Environmental awareness sways policy support for coastal ecosystems

Everyone could benefit from being aware of toxic pollution in their environment, even before a coal-cleaning company leaks 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into your city’s drinking water. So, here’s a test of your awareness: Did the 1.8 million tons of U.S. pollution released into our air, water, and soil in 2012 make it more or less dirty than 2011?

If you’re flipping a coin to answer, you probably have the same odds as most Americans. Imprecise knowledge about the relative magnitude of environmental problems may not be unusual, but public misconception could impede corrective policies.

U.S. water pollution map

To better understand how awareness shapes public policy in the Pacific Northwest, a team of social scientists and marine biologists analyzed phone call responses from 1,980 randomly selected Washington residents of six Puget Sound counties. The extensive coastal habitat in the Sound has lost fish and wildlife habitat to development, received toxic waste from industry and cities, and like most other coastlines, it is at risk from sea level rise. The 3.7 million people who live in the region depend on a functional coastal ecosystem for commerce and personal health, yet many may know too little to protect it.

When asked for a self-assessment, 87 percent of participants in the survey said they knew at least a moderate amount about regional environmental issues, which was an overestimation. Only half believed that Chinook salmon populations were currently at 10 percent of their historic abundance, the expert consensus. Only 29 percent thought coastal habitat degradation was ubiquitous throughout the sound and not just around larger cities. At 56 percent, their knowledge came closest to expert opinion on the status of toxic pollutants in their area.

Regardless of actual knowledge, people’s perception of environmental issues influenced their support for different policies. Those who thought toxic pollutants were a problem were more likely to support enforcement of regulations on industry and tax credits rewarding businesses for adopting cleaner practices. Believers of habitat loss were more likely to support shipping restrictions to protect marine mammals.

Demographics also factored into attitudes towards policies. Educational background, age, and gender were all considered, but political affiliation correlated the most with a person’s policy support. Republicans were less likely to support regulation enforcement, restoration spending, and shipping restrictions. Rather than imply Republicans care less about their health and the environment, the authors suggested the opposition was directed towards the administration enacting policy, not the intended benefits. Removing political associations from environmental protection actions through community partnerships and citizen initiatives may be more effective than placing all the responsibility on local government.

And to answer the initial question, the toxic pollutants released in 2012 were down by 12 percent from 2011. Still, an amount of pollution equivalent to the weight of 45,375 fully loaded eighteen wheelers might be worthy of taking note before your next vote. Miles Becker | 10 February 2014

Sources:  Safford et al. 2014. Environmental Awareness and Public Support for Protecting and Restoring Puget Sound. Environmental Management    doi: 10.1007/s00267-014-0236-8

Photo © Miles Ritter

Figure ©  Environment America Research and Policy Center