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Americans pessimistic about the future health of the environment, survey finds


85 percent of respondents said global warming ’probably been happening’ but only 38 percent ’extremely or very sure about it’

Most Americans are pessimistic about the state of the environment and want action taken to improve its health, according to a new national survey conducted by Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

Fifty-five percent of Americans surveyed said they expect the world’s natural environment to be in worse shape in 10 years than it is now, and an additional 5 percent said the environment is currently in "poor" or "very poor" shape and will not improve, according to the survey.

"We refer to this group of 60 percent of Americans as ’pessimists,’" said Jon A. Krosnick, the Frederic O. Glover Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stanford. This group closely resembles the overall American public in terms of gender, race, education and whether they live in an urban, suburban or rural setting, Krosnick added. When it comes to party affiliation, 67 percent of Democrats are pessimistic compared to 48 percent of Republicans. However, even a majority of Republicans share discontent about the health of the environment and human stewardship of it, researchers found.

The Stanford survey was done in collaboration with ABC News and Time magazine. Krosnick and ABC’s Gary Langer designed the survey, which was conducted by telephone March 9-14 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A striking 86 percent of those surveyed want President Bush, Congress, American businesses and/or the American public to do "a great deal" or "a lot" to improve the health of the environment during the next year. This call to action is bipartisan, with 94 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans urging environmental improvements. The proportion of people wanting a great deal or a lot of effort did not vary according to gender, age, race, education or residence in an urban, suburban or rural place.

Only 21 percent of Americans approve of the way President Bush is handling environmental issues, while 53 percent disapprove and 25 percent neither approve nor disapprove. As expected, approval is much lower—a mere 5 percent—among Democrats, while 47 percent of Republicans approve of the president’s performance. Approval of Congress and U.S. businesses is no higher—15 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Overall blame for poor and declining environmental conditions is frequently placed on American businesses and to a lesser degree on President Bush’s policies, according to the survey.

On the issue of climate change, 85 percent of respondents said that global warming "has probably been happening," but only 38 percent are "extremely or very sure about it." When asked how important the issue of global warming is to them personally, 49 percent said "extremely" or "very," 32 percent said "somewhat," and 18 percent responded "not too" or "not at all."

A majority of respondents said the government should require auto manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient cars (45 percent) or encourage them with tax incentives (40 percent). Sixty-one percent said that government should require power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while 21 percent favored industry tax incentives.

Pessimism about the health of the natural environment is strongly related to beliefs about global warming, the survey found. Among the 69 percent of Americans who are at least somewhat sure that global warming has been happening and believe that it will have at least somewhat serious effects if unchecked, 70 percent are pessimistic about the environment in general. Among the 31 percent of Americans who are skeptical about the existence or damaging effects of global warming, only 37 percent are environmental pessimists.

"This survey is modeled after the national surveys measuring Americans’ perceptions of the national economy, which yield the well-known national economic indicators," said Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and, by courtesy, psychology. "It will give us an annual basis by which to track overall perceptions about the future of the environment, as well as attitudes about specific issues such as global climate change."

The survey is the first installment in what will become the Woods Institute’s annual "America’s Report Card on the Environment." A second survey, to be administered this fall, will look at a number of more specific environmental challenges and solutions.

The Woods Institute serves as the interdisciplinary hub for Stanford’s campuswide Initiative for Environmental Sustainability. The institute co-directors are Jeffrey Koseff, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Barton "Buzz" Thompson Jr., the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law. More than 250 members of the Stanford faculty are involved in research, teaching and leadership around environmental issues.

Data from the national survey on the environment are available at

Kathy Neal | EurekAlert!
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