- Majority worries "a great deal" about polluted drinking water, lakes, rivers
- Democrats express greater worry than Republicans about each threat
- 41% say environmental quality is excellent or good; 42% say it is improving
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Of six environmental problems facing the U.S., Americans remain most worried about those that affect water quality. Majorities express "a great deal" of worry about the pollution of both drinking water (56%) and rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53%).
Fewer, though still substantial minorities ranging between 40% and 45%, express a great deal of concern about the loss of tropical rain forests, global warming or climate change, air pollution, and the extinction of plant and animal species. Although less than half of Americans register the highest level of worry about these four issues, broad majorities say they worry at least "a fair amount" about each.
Bar chart. Americans' levels of worry about six environmental problems. Majorities in 2021 worry "a great deal" about the pollution of drinking water and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs -- 56% and 53%, respectively. Fewer, between 40% and 45%, express a great deal of concern about the loss of tropical rain forests, global warming or climate change, air pollution, and the extinction of plant and animal species.
These findings, from Gallup's annual Environment survey conducted March 1-15, are the latest data points in at least two decades of tracking worry about these environmental problems, including annual updates every year since 2000, except 2005.
In general, the public's level of worry has ebbed and flowed in tandem across the six environmental threats over the past 21 years. Although degrees of worry have shifted over time, the rank order has remained largely consistent, with water pollution outpacing all other threats.
The latest figures show significantly lower levels of worry than in 2000 on all issues except global warming, which is roughly on par today with 2000 after some fluctuation in the interim years. Worry levels across all six threats either ticked up or remained flat between 2019 and 2020 and are now at roughly the same levels as 2019.
Line graphs. Trend lines showing the percentage of Americans who worry "a great deal" about six environmental threats since 2000. Except for global warming, worry for each of the threats in 2021 is lower than it was in 2000.
Partisan Differences in Levels of Worry About Environmental Threats
The fluctuations in worry levels since 2019 are largely driven by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, who became more worried, on average, about the six environmental problems in 2020 during the presidential campaign and are now less worried with Joe Biden as president. For their part, Republicans' and Republican-leaning independents' concern has been stable over the same period.
Majorities of Democrats, ranging from 51% to 69%, say they are worried a great deal about all six of the environmental threats, while no more than 40% of Republicans say the same. The party groups diverge the most in their concern about global warming, with 68% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans highly concerned.
Additionally, several other partisan views stand out:
- The pollution of drinking water is tied for the top worry among both Democrats and Republicans.
- Democrats worry as much about global warming/climate change as about polluted drinking water.
- Worry about the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs ties with pollution of drinking water as the top concern for Republicans.
|Pollution of drinking water||69||74||69|
|Global warming/Climate change||68||74||68|
|Pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs||66||68||61|
|Loss of tropical rain forests||51||64||55|
|Extinction of plant and animal species||57||61||51|
|Pollution of drinking water||38||40||39|
|Global warming/Climate change||18||14||14|
|Pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs||36||37||40|
|Loss of tropical rain forests||25||28||29|
|Extinction of plant and animal species||24||28||25|
|Polls conducted in March of each year|
There have been persistent and sizable gaps in degrees of worry expressed by partisans over the past two decades. Since 2001, on average, the percentage of Democrats highly concerned about each of the six environmental threats has been more than 20 percentage points higher than that of Republicans.
Americans' Overall Assessments of Environment Stable
Forty-one percent of Americans rate the overall quality of the environment in the U.S. as "excellent" or "good," and 59% say it is "only fair" or "poor" -- both of which are essentially unchanged from the past several years' readings.
Republicans and Republican leaners are nearly three times as likely as Democrats and Democratic leaners to rate environmental quality positively. Americans' assessments were higher during Barack Obama's presidency because of Democrats' heightened positive views (albeit still less than a majority), while Republicans' ratings were largely unchanged during that period. Democrats' positive rating has not topped 40% over the past 20 years.
Line graph. Excellent or good ratings of the overall quality of the environment in the U.S. since 2001, among all U.S. adults, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. In 2021, 41% of U.S. adults, including 64% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats, say the environment's quality is excellent or good. These figures are not statistically different from 2020.
The public's lukewarm view of whether the quality of the environment is improving is similar to their current middling rating of it. In all, 42% of Americans say the quality of the environment is getting better, while 52% think it is getting worse.
Biden's election has resulted in a 26-point increase in Democrats' view that the quality of the environment is getting better. At the same time, Republicans have become less likely (by 12 points) to say it is improving. The result is an 11-point gap in partisans' positive outlook, which still is less polarized than their rating of its current state.
A similar pattern occurred during the Obama presidency, when the average gap in partisans' views that the environment was improving shrank from 27 points during George W. Bush's presidency to 5 points. During Donald Trump's presidency, the gap ballooned to an average 39 points.
Line graph. Views that the quality of the environment in the U.S. is getting better since 2001, among total U.S. adults, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. In 2021, 42% of U.S. adults, including 49% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats, say the quality of the environment is getting better. Americans' view that it is getting better is up six points since last year. At the same time, Republicans' view has worsened by 12 points and Democrats' has improved by 26 points.
When it comes to environmental problems, Americans remain most concerned about two that have immediate and personal potential effects. For the past 20 years, worries about water pollution -- both drinking water and bodies of water -- have ranked at the top of the list. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, laid bare the dangers of contaminated drinking water and no doubt sticks in the public's minds.
Republicans' concerns about environmental threats remain largely muted, while Democrats are largely worried. Likewise, partisans' views of the quality of the environment and their outlook for it continue to diverge but less so under the current Democratic administration than previous Republican administrations.
Biden has already reversed some of Trump's environmental policies, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement and rescinding the permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He also ordered federal agencies to review more than 100 of the Trump administration's policies that rolled back many of the Obama administration's environmental regulations. As Biden continues to implement his environmental policy agenda, Democrats' outlook may improve further.
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