The 10 Things Americans Care More About Than the Environment

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 22 2013 4:55 PM

The 10 Things Americans Care More About Than the Environment

Earth Day 2013
An Indian child paints during an awareness event organized by the Aakalpan Artist Society commemorating Earth Day in Allahabad.

Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists like to think that the public is in their corner—that it’s only the pernicious influence of Big Oil and Big Coal that keeps Congress from passing a carbon tax or Obama from nixing the Keystone Pipeline. They’re right that most voters care about the planet, insofar as they’d prefer not to see it trashed, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. And a lot of those other things rate much higher on Americans’ priority list.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Today Pew Research is highlighting a recent poll that shows that 52 percent of Americans believe protecting the environment should be “a top priority for the president and Congress in 2013.” That’s up 11 percentage points from 2009, though still down from a high of 57 percent in 2006 and 2007.

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Those numbers all sound pretty good until you realize that the key word there is “a,” as in, not “the.” In fact, the poll lists 18 possible priorities, ranked by the percentage of respondents who think each one should be at or near the top of the nation’s priority list. “Strengthening nation’s economy” comes in first, followed by “improving job situation” and “reducing budget deficit.” And if “growing the GDP,” “improving the nation’s financial outlook,” and “putting more Benjamins in people’s pockets” had been options in this survey, I have no doubt they would have rounded out the top six.

As it is, “protecting environment" comes in a lackluster 11th, behind “defending against terrorism,” “reducing crime,” “securing Social Security,” and “securing Medicare,” among others. Heck, Americans even care more about “helping poor and needy” than they do about the environment. When was the last time you saw a big legislative package emerge from Washington with the primary intent of helping the poor and needy? The good news for greens is that there is a second environmental priority on Pew’s list: “dealing with global warming.” The bad news is that it ranks dead last, behind “strengthening the military,” “dealing with global trade,” and “dealing with nation’s energy problem.”

What is the nation’s energy problem, exactly? Oh well. Whatever it is, it’s got to be more pressing than global warming, right?

Sigh. Happy Earth Day. Here's the full list of priorities, along with the percentage of Americans who believe each one should be "a top priority":

1.  
Strengthening nation’s economy
86%
2.  
Improving job situation   
79%
3.  
Reducing budget deficit              
72%
4.
Defending against terrorism   
71%
5.
Securing Social Security     
70%
6.
Improving education  
70%
7.
Securing Medicare 
65%
8.
Reducing health care costs      
63%
9.
Helping poor and needy 
57%
10. 
Reducing crime   
55%
11.
Protecting environment  
52%
12.
Dealing with nation’s energy problem   
45%
13.
Strengthening the military  
41%
14.
Dealing with illegal immigration 
39%
15.
Strengthening gun control laws 
37%
16.
Dealing with global trade   
31%
17.
Improving infrastructure  
30%
18.
Dealing with global warming
28%

Source: Pew Research

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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