makers should not read these responses literally. They are expressions of a broad general commitment to a clean environment, not an endorsement of higher spending.
Public thinking about what spending is actually needed today is more complex. Americans say we are spending too little on many problems, and it appears from some questions that they think we can move a little more slowly in the environmental area. In January 1995, 53 percent of Americans told Yankelovich Partners that "given our other problems right now," it would be better to go slow in spending money to cleanup the environment. Still 40 percent said we should go full speed ahead.
It is striking how few questions over the past twenty years have asked Americans to think about their tax burden when thinking about federal spending on the environment. In surveys conducted by General Electric from 1966 to 1981, people
were asked about their concern about air and water pollution. They were then asked how much they would be willing to pay in taxes, utility rates, or other prices to do something about the problems. In the last year of the survey, a near majority said they would pay $5.00 to do something about air pollution, 27 percent indicated that they would be willing to pay $50.00, and only 6 percent said they would be willing to pay $500.00. The results were similar for water pollution. Since the question did not specify a yearly appropriation and seems to indicate as well a one-time assessment, the public was clearly setting very tight limits on environmental spending.
Throughout the health care debate, pollsters probed the dollar amount Americans would be willing to pay for health care for the uninsured. The responses varied considerably for something Americans care deeply about, but the overwhelming impression conveyed by these questions was much like the impressions gleaned from the GE data. We are not willing to spend much at all.
Americans are willing to pay only small amounts for things they care deeply about not because they are not generous. Incomes are modest and many people feel strapped, and there are so many problems to solve. Unless survey questions of this sort are carefully designed, asked over a long period, and provide comparative perspectives we will never know how much Americans are willing to spend.
We tell the pollsters we are sympathetic to the environmental movement and a plethora of questions show that we remain committed to the environment even if it is less urgent than in the past. We are thinking twice about additional spending. Other types of questions exploring actual behavior on environment-related matters generally show a public not inclined to do much to advance the cause. We have become Lite Greens.
Recycling is a relatively painless exercise, and the number of Americans who say they have sorted newspapers or bottles for recycling has risen considerably since 1980. We are also recycling at work. Far fewer say they have reduced the amount of their driving or boycotted a company's products because of its environmental record.
Roper has asked the public twice since 1989 whether the respondent or someone in the household makes a real effort to do a list of things about the environment on a regular basis, does these from time to time when it is convenient, or does not bother about it. Solid majorities said they did not really bother about doing volunteer work for local environmental groups, writing letters, not patronizing restaurants that put take-out food in Styrofoam containers, not cutting down on the use of their car by using public transportation, etc. Majorities did a few things on a regular basis from time to time such as returning beer or soda bottles, recycling newspapers, sorting trash, buying products in pumps, and using biodegradable soaps.
Beyond this, Roper Starch Worldwide has repeated an extensive battery of questions asking people whether they would be willing to see a list of things happen in their communities to protect the environment. The results have been fairly stable over the three years Roper has asked the question. A majority was willing to ban the use of CFCs to reduce harm to the ozone layer even though it may mean that the prices of refrigerators might rise, and a bare majority would ban use of these chemicals even though it might mean home and car air conditioning won't cool as well. But majorities were not willing or did not know whether they would be willing to put a new burden on dry cleaners that might force some of them to go out of business and mean higher costs for consumers, see an increase in utility bills, make us more dependent on other nations, and so forth. Even though the items in this battery are very specific, most respondents have never thought about many of them. How are we to evaluate the response to the item about requiring those who use charcoal grills to use electric lighters rather than lighter fluid. Is the 35 percent figure of those willing to see this happen in their community high or low? Is the question asking whether electric starters might be a good idea or whether a categoric ban on lighter fluid should actually be imposed? The item gives little practical guidance.
The organization asked an interesting battery of questions that get to the heart of the issue about what we are willing to do. The exercise had two parts. The first question asked Americans whether they would favor laws that would help cleanup the environment but make products more expensive. In the abstract, solid majorities favored laws to reduce pollution. The follow-up question asked Americans whether they would be willing to pay a lot or a moderate amount more for these products. Public resistance to paying more was considerable.
Young people are thought to be more committed to environmental improvement than their elders are. Alexander Astin at the University of California at Los Angeles has been probing the attitudes of young people entering college for nearly three decades. Astin finds that these people have consistently said that the government is not doing enough to protect the environment. But the number who said that being involved in environmental cleanup was essential or very important to them dropped from 43 percent in 1971 to 23 percent in 1994.
When the public is not engaged in a specific policy issue, question wording influences their responses. A number of national pollsters have been in the field recently who claim to know what Americans think about reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act and how private property owners should be compensated when regulations cause a loss of value in their property. In many of these areas, the responses are clearly contradictory.
Peter Hart Associates, in its December 1994 survey for the National Wildlife Federation, asked a national sample which of two statements came closer to their
opinion. Fifty-seven percent chose, "Some people say Congress should maintain strong requirements in the Endangered Species Act because certain plants and animals could become extinct if they are not protected, and some of these plants and animals might be used for medical cures or to develop disease resistant crops." About a third, 32 percent, chose, "Other people say Congress should relax certain requirements of the Endangered Species Act, because these requirements can slow down or even stop business growth and development in order to protect all endangered plants and animals." These alternatives are leading and contrived. It is not surprising that different kinds of questions come up with different findings. A question posed by Roper Starch Worldwide for Time Mirror Magazines illustrates. The question is set up this way: In 1972, Congress passed a law called the Endangered Species Act. This law requires the federal government to take whatever steps necessary to prevent any type of plant, animal, or insect species from becoming extinct, even at a cost to landowners, businesses, or the local economies where the species live. When asked what government policy should be, 63 percent said that the endangered species policy should take account of costs, while only 29 percent said that all species should be saved.
In areas with little public knowledge, responses—particularly hypothetical ones—can be highly misleading. Groups representing various positions in conflicts, such as the one over reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, like to claim they have public opinion on their side. We simply don't know if they do.
I'll say just a word about the politics of the environmental issue. When the issue emerged, neither political party had a particularly strong advantage on handling the issue. Over the years, however, the Democrats have developed and maintained a strong lead over the Republicans. Yet although Democrats generally and Democratic candidates are seen as better able to protect the environment, election results seem to suggest that the issue is not a significant one for most voters. In most of the exit polls where pollsters have included the category "environment" in a list of most important problems, only a small number have said the issue was one of the most important to them in casting their votes. Those voters have pulled the lever for Democrats. In 1994, however, the issue appeared to work for the GOP in the West. The national exit polling consortium of the four networks and AP, Voter News Service, did not include the "environment" in their list of most important problems facing the nation. But VNS did ask voters in the West whether Clinton environmental or land use policies had helped their states, hurt their states, or had no effect. In eight of nine western states, voters said the policies had hurt their states. These voters voted for GOP candidates. Only in Colorado, where voters said the policies had had no effect, did voters vote for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. When a public agrees on the ends we as a society should pursue, something we did in the 1970s about the environment, we tend to disengage
from the debate over the means. That has happened at the national level, though the issue is now very potent at the state and local level. If the public perceives that the national consensus is threatened, as some felt Jim Watt and Anne Gorsuch Burford did, the possibility then exists that the issue will engage the public significantly again at the national level.
HOW MUCH PROGRESS?
The 1994 Hart poll for the National Wildlife Federation found that 62 percent rated the overall quality of the air, water, land, and wildlife where the respondent lived as excellent or good, 28 percent as only fair, and 8 percent as poor. The numbers are similar to those obtained by Roper Starch Worldwide. Reinforcing the impression of general satisfaction are the results of a question Hart and Teeter Research Companies posed for Newsweek in 1991. Surveyors asked about a number of problems where the respondent lived. Four in ten said that pollution was really not a problem, while 23 percent described it as just somewhat of a problem. Thirty five percent said it was very or fairly serious. Far more Americans thought that drugs, economic stagnation, the cost of housing, crime, the financial condition of local government, the cost of living—the list goes on—were very serious problems in their community than felt that way about pollution.
Questions asked about the environment nationally produce more pessimistic responses—reflecting a familiar pattern in polls. Americans are far more likely to say crime is a problem in the nation than they are to believe it is a problem in their own communities. Similarly, we tell the nation that education is a big problem for the nation, but that our schools are performing well. We rely more on survey data that asks Americans about things they can expected to have opinions about. Negative national assessments are often calls for leaders to perform better. We continue to want government to be vigilant, and business to be attentive to our concerns, but we are generally satisfied with progress on the environment on the home front.
To conclude, on occasion, a value that was not politically salient or central comes to be seen as essential. The environment made this transition over the 1960s and 1970s. Large majorities of citizens across class and other social group lines are deeply committed to a safe, healthful environment and are prepared to support a variety of actions that seem reasonable in promoting those ends. The challenge opinion research faces when a general value occupies this substantial standing in public thinking is to ensure that specific conclusions are not mistakenly attributed to it. Questions about spending, for example, should be taken as expressions of genuine commitment to a clean environment. Publics assert general values. They do not engage in specific policy choices. It is extremely difficult
cult to get information on how far the public wants to go in terms of taxing, spending, or regulation by asking abstract questions. The public points to ends, and does not think much about the means.
Unfortunately, the existing polling literature has not answered satisfactorily the question of whether the balance has shifted, even if subtly, such that groups saying, "We must protect the environment" find a more skeptical audience now than they did a decade ago. The issue is not whether Americans have soured on the environment or esteem a clean environment less as a central value. Clearly, the vast majority of our citizens are environmentalists. But we are now more inclined to think that for most Americans, the urgency has been removed, and the battle to protect the environment is being waged satisfactorily. Despite the many ambiguities, impressive evidence of such a shift exists.