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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

America's Report Card on the Environment

Air Date: Week of

A Stanford University poll shows that 60 percent of American people are pessimists when it comes to the environment. The survey’s architect, Jon Krosnick, breaks down the numbers and tells host Steve Curwood that global warming is an increasingly personal concern for Americans.


CURWOOD: How serious is global warming? Are businesses to blame? Is the President doing enough? And how would you rate the overall state of the environment?

Stanford University has teamed up with ABC News and Time Magazine in an ongoing effort to take the pulse of the American public on these questions. They polled more than a thousand people across the nation on environmental issues, and results from the survey are just in. It’s called America’s Report Card on the Environment, and its architect, Jon Krosnik of Stanford University, joins me now. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: So looking at the broad environment, Jon, according to your report card does America’s environment make the grade as far as the public is concerned?

KROSNIK: The public is surprisingly unhappy with the environment at the moment. We found that a majority of Americans – 60 percent of them – are pessimistic about the state of the environment, either believing that it’s going to get worse 10 years from now than it is, or believing that it’s in bad shape now and will get no better. So we were really quite struck by the level of pessimism about the environment.

CURWOOD: Is pessimism the same thing as concern?

KROSNIK: Pessimism is an ingredient of concern. Americans are pessimistic about various things that do not concern them. For example, if you ask Americans about the state of highways in this country, in some parts of the country they’ll happily complain about potholes, but they’re not deeply concerned about them. On the other hand, the environment clearly does activate concern.

CURWOOD: Now, how do these public perceptions about the environment compare with the past? Particularly when it comes to global warming, climate change?

KROSNIK: Well, there has been some movement since the late 1990s, but not a great deal of movement in public opinion. In 1998, for example, 80 percent of Americans believed that global warming had probably been occurring. That number is now up to 85 percent. So it’s not a huge increase, but on the other hand, it’s a huge majority.

You can try to find agreement in the American public on just about any issue and fail – asking people even whether the sky is blue today or not is a controversial issue often. But to find 85 percent of Americans agreeing that global warming probably has been happening is a remarkable level of agreement.

But the more striking increases since the late 1990s involves the level of public concern about the problem. That right now about 50 percent of Americans say they consider the issue of climate change to be either extremely important to them personally or very important to them personally – that 50 percent is up from 31 percent just eight years ago. So public concern is definitely rising.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Now what about the partisan divide here? How did Democrats respond to the specific question of the danger of climate change as opposed to Republicans?

KROSNIK: Well this is a very interesting issue. When we conducted our research initially in 1997 and 1998, we found that climate change was not a partisan issue – that not only did large majorities of Americans agree that global warming had been happening, was caused by humans at least in part, and was going to be a problem for humanity. But Republicans and Democrats agreed at about the same rates. But what we’ve seen in the last eight years is a noticeable growth in the partisan divide, that now Republicans are more likely to be skeptical whereas Democrats are more likely to accept the point of view that the scientific community endorses.

CURWOOD: How does the public feel about the environmental stewardship that’s being done by the president, the congress, and big business?

KROSNIK: Not terrific. What we found is only 21 percent of Americans approve of the way President Bush is handling the environment at the moment. And there is a partisan divide there – only five percent of Democrats approve, and 47 percent of Republicans approve. But again, you haven’t even got a majority of Republicans approving on that issue.

Interestingly, we also asked Americans how do they feel about what Congress is doing and what U.S. businesses are doing, and approval for them and their handling of the environment was no higher. Only 15 percent approval for Congress and 21 percent approval for U.S. businesses.

CURWOOD: Professor Krosnik, now, as I understand it, you study political science and communications, and that one of your areas of great interest is something called “attitude formation.” So, from the results of your survey, what kind of attitude is taking form here, if any?

KROSNIK: Well it’s certainly an attitude of concern and pessimism. And what we’re seeing in terms of the way psychologists think about attitude, the most important finding being this growth in the personal connection people feel to the environment just in a period of eight years, that I think the news media have helped the public hear the voice of scientists for quite some time now and understand that the scientific community has deep concern about this problem, and it has taken hold in people’s thinking.

CURWOOD: Now, how does public perception compare to what you would call reality?

KROSNIK: Well the scientific community tells us that actually the natural environment is in much better shape now than it was 50 years ago. There’s less air pollution now then there was 50 years ago, there’s less water pollution now then there was 50 years ago. There is survey work suggesting that Americans do not recognize that improvement over time. But the concern that we see now in the public about the general state of the environment seems to be contemporary in that it’s driven by concern about global warming. People who believe global warming has been happening and is a problem for future generations are especially likely to give the environment a pessimistic grade at the moment.

CURWOOD: So with your America’s Report Card on the Environment, judging from what results you got, what grade do you think the average American would give our environment?

KROSNIK: Oh, I think the average American would give the environment a “D” at the moment.

CURWOOD: Jon Krosnik is a professor of political science and communications at Stanford University. Jon, thanks for joining me today.

KROSNIK: Pleasure, Steve. Nice to be here.



America’s Report Card on the Environment


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