The Politics of Pollution

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Most Americans like to consider themselves environmentalists. They rank the environment among the top ten election year issues, and nine out of ten say their concerns about protecting the environment will influence their vote for president. But at this point in the election cycle, voters also admit they are not poring over candidates' specific proposals. Rather, they are judging candidates' environmental proposals in context with their character and leadership skills. When voters are asked to pick a slogan that best summarizes their intended vote for the next president, only 14 percent of Americans choose "being right on the issues," while 23 percent choose "leadership for a new century," and 29 percent choose "keep America on a steady course," according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey.

The survey also reaffirms the public's strong and long standing belief that Democratic politicians are much more likely to protect the environment than Republicans. But it's unclear how this preference will play out when voters seem to care - at least for now, anyway - more about leadership and stability.

Still, Americans have many environmental concerns, ranging from the safety of home drinking water to global overpopulation. No single environmental problem has emerged as a campaign issue, but most Americans are deeply troubled, saying that we are running out of time to save the planet from permanent damage. Younger people tend to be more concerned than their elders, but the general public assigns nearly equal blame for the state of the environment to individuals, business, and government. Most Americans claim that they recycle, avoid products suspected of causing environmental problems, and would pay more for such things as cleaner gasoline and autos with greater fuel efficiency. But very few of these folks carpool.

Environmental organizations say the current rate of population growth and resource consumption cannot be sustained indefinitely. In today's booming economy, a large majority of Americans say that the environment should be protected, even at the expense of economic growth. But in 1992, when the economy was in recession, only a minority of Americans wanted to protect the environment if it meant losing jobs in the community. Today, most people think this is a false choice, and they are optimistic that protecting the environment will incur no economic tradeoffs.

No potential health risk should be tolerated, say most people surveyed, yet only 40 percent of Americans strongly support stricter environmental protection laws. Also, the strength of that support has noticeably declined since the early 1990s, when clear majorities of Americans strongly supported tighter regulations. This change may reflect the predominant view now that the nation is on the right track in environmental protection.

A majority of Americans worry about pollution, but here again, there has also been a significant decline in concern over the last decade. To some extent, the decline may reflect real progress in areas like cleaning up rivers and streams. But public concern is also declining about problems like global warming, a condition that many scientists say is worsening. While most people say they are very concerned about global warming's potentially catastrophic consequences, relatively few pay close attention to news about it.

To probe these apparent inconsistencies in public opinion, Public Agenda convened focus groups of citizens in five cities in 1997 and 1998. Participants had a general idea about the way global deforestation and air pollution were causing the earth's atmosphere to warm up, and they expressed frustration that there seemed to be no well-defined scientific or political approaches for solving these problems. Many participants also said the problems were aggravated by human greed and neglect. The groups gravitated toward two possible outcomes: Either scientists will find painless, technological solutions or an environmental catastrophe will force people to change destructive behaviors. As a member of a focus group in Des Moines put it, "It's likequitting smoking - it is hard to do until you have a heart attack."

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