The environment has fallen on the back burner of public concern in recent years. While more folks feel they understand global warming “very well” or “fairly well” now (80 percent) as compared to a decade ago (69 percent in March 2001), that has not translated to greater concern in recent years. The cap-and-trade bill quietly disappeared (much like the U.N.’s climate refugees), and environmental groups are witnessing enthusiasm for Earth Day and Earth Hour events shrink faster than the planet’s glaciers.
Public-opinion polls over the last decade reveal that environmental concern has waned. Worry over global warming dropped by double digits in the last decade, according to Gallup polling. In April 2000, 72 percent of Americans worried a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about global warming or the greenhouse effect. As of March 2011, the percentage had fallen to a bare majority, 51 percent. Similarly, since March 2001, those who believe that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated has increased by 13 percentage points (30 to 43 percent). Despite the Nobel Prize–winning work of Al Gore over the decade and the recent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, economic hardship has come to trump environmental concern.
For only the second time in Gallup’s polling history, Americans place economic growth (54 percent) ahead of protecting the environment (36 percent) in a direct tradeoff. These numbers have flipped over the decade; in January 2000, 70 percent favored protecting the environment compared to 23 percent who would give priority to economic growth, a monumental 65-point shift over the last 11 years. Likewise, concern for energy supplies over protecting the environment has similarly grown over the last decade. In March 2001, 52 percent of Americans gave priority to protecting the environment and 36 percent gave priority to energy supplies. The last decade witnessed a 25-point reversal in this gap, with 41 percent now prioritizing the environment and 50 percent prioritizing the energy supplies. It seems that extreme change of the last decade has been in public opinion, not the climate.