Note: An updated version of this article posted on April 21, 2020 is available here.
The 1970s were an important time for American environmentalism. Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and the nation celebrated its first Earth Day – created by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson – April 22, 1970 .
Almost half a century later, Earth Day has spread across the world, with dozens of countries hosting events ranging from river clean-ups to climate change rallies. Ahead of this year’s events, here are six findings on public opinion about the environment:
1Americans generally support environmental protection, but there are deep partisan divisions on the issue.. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, about three-quarters of American adults (74%) said that “the country should do everything in its power to protect the environment,” compared with 23% who said that “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.
Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents have always been more likely than Republicans and Republicans to say the country should do everything in its power to protect the environment. But as Republican support has waned since 2004, the gap between the two groups has widened to 38 percentage points.
2Views on environmental regulations are more partisan today than they were a decade ago. In another 2016 Pew Research Center survey, about six in ten Republicans and skinny Republicans (58%) said environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, up from 34% in 2007. By comparison, a declining share of Democrats and Democratic supporters agree. This partisan gap now stands at 41 percentage points; in 2007 it was 10 points.
3Many Americans see protecting the environment as a top priority, but higher shares cite other issues – like terrorism or the economy – as a top priority. More than half (55%) of Americans ranked the environment as a major political issue that President Donald Trump and Congress should tackle this year, according to a January Pew Research Center survey. But defending the country against future terrorist attacks (76%) and strengthening the economy (73%) were high on the list of public priorities.
The priority given to environmental protection also varies by political affiliation: Democrats and Democratic supporters (72%) are about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican supporters (35%) to cite protection of the environment. the environment as a top priority for Congress and the President. There are also differences by age, with adults under 30 being more likely than those 65 and over to say protecting the environment should be a top priority (64% vs. 48%).
4Three-quarters of Americans are concerned about the environment, but fewer say they make an effort to live with it all the time. Among American adults, 75% say they are particularly concerned about helping the environment in their daily lives, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. But only one in five Americans say they make an effort to live in a way that is. protect the environment “all the time”. Those 65 and over are three times more likely than those 18 to 29 to say they make this effort all the time (36% vs. 12%).
Millennials (currently aged 18 to 36) are also slightly less likely than older generations to consider themselves environmentalists, with 32% of them, compared to at least four in ten among older generations, according to the Center in a 2014 survey.
5Overall, 32% of American adults say they are very self-conscious about people throwing things away that could be recycled. About six in ten Americans (61%) who say they always try to live in a way that protects the environment say it bothers them “a lot” when others throw away things that could be recycled. Of those less concerned with protecting the environment, only a quarter say it bothers them a lot when others don’t recycle. Environmentally conscious people are also twice as likely as others to say that they are very bothered by seeing someone throwing trash in recycling bins (42% vs. 21%).
Other data from the Pew Research Center shows that a majority of Americans recycle. Almost half of American adults (46%) said in 2014 that they recycle or reduce waste to protect the environment “where possible”, while 30% said they do so “most of the time.” and 19% said they do it “occasionally”. “Only 4% of the public said they ‘never recycle or reduce’ waste to protect the environment. Older Americans are slightly more likely than their younger counterparts to say they recycle and reduce waste “To the extent possible”.
6What is actually recycled varies depending on the type of product. A Pew Research Center analysis of EPA data found that 99% of lead-acid batteries (the type found in cars and trucks), 88.5% of corrugated boxes and 67% of newspapers and directories were recycled in 2013. By comparison, only 13.5% of plastic bags and packaging and 6.2% of small appliances were recycled that year.
Note: This is an update of an article originally published on April 22, 2016.
Monique Anderson is Associate Director of Research at the Pew Research Center.