Is Public Support for Environmental Protection Decreasing? an Analysis of U.S. and New Jersey Data

Article excerpt

Telephone surveys made of 800-1,000 randomly selected residents of the United States and New Jersey in 2003 show a sharp decline in support for antipollution regulations, although pollution remains a major concern. This drop in support is associated with slowing of the economy, fear of terrorism, and other competing priorities. The leading proponents of maintaining strong environmental regulations are relatively affluent mainstream white Americans. Despite this recent drop in support, overt attempts to weaken the basic regulations are likely to face stiff opposition unless there is an obvious economic downturn or increasing terrorism that causes a larger proportion of the public to feel that weakening environmental regulations will increase jobs and security. Key words: age, environmental laws and regulations, perception, polls, public support, race/ethnicity, trends.

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The first Earth Day was celebrated on 22 April 1970; this event arguably marked the beginning of U.S. society's call for more control of pollution through laws and environmental science (Mowrey and Redmond 1993). A lot has happened in the United States since 1970, especially since 2001. The unprecedented economic growth of the middle and late 1990s slowed in early 2001, and terrorist attacks occurred in September 2001. Health care costs have continued to rise much more rapidly than other costs, and other domestic problems, such as drug addiction, are ongoing concerns. We should anticipate some shift away from worrying about the environment to more immediate issues of jobs, national security, drug abuse, and how to pay for health care. But how much of a shift in priorities has occurred? Is the public still willing to support the legal and administrative structures that reduced emissions and improved environmental quality? Also, who continues to support the laws that are at the core of U.S. environmental policy? Who does not?

In this article, I use national and New Jersey polling data to answer these questions, and I comment on the significance of the observations for environmental health policy and practice. The Gallup Organization (Princeton, NJ) provided summaries of many of their national surveys and performed some special tabulations for me. The Gallup polls I used were from 1984 through 2003. Some of the more intricate statistical analyses were performed with data from New Jersey using SPSS, version 8 software (SPSS, Chicago, IL). The Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll (New Brunswick, NJ), which has been collecting data similar to Gallup's since 1977, shared their raw data (Eagleton Poll Archive 2003). All the polls collected from 800 to 1,000 samples using random-digit telephone surveys that followed standard public opinion polling protocols.

The focus on New Jersey is important because, with regard to environmental programs and trends, I consider New Jersey to be a sentinel for the rest of the United States. Along with California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon, New Jersey's environmental programs have been considered among the strongest in the United States (Conservation Foundation 1984; Duerksen 1983; Greenberg et al. 1991; Pendergrass 2001). Several factors have contributed to New Jersey's interest in environmental programs; for example, a) the state is the most the most affluent and the most urbanized in the United States, so people cannot easily move away from pollution; b) New Jersey has a history of high cancer mortality rates; and c) the legacy of smokestack industries located along its urban-industrial spine have led to many Superfund sites and great concern about hazardous waste management (Greenberg et al. 1991; Mason et al. 1975). Collectively, these factors combine to make New Jersey a place where we would expect strong support for environmental protection.

Yet, New Jersey's economy is changing. The vast majority of the smokestack industries have closed, replaced by white collar information- and technology-driven businesses (Hughes and Seneca 2000). …