When times get tough, the tough stop sorting their recycling. Or rather, they stop asking their elected officials to yell at them about sorting their recycling.
From January 2008 to January 2009, the percentage of people who called environmental protection a "top priority" dropped 15 percentage points, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. The folks at Pew call this drop "steep, but not unprecedented." Indeed, pretty much every time Americans get distracted by a big-ticket political priority, environmentalism gets the shaft.
At the beginning of 2001, 63 percent of Americans rated the environment as a top priority. By the end of the year, with the attacks of September 11 intervening, that figure dropped to 44 percent. As the Bush administration whimpered and banged to a close, people got pumped on green again. But the current economic crisis has driven that figure back down: Only 41 percent of Americans say that President Barack Obama and Congress should make protecting the environment a top priority.
You might think that figure still sounds plenty high. After all, if more than 40 percent of Americans think something should be a top priority for the president, our democratically-elected P.O.T.U.S. had better get cracking, right?
Wrong. Americans are mind-blowingly bad at prioritizing—especially in polls that ask about priorities but allow the respondent to list as many "top priorities" as he likes. The Pew poll [PDF] inquired about 20 different issue areas, ranging from "dealing with the problems of the poor," to "strengthening the military," to "reducing the budget deficit." For virtually every issue, the combined total of people who chose "top priority" or the second-highest option—"important"—approached 95 percent. Just take a minute to think about that: In January, a bunch of Pew pollsters asked a solid sample of 1,503 people about what their elected officials should select as top priorities, and those people essentially responded by saying, "Gee, it all sounds really, really important to us."
There are a few notable exceptions. People are not quite so pumped on "reducing the influence of lobbyists," "dealing with the moral breakdown in the country," "global trade," and "dealing with the issue of illegal immigration." But even for the least popular choice, global warming, 67 percent of people still said they thought it was either a top priority or important.
Those results put other figures in perspective, too. In 2009, 82 percent listed "improving the job situation" as a top priority they would like to see tackled by Obama and Congress. Fair enough, right? Unemployment is up, these are uncertain times. The "job situation," whatever that is, could probably be better. But then there's this: Back in January 2001, after more than a year of super low 4 percent unemployment, 60 percent of Americans still wanted the president to make "improving the job situation" a priority. And in both cases, nearly everyone who didn't say that improving the job situation was a top priority said it was "important." In 2009, only 1 percent said it was "not too important" and 1 percent said the administration should do nothing.
There are some pairings that seem to move together. For instance, a slight preference for increased defense spending and military preparedness seems to accompany a shift to priorities that reflect economic insecurity. Apparently a sense of economic insecurity and the desire to be heavily armed go together, and not just for guys in Detroit.
The Pew survey asks about global warming as a separate issue from the "protecting the environment" category. This year, global warming came in dead last in the list of priorities, with only 30 percent saying that it should be a "top priority" for the Obama administration. This matches up nicely with the Copenhagen Consensus, an experiment conducted by Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. He got a bunch of economists together and asked them to give priority rankings to various projects designed to improve global welfare. Global warming came in last on that list as well. For once, the American people and a group of economists are on the same wavelength!
In summary: When practically every issue is a top priority, and almost everything else is important, Americans still agree that we probably shouldn't do too much about global warming, and when something big and bad happens, Americans agree that protecting the environment should be the first thing to go.
Perhaps this will be enough to make environmentalists wary of claiming any popular mandate via poll results. And for those of you who think that the results of polls do matter, I hope you aren't still sorting your bottles from your cans. Haven't you heard? It doesn't matter this year. It's not a top priority.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.