Poll: 40% of Americans Rank Air, Water as Top Priorities

A majority of Americans say that they are paying attention to environmental issues, but only about 3 in 10 are paying a great deal of attention to such issues as air pollution (31 percent), water pollution (30 percent), and water shortages (29 percent), with one-quarter (25 percent) of Americans saying they pay a great deal of attention to combating global warming. Only 2 in 10 adults say they pay a great deal of attention to the extinction of certain species (21 percent), deforestation (21 percent), and reducing Americans’ carbon footprint (20 percent).

These are some of the results of a new BBC World News America/The Harris Poll® of 2,123 adults surveyed online between April 6 and 8. Among these different environmental issues, some are higher priorities than others. When asked which two issues government officials should make their top priority, two in five adults say air pollution (42 percent) and water pollution (40 percent). One-third say combating global warming (34 percent) and water shortages (34 percent) while fewer say reducing Americans’ carbon footprint (18 percent), deforestation (16 percent), and the extinction of certain species (11 percent) should be top priority.

Different regions have different environmental priorities. Due to recent droughts, a plurality of Westerners (44 percent) say water shortages should be the top priority for government officials to address. Almost half of Midwesterners (47 percent) believe air pollution should be a top priority as do 45 percent of Easterners.

When being environmentally sustainable is defined as "taking from the Earth only what it can provide indefinitely, thus leaving future generations as much as we have access to ourselves", just under half of Americans (48 percent) say they have done something to make their lifestyle more environmentally sustainable while one-quarter say they have not (27 percent) and are not sure (26 percent). Last year over half (53 percent) of Americans say they had made changes to their lifestyle to be more environmentally sustainable, while 25 percent had not and 22 percent were unsure. Again there are regional differences and those in the West are more likely to say they have made changes (52 percent) while those in the East are less likely to say they made changes (44 percent).

When it comes to what changes people have made, certain things are done more than others to make one’s life environmentally sustainable:

  • More than four in five adults who have made changes are recycling (85 percent), a high number but down from 91 percent who said they were recycling last year;
  • Seven in ten (71 percent) are paying bills online and/or receiving paperless statements, not very different from the 73 percent who said this last year;
  • About half of those who are making changes are buying more locally produced food and/or goods (53 percent, up from 49 percent last year), bringing their own bags to stores (51 percent up from 39 percent) and buying green household products (50 percent, up from 47 percent);
  • About two in five people who have made changes are installing resource friendly appliances (39 percent down from 46 percent last year), buying more used products (37 percent up from 31 percent last year) and discontinuing purchases of plastic water bottles (37 percent up from 30 percent); and,
  • Some other changes people have made are to compost (27 percent up from 23 percent), carpooling (14 percent down from 16 percent) and buying a hybrid car (5 percent up from 3 percent).

With the economy in turmoil, people may be making the more economical decisions, rather than those leading to a more environmentally sustainable life. This could be seen in the small drop in people who say they are making changes in their lifestyle. But as the economy improves, with the attention on things like bringing bags to stores and discontinuing the use of plastic water bottles, the number of people making these changes should be growing. It might also be that the little everyday things people are doing are making a difference—but Americans don’t think they are enough to say they are making lifestyle changes.

This poll was conducted online within the United States among 2,123 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. Full data tables and methodology are available at /www.harrisinteractive.com.