Treehuggers. Granola types. Stupid hippies. Make a word cloud of all the terms Americans use to describe environmentalists, and it wouldn't be pretty. But a new survey, conducted twice in the last year by the University of Michigan's Energy Institute, has found that Americans profess to care just as much about the environment as they do about energy affordability. This round, the environment even won.
Let's be honest: It sounds crazy. But as John DeCicco, University of Michigan engineer and lead author of the study, points out, most polls usually pose questions about Americans' environmental leanings as tradeoffs—or they're used to market a product to hardcore, Birkenstock-wearing believers. The University of Michigan survey is radically different in that it framed its questions in an open-ended manner.
"A lot of times when you pose a question, 'Will you pay this much more for a hybrid or greener car or efficient light bulbs?' you put it in an economic tradeoff context," DeCicco says. "You’re going to see the cost consideration trumping the environmental consideration."
Instead, DeCicco's survey, done in collaboration with the school's Institute for Social Research, asked in January how much respondents worried about three things: energy reliability, affordability of energy, and environmental impact. Across all income brackets, roughly 60% of respondents said they worried a "great deal" or "fair amount" about environmental impact, while only 53% and 30% said they worried about affordability and reliability to the same degree.
The last survey, conducted in October of 2013, yielded similar results. Then, respondents reported caring about environmental impact as much as they did energy affordability.
But maybe the reasons for reporting concern about the environment are more nuanced. Perhaps it has less to do with the environment, and more to do with worries about geopolitical stability. The BP oil spill also looms large in recent memory, and oil and gas companies have often played cartoonish villains in the narratives that resulted from the disaster. Either way, it appears that some environmental messaging has sunk into the collective consciousness.
Both sets of results were surprises for DeCicco, an energy engineer. The January results only reinforced the first set, though he and his team are waiting a full year before they make any hard conclusions.
"It looks like this concern for the environment is edging out, but based on my experience based on this sort of stuff, I wouldn’t be surprised if that difference fell back into statistical insignificance," he says.
Still, he's at least confident that Americans care a lot more about the environment than you might think. "I still think that it’s really striking," he says.