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Public Opinion Paradox | Wit and Wisdom of the Wise Users | Eco-Thug: James Hansen

The Public Opinion Paradox

Most of us are environmentalists -- until we get in the voting booth.

by George Pettinico

A modern de Tocqueville observing the past year's political events might reasonably conclude that the United States is profoundly hostile to environmental protection. Nearly every major environmental program and institution is under attack. The Clean Water and Endangered Species acts are being eviscerated; the Environmental Protection Agency is being defunded-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) refers to it as "the Gestapo of government"-and House Resources Committee Chair Don Young (R-Alaska) calls environmentalists "despicable." It would appear to be a hard time to be green.

And yet the vast majority of Americans claim to be so; a recent Gallup poll reported that roughly two-thirds consider themselves "environmentalists." An ABC News/Washington Post survey found almost three-quarters of the respondents complaining that the government was not doing enough to protect the environment. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that most Americans (53 percent) want to see environmental regulations strengthened, 26 percent support the status quo, and only 19 percent want to see them weakened. And despite a general desire to cut government spending, 55 percent of the respondents to a Time/CNN survey wanted to increase government spending on the environment, 27 percent wanted it to remain the same, and only 16 percent called for a cut. These surveys, and numerous others like them, seem to tell us that the public wants a government committed to protecting and improving the environment. Yet these are the same people who recently elected an unprecedented number of officials intent on trashing environmental laws.

How did this happen? The answer lies in the complex nature of polling and the difficulty of gauging true public opinion. Most Americans are indeed committed to the ideal of a healthy environment; the rub is how that ideal is translated into everyday thought and action.

The problem is not, as one might suspect, that the public wants a healthy environment but is unwilling to sacrifice for it. Most Americans say they are willing to tough it out-to some degree-for Mother Nature. The spring Gallup poll found almost two-thirds of the respondents agreeing with the statement, "Protection of the environment should be given a priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth." Roughly 60 percent of the respondents to a Harris survey said they'd be willing to pay high er federal income taxes and energy prices if "the money would be spent to protect and restore endangered species."

If taxes and prices were the only obstacles to a greener future, the environment would be in much better shape than it is. Cost, however, is not the main impediment. The big problem is simply the existence of other, ostensibly more pressing issues to worry about.

When pollsters ask people if they are concerned about the environment, most answer "yes." However, when not prompted, surveys show that the majority of Americans do not pay as much attention to the environment as to a host of other concerns.

One of the most useful tools in public-opinion research is the oft-asked "In your opinion, what is the most important problem facing the country today?" Without suggesting an answer, it gauges the salience of various issues (which is why it is usually asked first, before other questions have a chance to bias the interview).

In the five decades that Gallup has posed this question, environmental concerns have never registered as the number-one issue for more than 7 percent of respondents. That high point was reached in the early 1970s; more recent responses remain below 3 percent. In a Gallup poll this summer, 22 percent of the respondents listed crime and drugs as the most important problems facing the country, 18 percent cited a weakening economy, and 7 percent mentioned the federal budget deficit. Less than 1 percent felt the environment was the major problem.

A revealing Time/CNN poll taken in January asked people to rank the relative importance of various national problems. Less than a quarter of respondents classified environmental protection as "one of the most important" (although two-thirds gave it second-place "very important" status). When lined up against the other worries of modern life, the environment regularly loses the battle of the issues.

Why? In Attitudes Toward the Environment: Twenty-Five Years After Earth Day (American Enterprise Institute Press, 1995 ), Everett Ladd and Karlyn Bowman suggest that most Americans do not see the environment in a state of severe crisis, as many did in the early 1970s. "For most Americans," they conclude, "the urgency has been removed, and the battle to protect the environment is being waged satisfactorily"-leaving room for newer, more "urgent" issues to dominate center stage.

Other public-opinion analysts feel that issue salience is closely tied to news coverage. In a Public Perspective article entitled "Leading the Public," Jeffrey Alderman, director of polling for ABC News, examined how the public ranked drugs, crime, and health care in its hierarchy of priorities. He found an explosion of media coverage for each topic in the months before it rose to become a top concern in the polls. It is not surprising, then, that environmental issues get low-priority ratings, since-except for occasional sensational disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill-relatively little sustained media attention is devoted to them.

(The degree of popular reliance on the major media was shown in focus groups conducted earlier this year by presidential pollster Stanley Greenberg, where many participants refused to believe that environmental laws were being undermined because they hadn't heard about it on "60 Minutes.")

The fact is that much of the damage now being done to the environment is not directly visible to the majority of Americans. Although most acknowledge-when reminded-that there are serious problems with global warming, decreasing wildlife diversity, and dwindling resources, for instance, few personally encounter these problems in their everyday lives. Without the media's constant coverage of these issues, more "immediate" concerns claim their attention.

This poor showing in the marketplace of hazards is what hurts environmentalists most on election day. In the 1980 and 1984 presidential contests, for example, voters believed Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale to be the best candidates for the environment. Yet Ronald Reagan-who once famously claimed that trees cause pollution-won both elections handily. The 1980 contest was dominated by the Iran hostage situation, "stagflation," and the national malaise, while taxes and the Cold War were central to the 1984 campaign. Environmentalism played little to no role in either race.

More recently, a Times-Mirror survey in the summer of 1994 asked which political party would do a better job protecting the environment. By a two-to-one margin (56 percent to 28 percent), the public indicated the Democratic Party. Yet not one sitting Republican lost a congressional post last November, while Democratic losses were historic.

Must it be ever thus? Ironically, hope for the next and future elections originates in the radical actions of the current Republican leadership. As Congress attempts to hobble environmental legislation, especially the protective laws that the American people have come to expect, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, voters should reawaken to green issues-if the media cover them. A summer poll sponsored by the Environmental Information Center found anger growing in several states toward politicians who want to sabotage clean air and water regulations. When voters realize that they can no longer take even the most basic environmental safeguards for granted, and that past successes may be reversed almost overnight, environmental issues should hit home once again.

George Pettinico is a senior research analyst at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and assistant editor of the Center's magazine Public Perspective.

Wit and Wisdom of the Wise Users: How the other half intimidatesp.

by Paul Rauber

One of the nastier manifestations of the anti-environmental Wise Use movement is the "Sahara Club," a loose collection of loose nuts based in Southern California "dedicated to fighting eco-freaks and keeping public lands free." Over the years, their newsletter has become a sort of clearinghouse of dirty tricks for the anti-environmental fringe.

"We do not condone or encourage any illegal activities of any sort," the newsletter's most recent issue coyly disclaims. "However, we get a real kick out of legitimate irritation of the eco-freak community." Following are suggestions for "legitimate irritation" from Sahara Club members:

"Every meeting that's been held in our area between eco-freaks and normal people, we have shown up (12 members strong) and literally shouted the bastards down. We position ourselves throughout the audience, rather than sit in one group . This way, when we yell long and hard, it seems like the entire audience is doing it.

"Our small group has turned no less than a dozen meetings into screaming yelling matches and the eco-freaks have run out of the room most of the times. Being intimidating really works and sure shuts the bastards up!" -M.S. from Oregon

"Our local club has been faking letters to our local newspapers, posing as eco-freaks. The letters we write are so inflammatory that when they're run, the readers get really pissed off at the eco-freaks. It seems the wilder we make the letters, the more the papers run them." -A.P. from Ohio

"Me and my buddies get a list of various enviro-groups that are holding some kind of meeting. We then show up and watch who goes into the meeting and where they park their cars. After the meeting is well under way, we remove all the valve cores from their tires and toss them in the bushes. It's tow-truck city later on.

"We also take down the license plate numbers and call the local police department and report the cars as stolen. I highly recommend this as an effective way to slow down eco-meetings." -Sam from Colorado

"When my kid came home from school and told me that his teacher was preaching to the class about all the good Greenpeace was doing, I went to the school and confronted this teacher. He told me he was a Greenpeace supporter. I told him he could be anything he wanted to be, but that if he tried to teach my kid that crap I would go to the principal and school board and get him fired. He agreed to back off and has not mentioned another eco-word to this date." -J.K. from New Jersey

"I have stocked up on super glue and find it works best in the door locks of BLM vehicles. One little squirt in each lock and they have to break the window to get in. If I have time, it's also fun to let the air out of the tires, then superglue the valve caps back on so they can't be refilled." -no name from California

"Whenever I run into an eco-freak almost anywhere, I get right in his face and make him or her feel like dog shit. Of course, it helps that I am a fairly large person. But I have taught a few of my normal-sized friends how to intimidate verbally, and it works for them, too." -R.S. from Pennsylvania

It may not be much comfort if you just had your tires flattened, but the reason Wise Users need to throw their weight around is that they don't have very much of it. Environmental activists should remember that they have the vast majority of the American people-not to mention the Bill of Rights and the criminal code-on their side. Intimidation only works if you let it.

Eco-Thug: James Hansen

by Paul Rauber

The competition is stiff these days, but the hands-down winner of Sierra's new James Watt Act-Alike contest is James Hansen, Republican representative from Utah. While not as outwardly loopy as the former interior secretary, Hansen is doing his best to match the destructive grandeur of Watt's schemes to turn the public lands to private profit.

Since Hansen was first elected to Congress in 1980, his environmental rating from the League of Conservation Voters has seldom risen above 0, and has not topped 6 percent since 1989. Up to now his legislative accomplishments have been undistinguished; in his first 14 years in Congress, he managed to pass only four pieces of legislation-one a bill renaming the post office in Beaver, Utah.

Considering Hansen's agenda, we can only hope that Republican control of the Congress doesn't improve his legislative box score. His "Human Protection Act," for example, would subordinate the survival of endangered species to the financial convenience of neighboring humans. He is pushing a bill to allow states to veto new congressionally approved wilderness areas, and another to run paved highways anywhere a trail of any so rt is rumored ever to have existed. ("Rights-of-way" are now being claimed in Hansen's home state for washed-out tracks a Humvee couldn't navigate, and even for creekbeds.) He also wants to turn 270 million acres of federal public lands over to the states. Their upkeep would cost Utah nearly $22 million a year-unless, of course, they were to be sold off for development, which appears to be Hansen's intention.

Hansen is chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, which under his gavel has dedicated itself to disposing of those entities. He supports decommissioning national parks he deems to be "not worthy," like Nevada's Great Basin National Park. "If you've been there once, you don't need to go again," he says.

Despite his national mischief, Hansen's greatest potential havoc is closest to home in the form of a bill severely limiting the amount of wilderness the state of Utah will ever have, and allowing unprecedented levels of intrusion into what's left (see "Wilderness of Greed," September/October).

Hansen proposes to "preserve" a pitiful 1.8 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness, opening to development nearly half of all wild areas currently protected by the BLM. And since he also redefines the term "wilderness," even his supposed protected areas could include dams, pipelines, communication facilities, and off-road vehicle use. "The West simply wants the chance to decide for ourselves what is best for these lands," he claims-yet three times as many Utahans support a counterproposal to preserve 5.7 million acres of wilderness as support his own miserly bill. If Hansen's bill passes, it will be a model for future efforts in other states. "It's a test case for us," says Hansen.

There's one other sinister element to Hansen's bill, a poison-pill addendum that bars anything not already preserved from ever being considered for future protection. If James Hansen has his way, he will be Eco-Thug not just now, but for all time.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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