Detecting a Hierarchy of Environmental Concerns

A new Gallup poll offers a useful reminder that people care most about the environment when its degradation impinges directly on them.

Respondents were given a list of environmental problems and asked to cite the ones about which they worry “a great deal.” People were much more apt to worry so much about “pollution of drinking water” (53 percent said they do) and “pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs” (50 percent) than about “extinction of plant and animal species” (37 percent) or “the greenhouse effect or global warming” (37 percent apiece). Fewer still said they worry a great deal about “acid rain” (23 percent). On the other hand (or paw), worry about “loss of natural habitat for wildlife” (44 percent) was on a par with concern about “air pollution” (43 percent), so the pattern isn’t rigidly consistent.

The most striking of the survey’s findings is that people are a bit less likely than they were a year ago to worry a great deal about all of the environmental problems on Gallup’s list. The declines were largest (though not especially large) for drinking-water pollution (down 5 percentage points), damage to the ozone layer (down 4 points) and the greenhouse effect/global warming (down 4 points). One wonders whether the tone of immediate crisis in much discussion of global warming has tended to undercut an inclination for sustained public concern about the environment in general. Since the sky has not quickly fallen, people may be more inclined to shrug off the whole topic. Whatever the impetus behind the downturn in Gallup’s numbers, one implication is that corporations’ environmental efforts may now garner diminishing returns of public goodwill.