Americans and the Environment: What’s At Issue?

The environment doesn’t rank among our top priorities as a nation. Public opinion research shows that our most pressing concerns tend to revolve around the economy, unemployment, and the budget deficit. Yet the environment has long been an issue Americans care deeply about—and our concerns have taken on a greater urgency in recent years.

This is reflected in much of the work going on in the NIF network today. Across the country, local community organizations and academic centers are focusing on climate change, clean water, air pollution, and other environmental questions. In many cases, groups and organizations are framing their own local and regional issues and taking them out into the community.

Last fall, we decided it was time to take a fresh look at the environment and develop a series of national issue guides on the subject. While NIF has developed materials on environmental topics in the past, many of these guides are now dated or deal with the environment in the context of some other issue, such as energy, farming or land use. What we need is a series of guides that tackle key environmental questions head on.

But what exactly are those questions? What’s at issue? To answer that, we delved into three areas of research: 1) public opinion, 2) focus group and concern-gathering sessions, and 3) interviews with NIF leaders about the types of questions people in the network are discussing at the local, regional and state levels. What we learned was fascinating and instructive.

Findings from public opinion research

Public opinion research shows that there is an inverse relationship between Americans’ concerns about the environment and their worries about the economy. The more anxious they are about the economy, the less concerned they are about the environment. Today, as the economy continues to rebound, the public is again more likely to say the environment should be given priority—even at the risk of curbing economic growth.

When asked to rank a list of environmental issues in order of importance, Americans tend to prioritize water-related issues. These include pollution of drinking water, contamination from toxic waste, and pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Solid majorities say they worry “a great deal” about water issues. Air pollution, extinction of plant and animal species, and the loss of tropical rain forests are also pressing issues across the country. “Climate change” or “global warming” is of lesser concern to Americans, according to Gallup surveys, though the issue has been rising in public importance over the last two years.

Why are Americans not more concerned about climate change? No one knows for sure, but there is some speculation that it may have to do with how the issue is framed. Many Americans see climate change as an overarching issue made up of many interrelated problems. Because the issue seems so vast and unmanageable, the public is at a loss about how to properly address it.

Findings from concern-gathering sessions and focus groups

When we organized concern-gathering sessions and focus groups on the environment, we found that climate change was in fact a top concern. For participants of one research session in East Rutherford, New Jersey, climate change was a top issue by a sizable margin, clearly outranking other concerns like water and air pollution, population growth, urban sprawl and wildlife conservation.

“I think climate change needs immediate action,” said one member of the group. Another participant concurred: “It’s just going to get worse if nobody does anything about it.” But there was less agreement in the group about what kind of action is required, or who should be carrying it out. This finding tracks with survey research that shows a growing concern about climate change in America, but low levels of public understanding and no consensus about what steps to take to address the problem.

We found no pushback from people denying that climate change is a real problem. Most participants also agreed that it could be directly linked to human activities—the burning of fossil fuels, in particular. But there were a few dissenters. “I’m on the fence with it,” said one participant. “I say it’s nature taking its course. It’s going through the stages it’s always going through.”

Findings from the NIF Network

In our interviews with NIF leaders around the country, climate change came up again and again. Many moderators and conveners said it was an issue of utmost concern on their campuses and in their communities. Some insisted that an NIF issue guide on the subject was long overdue. Others said they had gone ahead and developed their own materials or used issue guides produced by others.

Throughout the network, environmental issues appear to be especially important. One reason for this is that the issues—clean water, waste management, wetland restoration, land use—tend to be local and regional in nature. People sense that they can have a real impact. Another reason is that environmental issues affect our daily lives in a way that other national concerns like the economy, the budget deficit, or America’s role in the world may not.

In our survey of locally-produced environmental framings, we found that climate change topped the list. Water-related issues came in second, but they varied from region to region. Those in the American West tended to focus on scarcity (drought, water rights, depletion of aquifers), while those in the Northeast often focused on water quality and how to protect rivers, dams and reservoirs from pollution. In some parts of the country, the water issue was closely bound to a discussion of fracking. Among the other issues on the list were air pollution, deforestation, population, land use, wildlife conservation, and sustainable development.

From initial findings to a framework for public deliberation

On the basis of these findings, we will be partnering with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) to develop a series of issue guides and promote a nationwide conversation on the environment. We hope you’ll join us in the effort.

We’ll be tackling climate change first. I’ll report on that work in a future post. Please stay tuned.