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Americans Believe the Environment Should Be Protected


A poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News shows that most Americans (58%) believe that the environment should be protected, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Only 37% believe that economic growth should be given priority if the environment suffers as a result.

For decades there has been a belief that good environmental stewardship must inevitably reduce economic growth. Many contemporary environmentalists challenge that belief, however. Environmental stewardship might reduce economic growth if it is poorly designed, they have said, but it doesn’t have to if it is well designed. In fact, they have argued, environmental degradation itself limits economic growth, and good environmental stewardship might enhance economic growth compared to that.

In either case, the poll suggests that the majority of Americans do not agree with the reckless pursuit of economic growth at the expense of the environment.

Serious ImpactThe poll had some other interesting findings. Global warming, which I tend to call climate change, has been a significant concern of this blog. As the first chart at right shows, the poll shows that 28% of Americans believe that it will have a serious impact in the future, and 46% believe that it is already having a serious impact. Combined, that’s about 3 out of every 4 people. One often hears that there is a scientific consensus about the seriousness of climate change, but that the average American is not so sure. This poll suggests that there may be more of a consensus among Americans than is often portrayed.

(Click on chart for larger view.)

This question has been asked in several polls going back to 2011. Because of the variability from poll to poll, and because polls always contain a confidence interval that is several percentage points wide, it is difficult to read many trends simply by looking at the chart. The one trend I can pick out for certain is that for several years there were some people who denied the existence of global warming entirely. That no longer appears to be a tenable opinion, and has vanished from the chart completely.

Causes chartThe poll also asked people whether they thought global warming was caused mostly by human activities or mostly by natural patterns in the earth’s atmosphere. The data only go back 3 years instead of 13, but the trend over time is clearer, as shown in the second chart at right. The percentage of people who believe it is caused by human activities has increased from 41% in 2011 to 54% in September of 2014.

Oddly, in these polls, 10% of those asked said global warming doesn’t exist, where just a moment ago, nobody was saying that. It just goes to show you how unreliable polls are, and how the way you ask the question seriously impacts the answers you get.


The poll data were published by the New York Times: Connelly, Marjorie. “Global Warming Concerns Grow.” New York Times. 9/22/14. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/science/global-warming-concerns-grow.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22}&_r=0.

The poll results themselves were linked to from the article: “The New York Times/CBS News Poll, Sept. 10-14, 2014.” http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/science/NYTpoll-sept-14-globalwarming.pdf?action=click&contentCollection=Science&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

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