Michael Greenberg, a professor and associate dean at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, also found that with the exception of wanting Washington to focus on job creation, the public is less interested in a range of domestic priorities, including crime prevention and health care management.
Greenberg's analysis of national polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press was published recently in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. The findings represent a notice that there must be aggressive attempts to explain to the public, media and elected representatives that environmental protection and management are critically important to public health, job creation and economic development, he said.
He stressed the importance of such efforts because the former champions of the policy - non-Hispanic white, middle-class, college-educated and suburban residents - are now the least supportive, according to the data.
"Public perception is important at a time when every domestic program is competing for resources with antiterrorism, military needs and a large budget deficit," Greenberg said.
Pew's annual survey asks U.S. residents to rank - from "top priority" to "should not be done" - a set of domestic priorities for the executive and congressional branches. Besides protecting the environment, the priorities are crime reduction, job creation, managed health care, national debt pay-down, federal income tax reduction for the middle class and campaign finance reform.
From 1999 to 2004, 3,688 respondents took part in the random, 20-question telephone surveys. In January 2001, 63 percent of respondents wanted the environment to be a top priority. In succeeding years, support fell to an average of 45 percent. Greenberg offered three possible explanations for the decline:
Less public interest in the environment due to competing public concerns, notably the war on terrorism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic slowdown.
A public distrust of the federal government and the public's desire to increase responsibilities of state and local governments, and nonprofits.
The public's belief that progress already has been made or that state and local governments are better equipped to continue efforts.
The decline for protecting the environment as a top priority before and after 2001 (15 percent) was smaller than the declines for reducing crime (23 percent) and reducing federal income tax for the middle class (20 percent), and comparable to regulating managed health care plans (13 percent). Job creation was the only category to gain support. Prior to 2001, 50 percent of respondents, on average, considered job creation a top priority. After 2001, the average rose to 65 percent.
Greenberg tends toward the first explanation - competing public concerns - noting that before 2001, an average 93 percent of respondents considered environmental protection a "top" or an "important" priority and that after, 88 percent felt the same. "A little over three decades ago, most U.S. residents did not have environmental protection on their policy radar screens," he said.
The changing faces of the environmental protection movement's top advocates - now less formally educated, Democrats and independents, Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks, and atheists - could have ramifications, however, according to Greenberg. He observed that since members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among others, have become spokespersons for the environmental justice movement, it is not surprising that support has increased among non-Hispanic blacks.
"The traditional non-Hispanic white, college-educated suburban population's attachment to environmental protection has shrunk," Greenberg said. "If this decline continues, it will be difficult to politically support environmental planning and management budgets and policies."