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Four in 10 Americans Say They Are Environmentalists

Four in 10 Americans Say They Are Environmentalists

Story Highlights

  • Roughly four in 10 U.S. adults have identified as environmentalists since 2016
  • Percentage is down sharply from late 1980s/early 1990s
  • Half of Democrats still say they are environmentalists

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This Earth Day, 41% of Americans identify themselves as "environmentalists," including 22% who say they are "strong environmentalists." Far fewer Americans today than in the 1980s and 1990s think of themselves as environmentalists, with the historical high of 78% measured in 1991.

Line graph. Americans' self-identification as environmentalists. When Gallup first asked this question in 1989, 76% of U.S. adults said they were environmentalists. It stayed at about that level before dropping to 63% in 1995 and 50% in 1999. Fewer than half of U.S. adults have said they were environmentalists since then, including 41% or 42% in three polls conducted since 2016.

These results are based on Gallup's annual Environment survey, conducted March 1-15. The 22% of U.S. adults identifying as "strong environmentalists" is similar to what Gallup has measured since 1999, but down almost half since 1989 (41%).

While the decline in environmentalist identification has been greater among Republicans than independents or Democrats, Americans in all three groups show sharp drops since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before 1999, there were not meaningful party differences in the percentage of Americans who considered themselves environmentalists. Today, 50% of Democrats, 44% of independents and 24% of Republicans think of themselves in this way.

Line graph. Self-identification as environmentalist, by party identification. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, roughly three in four Republicans, independents and Democrats identified themselves as enviromentalist. By 1999, party differences began to emerge, with 54% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans calling themselves environmentalists. Currently, 50% of Democrats, 44% of independents and 24% of Republicans identifying as environmentalists.

Typically, Gallup has not seen meaningful differences by age in environmentalist identification. However, in the current survey, adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are significantly more likely than those aged 30 and older to call themselves environmentalists, 56% to 37%.

Environmentalists Express Heightened Worry About Climate Change

As might be expected, environmentalists express greater concern than non-environmentalists on a range of environmental issues. In the March survey, this was the case on all items measured except outlook for environmental quality, with only three percentage points separating the groups' views.

Environmentalists differ most from non-environmentalists in their level of concern about global warming and climate change, with 63% of the former group and 29% of the latter worrying "a great deal" about the issue.

The divide in the two groups' opinions is nearly as large -- 30 points -- on their level of worry about the quality of the environment, as well as their concern about the extinction of plant and animal species.

Differences in Environmentalists' and Non-Environmentalists' Attitudes About the Environment
Environmentalist Non-environmentalist Difference
% % pct. pts.
Worry "a great deal" about global warming/climate change 63 29 34
Worry "a great deal" about the quality of the environment 63 33 30
Worry "a great deal" about extinction of plant and animal species 57 27 30
Worry "a great deal" about pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs 68 40 28
Prioritize environmental protection over economic growth 66 40 26
Worry "a great deal" about pollution of drinking water 71 45 26
Say U.S. doing "too little" to protect the environment 70 46 24
Worry "a great deal" about loss of tropical rain forests 58 34 24
Think effects of global warming have already begun to happen 74 50 24
Think most scientists believe global warming is occurring 82 59 23
See increase in Earth's temperature as caused by effects of pollution from human activities 77 55 22
Say global warming will pose "a serious threat" to their way of life 56 34 22
Worry "a great deal" about air pollution 52 32 20
Think seriousness of global warming "generally underestimated" in the news 49 31 18
Say they understand global warming issue "very well" 34 20 14
Say quality of environment in U.S. is "getting better" 39 42 -3
Rate quality of environment in U.S. as "excellent" or "good" 34 46 -12
Gallup, March 1-15, 2021

Bottom Line

About four in 10 U.S. adults, close to half the proportion from three decades ago, consider themselves environmentalists. The decline has occurred even as Americans' concerns about environmental issues show no consistent trends. On a series of environmental threats Gallup has asked about since the late 1980s, Americans express more concern about global warming and climate change now, less about various forms of pollution, and similar levels of concern about the loss of tropical rain forests.

Part of the decline is tied to the greater politicization of environmental issues, with the percentage of Republicans considering themselves environmentalists down more than 50 points in the past three decades.

But Democrats and independents also show declines of roughly 30 percentage points over the same period.

Beyond politics, the term "environmentalist" may not be as familiar, or may not resonate as much with the public as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time of revival of the environmental movement. Some of the goals of the early environmentalists -- promoting recycling, avoiding the use of certain harmful chemicals, and curbing the most serious forms of pollution -- have gained widespread acceptance and perhaps changed the meaning of what being an environmentalist today entails.

It is also possible that some of the more extreme actions taken by environmental protesters in the 1990s, including attempts to disrupt logging, mining, fishing and construction operations, have given the term a negative connotation.

Gallup does not define the "environmentalist" term for respondents, so people answer on the basis of their own understanding of what it means to be an environmentalist.

Though environmentalist self-identification is not as common as it was in the past, a substantial minority -- and one that appears to be stabilizing -- thinks of themselves in this way. And doing so is associated with greater concern about issues affecting the environment and greater willingness to take action to address those.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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