Green but Anti-Government

Numerous opinion surveys have documented widespread public support for environmental protection. Polls routinely find that over 70 percent of Americans characterize themselves as environmentalists and seek stronger environmental protections.

To the media and inside-the-beltway pundits, such poll numbers provide the justification for urging ever-greater expansions of the regulatory state and opposing environmental reform. They are undaunted by the fact that polls also show that Americans are skeptical of federal power. This is, in part, due to the relatively scant polling conducted to determine which sets of policies Americans believe are most appropriate to address their environmental concerns.

What little polling there has been prior to 1996 does suggest that Americans support many conservative and free-market reforms of environmental policy.

To test the hypothesis that there is broad, untapped support for decentralized, market-oriented environmental policies, the Competitive Enterprise Institute commissioned the polling company to perform a nationwide poll of 1,000 registered voters nationwide. The poll was administered June 29-July 2 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. The results of the poll were quite encouraging, and allow us to make the following generalizations about American attitudes about environmental policy:

Most Americans support environmental protection, but are not activists. 80 percent of respondents consider themselves either “active environmentalists” or “concerned about the environment but not active,” opting for the latter description by a margin of three-to-one. While a majority of respondents claim to consider a candidate's position on environmental issues in the polling booth, few Americans rate environmental protection as their top concern. Indeed, fewer than five percent of respondents identified an environmental concern when asked to identify “the single most important problem facing the country.” (Just as many respondents identified the “most important problem” as President Clinton.)

Most Americans support a greater role for state and local governments in environmental policy, and believe that state and local governments are better suited to addressing most environmental concerns. Consider that:

  • 65 percent of those surveyed believe that state or local government would do better at environmental protection than the federal government.

  • 65 percent of those surveyed believe that state or local government should have primary responsibility for protecting water quality in rivers, lakes and streams.

  • 77 percent of those surveyed believe that state or local government should have primary responsibility for maintaining and improving drinking water quality.

  • 72 percent of those surveyed believe that state and local governments should determine what air pollution control measures are used.

  • Only 28 percent of those surveyed support the imposition of unfunded mandates on state and local governments to ensure environmental protection.

Most Americans support private property rights and prefer environmental policies that do not infringe upon the rights of landowners. This conclusion is supported by the following findings:

  • 64 percent of those surveyed support compensating landowners when environmental regulations prevent them from using their property.

  • 51 percent of those surveyed believe that environmental protection and the protection of private property are compatible.

  • 49 percent of those surveyed (a plurality) support a non-regulatory, incentive-based approach to endangered species conservation.

  • 45 percent of those surveyed (a plurality) support a non-regulatory, incentive-based approach to wetlands conservation.

Americans support the use of taxpayer funds to promote conservation, but oppose expenditures that seem to benefit special interests. Of all the generalizations, this one may be the shakiest (and the least in line with free market environmentalism). Nonetheless, this conclusion is suggested by findings like:

  • Those surveyed narrowly support government funding of “environmental organizations,” 45 to 41 percent, but oppose government funding of “groups that lobby Congress on environmental issues,” 64 to 25 percent.

  • 48 percent of those surveyed believe that a program to conserve wetlands is an excellent or good use of taxpayer dollars; only 17 percent believe such a program is a poor or wasteful use of taxpayer dollars.

  • 69 percent of those surveyed oppose U.S. government support of international family planning programs.

Most Americans support common-sense reforms of regulatory policy. Or at least they seem to support what those of us at CEI regard as common sense. That none of these proposals have been enacted (in conjunction with the opposition that all of them receive) tells us that there are plenty of folks out there who do not share our sensible views. Nonetheless, the survey did turn up the following results.

  • 68 percent of those surveyed support creating a “regulatory budget” to set limits on the cost of new regulations.

  • 75 percent of those surveyed support a policy to end “regulation without representation” by requiring Congress to approve newly written federal regulations before they are enacted.

  • 67 percent of those surveyed support a “first, do no harm” environmental policy that ensures that federal programs are not the cause of environmental problems before imposing additional requirements or regulations on the private sector.

To even the skeptical observer, this new survey clearly demonstrates that Americans do not accept the policy prescriptions put forward by Washington's environmental lobby. Indeed, if rated by American opinion, rather than the League of Conservation Voters, few of Congress' environmental reformers would be classified in the “Dirty Dozen.”

Most Americans support environmental protection and significant reform of existing environmental laws. For most Americans, devolution, regulatory reform, and property rights are consistent with environmental protection. For most Americans, there is nothing anti-environment about alternative approaches to environmental policy.

The challenge to those who wish to advance reform is to articulate a vision for the future of environmental policy that marries the public's concern for environmental protection with the preference for limited government policies. The American people seem to have discovered something that most policy makers in Washington have not: Extensive federal bureaucracies are not necessary to advance environmental protection, and there is nothing anti-environment about pursuing environmental reform.

–Jonathan H. AdlerContact Jonathan Adler at [email protected]