April 22, 2016

For Earth Day, here’s how Americans view environmental issues

The 1970s were an important era for American environmentalism. Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and the nation’s first Earth Day – created by Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin – was held on April 22, 1970.

Forty-six years later, Earth Day has expanded across the globe, with dozens of countries holding events ranging from launching new recycling programs to rallies addressing climate change.

Here are five findings related to the public’s views about the environment:

1Should the country do whatever it takes to protect the environment? Most Americans say yes, but party divisions grow widerOverall, Americans support protecting the environment, but there are deep partisan divides on the issue. Fully 74% of U.S. adults said the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 23% who say “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment,” according to newly released data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March.

Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party have consistently been more likely than Republican and Republican leaners to agree that the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment, but Republican support has decreased since 2004 and the gap between the two groups has widened to 38 percentage points today. 

2Many Americans want elected officials to address environmental matters, but the public gives other issues – like the economy or terrorism – greater priority. Nearly half of Americans (47%) ranked the environment as a top policy issue that President Obama and Congress should be tackling this year, according to a survey conducted in January. By contrast, strengthening the economy (75%) and defending the country from future terrorist attacks (75%) were at the top of the public’s priority list.

3Republicans divided on how much of a role government should play in protecting the environmentViews about how involved the government should be in protecting the environment vary by political party and ideology. While 89% of Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party say the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, only 58% of Republicans and Republican leaners see a major role for the government in this area. Republicans themselves are divided: 74% of moderate and liberal Republicans support government playing a major role in protecting the environment, compared with 48% of conservative Republicans.

4Roughly four-in-ten Americans identify as environmentalists. A 2014 survey found that 39% of U.S. adults say the term “environmentalist” described them very well, while 10% said that description was totally wrong. Democrats and those who lean Democratic were about twice as likely as Republicans and those who lean to the GOP to say “environmentalist” describes them well (50% vs. 26%). Millennials were also somewhat less likely than those in older generations to view themselves as environmentalists – 32% did so versus at least four-in ten among other generations.

5The vast majority of Americans say they recycle. Data from a 2014 survey show that close to half (46%) of Americans say they recycle or reduce waste to protect the environment whenever possible, while 30% say they do so most of the time and 19% report doing so occasionally. Just 4% of the public say they never recycle or reduce waste to protect the environment. Older Americans are modestly more inclined than their younger counterparts to say they recycle and reduce waste whenever possible.

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Energy and Environment, Federal Government, Political Issue Priorities, U.S. Political Parties

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. sinnathamby sundaralingam11 months ago

    After many years of wrangling UN and other international agencies have now fully agreed, first time global warming is threatening the future of earth environment leading to a dangerious position. What ever some influential groups and parties say against these international environmental decission. Future generation should be educated and warned against any action inducing against environmental standerds. Humans have many times voluntarily changed their way of living in the past so that the mother earth is not harmed. Now by rule everybody will be requested to obey these certain listlations.

    1. Anonymous11 months ago

      The last I checked, credentialled climate scientists still disagree on the degree of human-caused warming. However, the environment activists, politicians, and media are winning the public policy fight. As an environmentalist, I worry about the harm that may result from putting all our eggs in one basket.

  2. Christopher Alexander11 months ago

    I am curious if you had any insights into the drop in Millennials who identify themselves as environmentalists. Are they less likely to support environmental causes OR is it that things previous generations considered “environmentalist” like recycling or reducing your carbon footprint are just standard parts of their generational worldview?

  3. Anonymous11 months ago

    Monica, as I am reading this article I notice that the term “government” is lumped together. On Number 3, it says that “89% of Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party say the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, only 58% of Republicans and Republican leaners see a major role for the government in this area.” Does this mean the federal government explicitly? What about State and local government? This is a misleading question for many Republicans who do believe the environment should be protected- but that the federal government’s role in that protection might be too far removed from the State. The results might be much different if the questions distinguish the term “government.”

    1. Monica Anderson11 months ago


      Thank you for your question. This survey specifically asks about the federal government. You can find the exact question wording here (Q.71): people-press.org/files/2015/11/1…