Environmental protection is a “motherhood and apple pie” issue: everyone is for it. Surveys asking specifically about the environment usually return supermajorities in favor of strong safeguards for the environment. Concern for environmental protection is clearly a settled value among Americans, with public opinion polls showing consistent support for it regardless of economic conditions, and across partisan lines and political ideologies.
However, noticeable shifts in public opinion about environmental issues have started to show up in recent surveys, especially the annual surveys from Pew and Gallup (Gallup’s is probably the most useful because it tends to ask the same questions year after year, making trend comparisons possible). This suggests that a moment of “punctuated equilibrium” may have arrived in which Americans are adjusting their opinions about environmental issues. Among the key findings of recent survey data are:
• In general, surveys consistently show that the public ranks the environment (and global warming in particular) very low as a priority relative to other issues. When surveys ask the public to name the most important issues facing the country in an open-ended way (that is, not offering a list of issues from which to choose), the environment has seldom topped 5 percent (as it did in a Gallup poll in 2007). For the last two years the number has hovered between 1 and 2 percent.
•The Pew Research Center survey on public priorities for 2010 found that global warming came in among 20 top issues. Only 28 percent said it should be a top priority, ranking below immigration and “lobbyists,” and down from 38 percent three years ago. (See Figure 1.) Pew’s report comments: “Dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public’s list of priorities; just 28 percent consider this a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey. Since 2007, when the item was first included on the priorities list, dealing with global warming has consistently ranked at or near the bottom.”
• European public opinion tracks the Pew results closely, with only 4 percent of Europeans in the EU-27 nations selecting the environment as one of the two most important issues facing the continent. As in the United States, the economy is the leading issue; even immigration tops the environment in the Eurobarometer 72 poll (Figure 2).
Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Source: Eurobarometer 72
• Gallup’s most recent annual poll on environmental issues (March 2010) found that the public ranked global warming last out of eight issues from which respondents could choose, with only 28 percent saying they “worry a great deal” about global warming, down from a high of 41 percent in 2007. (See Figure 3.) It is interesting to note that Gallup stopped offering acid rain as a choice after 2008; acid rain was often the highest-ranking environmental concern in surveys in the late 1970s.
• Surveys in the 1980s and 1990s found that as many as three-quarters of Americans considered themselves to be either active environmentalists or sympathetic to environmental concerns. But an ABC News polling series shows significant diminution in public self-identification with environmentalists in recent years, suggesting declining enthusiasm for environmentalism. On the question, “Do you consider yourself an environmentalist, or not?” the “nots” have overtaken the “yes” respondents over the last few years, as shown in Figure 4.
Source: ABC News
• One of the more notable findings of the annual Gallup survey is the large shift in opinion about whether environmental protections should take precedence over economic growth. As Figure 5 shows, the public has chosen the environment over the economy by as much as three to one over the last 25 years, a margin that narrowed only slightly in previous recessions. Over the last two years, the positions have reversed. Some of this shift is probably due to the severity of the current economic downturn, although the swing in opinion is much larger than has been observed in previous recessions.
• Extreme environmental pessimism may be on the wane. Gallup presents a notable recent shift in public sentiment about whether environmental quality in the United States is getting better or worse. Figure 6 shows the narrowing of the spread between the proportion of respondents who believe the environment is getting worse and the proportion who believe the environment is getting better. As in Figure 5, the shift coincides with the onset of the current recession, which bolsters the view that environmental sentiment correlates with prosperity.
These survey findings indicate that public opinion may have become jaded about environmentalism, perhaps suffering from what some observers have called “apocalypse fatigue.” Numerous anecdotes in the major media also suggest public weariness with green dreariness. The reported in July 2008 that the marketing industry was picking up signs of a public backlash: “The advertising industry is quicker than most to pick up on changing consumer tastes and moods, and it seems to have grasped the public’s growing skepticism over ads with environmental messages. The sheer volume of these ads—and the flimsiness of many of their claims—seems to have shot the messenger. At best, it has led consumers to feel apathetic toward the green claims or, at worst, even hostile and suspicious of them.” Another story described the changing public mood as a reaction to “green noise”: “‘What we’ve been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash,’ Ms. [Suzanne] Shelton [of the Shelton Group advertising agency] said. Over the last six months, she added, when the agency screened environmentally themed advertisements, ‘we see over half the room roll their eyes: “Not another green message.”’”
 Eric Pfanner, “Cooling Off on Dubious Eco-Friendly Claims,” , July 18, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/business/media/18adco.html.