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Americans Still Think the Environment is Worth Saving


If you listen to the national media, especially the conservative media, you might think that interest in environmental protection has gone the way of the dinosaur, swept away by a national consensus to focus on economic growth at all costs.


Figure 1. Source: Gallup Inc.

Gallup Inc. is a global analytics and analysis organization that conducts what we all know as Gallup Polls. One of the questions they regularly include in their polls is “With which one of these statements do you most agree – protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent?” The results are shown in Figure 1. It is a chart from Gallup showing the percent of respondents choosing the environment over the economy, and vice-versa. To it I have added a line showing republican and democratic presidencies (red and blue, respectively).

In 1990, people chose environmental protection over economic growth 71% to 19%. That is a huge majority! Support for the environment weakened starting in 2000. By 2010, respondents chose the economy over the environment 53% to 38%. Since then, support for the environment has rebounded, with the most recent figures showing respondents picking the environment over the economy by 57% to 35%. (The percentages don’t sum to 100% because some people answer that they don’t have a preference, or they decline to answer the question.)

Even 57% to 35% is a large majority – a difference of 32%: for every 10 people who chose the economy, 17 chose the environment. No American president has ever been elected by such a margin. Warren Harding comes closest (!), with a margin of 26%. Some recent “landslides” involved margins of 23% (Nixon over McGovern, 1972, and Johnson over Goldwater, 1964). Even the famous Reagan “landslide” of 1984 (Reagan over Mondale) was only 18%. The current Tweeter-in-Chief, due to a quirk in the electoral college system, was elected with a minority of the vote (-3%).

Figure 2. Source: Gallup, Inc.

Since 1998, Gallup has also asked respondents “Is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?” Figure 2 shows the results. The dark green line shows the number of people who think the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. The dark black line shows the number of people who think its seriousness is generally correctly portrayed. The gray line shows the percent of people who think it is underestimated.

A minority of people think that the seriousness of global warming is correctly represented – that is constant across the whole time period. For much of the period, more people thought its seriousness was exaggerated than thought it was underestimated. In recent years, that has shifted, and now more people think it is underestimated (41%) than think it is exaggerated (33%).

Where would I fit on that last question? I think I would refuse to answer it. I feel that global warming is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity. But I feel that it is a slow-motion catastrophe. Just as a simple example: if you go to Miami Beach or Lower Manhattan in 100 years, you are likely to find they are very different places, struggling to cope with flooding, sometimes more severe, sometimes milder. However, that is a change that will unfold over the entire coming century, giving people lots of time to adapt and adjust. Thus, those who say the danger is fabricated are underestimating it. On the other hand, those who say an existential catastrophe is imminent are exaggerating.

What is true is that the carbon that goes into the atmosphere stays there for nearly a century. Thus, if we don’t act quickly, we most likely doom ourselves to a change that will unfold over decades, and which we will be impotent to prevent.

As the two figures above illustrate, environmental concerns have NOT been swept away our current president. Rather, he is acting to prevent Americans from addressing problems that they feel are important, even if it involves some economic sacrifice.


Gallup Inc. 2018. In Depth: Topics A to Z: Environment. Downloaded 3/27/2019 from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1615/environment.aspx.

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