Look beyond 'environment' in gauging public opinion, says Nelson Institute director

March 27, 2015

New poll results released this week suggest Americans are less worried about the environment than they were in 2014, with public concern at the low end of what Gallup has measured over the past 25 years.

The annual Gallup environment survey gauged public opinion on six areas of environmental concern, including climate change and deforestation. But Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, says such polls tend to generalize environmental issues, making them seem distant from people’s everyday concerns.

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

Robbins says people are more concerned about the economy, food, recreation, health and safety – without necessarily recognizing that these matters directly connect to environmental conditions.

“The environment is translated through lenses far more urgent in people's day-to-day, immediate lives,” he says.

“The first thing you have to be willing to give up as someone who teaches the environment, researches the environment or loves the environment is the word environment,” he contends.

“Environment doesn't mean anything; it's the context within which everything happens – that's not very useful. People shouldn't be concerned about the environment; they've got gas prices to worry about, groceries, child care, health care," he continues. "And yet, all those problems were environmental problems before they were economic problems and, in that sense, everybody actually is worrying about the environment.”

The Gallup survey revealed higher levels of public concern about more proximate and local threats, such as pollution of air, drinking water and rivers, lakes and reservoirs, than longer-term threats like global warming, the loss of rain forests, and plant and animal extinction.

Robbins, who studies human interactions with nature and the politics of natural resource management, has emphasized these points since he began his tenure as Nelson Institute director in 2012.

“The environment
is translated through
lenses far more urgent
in people's day-to-day,
immediate lives.”

“People think of global climate change as something far away,” Robbins says. “But people are worried about what their agricultural returns are from year to year; about their water; about the scarcity of things in their household. Those are all linked to the climate.”

In studying and communicating about the environment, Robbins suggests that researchers must share specific, direct impacts on people’s lives, and be aware of the public’s concerns.

“Environmentalism, when it's most effective, addresses people's anxieties,” he says. “Telling people what they should be worried about is a nonstarter. Asking people what they're worried about and then thinking about how environmental science and environmental studies connect to those anxieties – that's a much smarter thing to do.”