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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Polling the People

Air Date: Week of

Daniel Esty (Courtesy of Yale University)

A new survey shows that 63 percent of Americans are as concerned about climate change as they are about terrorism. Host Steve Curwood talks with Professor Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which commissioned the survey.


CURWOOD: Whoa there Bossy! There’s a new poll out that puts some hard data behind what many people have sensed for some time now—that the U.S. is in the midst of a surge of concern about the environment. The nationwide poll of a thousand adults was conducted for the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Professor Daniel Esty is the center’s director, and he joins me now. Professor Esty, welcome to Living on Earth.

ESTY: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you.

CURWOOD: So, what’s the big headline here?

ESTY: The big headline is that the American public cares a lot about climate change. And it seems the folks in Washington haven’t gotten that story yet. But across the board in every demographic group, in every section of the country: East, West, North and South, ah rich and poor, Democrat and Republican we see people care about action on climate change.

Host Steve Curwood and Professor Esty in the Living on Earth studios.(Courtesy of Ashley Ahearn)

CURWOOD: So going down some of the specific questions you got answered. Ah. here’s one: you asked people if they thought that the country was they were in as much danger from environmental hazards such as air pollution and global warming as it is from terrorists. And the answer was?

ESTY: An overwhelming yes. 63 percent agreed with the statement that the country’s in as much danger from environmental threats, particularly global warming, as it is from terrorism. And obviously they are weighing things that are very hard to compare. But to have 63 percent of people say this is as big a deal as the environment issues as terrorism is striking. And I think it does reflect a sea change in attitudes that’s really emerged in the last year.

We now have people saying that they really do fear this and they care a lot about getting action taken. So you’ve got terrorism obviously as a front burner issue and climate change has emerged right behind it.

CURWOOD: Now, What about gender, how do women respond to climate change as opposed to men?

ESTY: Fascinating issue. We see across the board, on all environmental issues but especially this one in particular, that there’s quite a sharp gender break. And 10 to 15 percent more women want action on every issue including this one than men. We’ve seen it in our prior polls and we see it very strongly here. And maybe it’s a focus on the future. Ah maybe it’s a concern about their children, and their children’s children, and the world they’ll have to live in. It very much is a question here about getting people to think not about today and tomorrow or next year but about where they’re going over the course of their lives.

CURWOOD: How much faith do people put in the President when it comes to stewardship of the environment or action on climate change?

ESTY: Well, the President’s numbers have plummeted to a strikingly low rate. You’ve got only at this point 15 percent of the public that say they have a lot of trust in President Bush on environment. And that is way down from our prior polling and really striking. And frankly the whole Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have seen their numbers plunge and I think it does reflect a frustration with what’s going on in Washington. There obviously is a partisan breakdown. And the public wants action and they’re not getting it.

Daniel Esty (Courtesy of Yale University)

CURWOOD: How much faith are Americans putting into the news media’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change?

ESTY: Well this is another striking piece of development. There’s really been a plummeting degree of confidence in the media, presenting a fair and accurate picture of this issue set. In terms of confidence in the nightly news only 50 percent, down from 69 percent two years ago have confidence that the major outlets will tell us the story straight.

CURWOOD: What happened?

ESTY: Well, I think there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the way the media has presented this issue. There’s been a real effort in the media to try and present it as a complicated story with two sides. And they present opponents of climate change as often as they present those that say it’s an issue. I think the public has now concluded that there’s a real problem here. Whether Al Gore has it all right they don’t care, but the basic contours of the issue they now believe are real and deserve action. And I think they’re tired of media presentations that act as though there’s a real debate going on.

CURWOOD: Were you concerned by any of these results. Did anything here kind of upset you when you saw it?

ESTY: Well I think this poll does show that the American public does care about environment issues. And there’s been a long period of time when the public was thought to be not very focused on environment, not very concerned and I think this suggests that’s wrong. I do think the lack of confidence in the political leadership in this country is worrisome. I do believe that while the business community has an important role to play and each of us as individuals has to step up and do our part it’s extremely hard to organize this kind of a society wide effort without real political leadership. So I remain very concerned about the low rankings of the President and frankly the low rankings of the Congress. If we don’t have good leadership in Washington it’s going to be very tough to make the kind of progress at the speed we need on a very tough issue.

CURWOOD: Daniel Esty is director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Thank you so much sir.

ESTY: It’s a pleasure to have been with you.

MUSIC: Jenny Wilson “Let My Shoes Lead Me Forward’ from ‘Love & Youth’ (Rabid Records – 2006)]



To read the key findings of "The 2007 Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy Survey on American Attitudes on the Environment" click here.

And the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Survey

Daniel Esty's Bio


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