Americans' Top Environmental Concern May Surprise You

An algae bloom on Lake Erie. Yum.
An algae bloom on Lake Erie. Yum.
Photo: AP

When it comes to worrying about the environment, it’s hard to pick just one issue. On the one hand, you have the sixth mass extinction underway. On the other, there’s climate change fueling a whole raft of problems. Oh, and don’t forget toxic air pollution. So much horrific chaos to choose from!


But for the average American, the biggest environmental concern is a little closer to home. According to Gallup polling released this week, Americans are most concerned about water pollution and access to clean drinking water. The poll also shows that there continues to be a surge in concern over climate change across the country, particularly in more liberal regions of the U.S.

The Gallup poll results aggregate data from 2017-19 that’s broken down into four broad regions of the U.S.: Northeast, West, South, and Midwest. The group asked Americans for their thoughts on six environmental issues, including global warming, tropical deforestation, air pollution, species extinction, pollution of freshwater, and drinking water pollution. The results show that there are some regional differences, but there is also high level, consistent concern across regions about water. More than 80 percent of each region’s respondents rated freshwater and drinking water pollution as something they worry a “great deal” or “fair amount” about.

Frankly, it’s easy to understand why. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed the travesty of Flint, noxious algae blooms from Florida to the Great Lakes, coal ash concerns following Hurricane Florence, and rising concerns about PFAS contamination. Hell, just this spring, the Midwest floods have carted tons of nitrogen and potentially other chemicals into rivers, which will eventually wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. The bottom line is this: up to 45 million Americans are drinking water that’s not up to federal government-set standards. And the Trump administration has done little to address these issues, and in some cases, made them worse even if Trump himself keeps repeating the phrase “crystal clean water.”

Water pollution is also intimately tied with climate change, air pollution, and mass extinction even if Americans don’t necessarily view it that way. Rising temperatures, for example, are helping fuel more toxic algae blooms, which in turn can lead to mass fish die offs. It’s all connected, y’all.

Despite these connections and climate change being a root cause of much of the environmental breakdown, Americans’ worry about it isn’t nearly as high as the water woes. There are clear geographically discrepancies that pop up that largely follow American’s political leanings. Seventy-two percent of respondents in the generally liberal Northeast were worried about global warming, while just 61 percent of respondents from the more conservative South were. To be sure, 61 percent is still a lot of global warming worriers, but the 11 percent difference is the biggest gap of all the six environmental concerns Gallup asked about.

Being worried and doing something about it are of course two different things. General polling has shown Americans are down to address climate change, but aren’t so keen to pay for it. But a generational shift may be afoot.


Another new poll from Harvard released this week shows that 50 percent of young voters view climate change as a “crisis and demands urgent action.” What’s more, 53 percent believe the government should do something to address it even at the expense of economic growth. Three-quarters of them also disapprove of how the Trump administration has handled climate change.

All of which is to say, that we could see a realignment in both concerns and actions with the 2020 election looming on the horizon.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.



53 percent believe the government should do something to address [climate change] even at the expense of economic growth

It’s really hard to do one without the other. It’s by getting richer, overall, that societies have the resources to divert to “nice to haves” like lowering pollution, especially pollution that doesn’t seem like pollution.

If you worry about climate change and all you can offer is a worse standard of living to fix a problem that’s largely invisible and whose worst effects lie in the future, you’ll get lots of feel-good polling data followed up by a whole lot of nothing. Too many environmentalists use climate change as a way to push an anti-capitalist agenda that’s largely based on aesthetics (as they certainly aren’t walking the walk).

We need win-win scenarios and to sell them that way. People need to know that the solar and wind installation industries employ vastly more people than coal mines do - better, safer, higher-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced overseas. Cleaner water, less lead, etc. Pushing for even more efficient solar panels (hello, perovskites) that can lower the price of electricity.

If it’s a non-stop litany of how we need to give up things that the lecturers never seem to give up themselves, we’ll be stuck on this OK-ish but far too slow path.