Thursday, June 09, 2005

Interpreting Pace's Poll About Environmental Attitudes

Pace University, which has joined Quinnippiac College and Marist College in the public polling game, released a fascinating poll today of environmental attitudes in the Hudson Valley. It's fascinating because of what it says and because of the way it's been interpreted.

What it says is that residents of the Hudson Valley, one of the most beautiful areas in the world, are generally happy with their local environmental conditions and that the environment as an issue is pretty important to them.

But Pace PR people, including Hudson River activist John Cronin (the former Riverkeeper; he's now director of the Pace Academy for the Environment), have interpreted it as saying that people are complacent and don't realize how bad things are.

Here's what the pollsters say, in their narrative interpretation: Hudson Valley residents "still consider the environment to be important. More specifically, jobs and the economy (17%), taxes (16%), education and schools (14%), and affordable housing (10%) dominate the top-of-mind issue landscape while environmental issues [including overdevelopment] (8%), crime and drugs (8%), and health care issues (7%) make up the middle tier of residents' impromptu agendas. Nevertheless, two-thirds (66%) of residents think the environment is at least a 'very important' issue when prompted to consider it."

(Links to the poll itself and the press release are here.)

The pollsters go on to say that Hudson Valley residents "still consider the environment to be important" and two-thirds of those polled consider it "very important."

But Cronin and the Pace publicity people interpreted it differently. I've know Cronin since the late 1980s, and I respect him. He's very articulate and persuasive, he's a nice guy, and he's usually right. I have no doubt that he brought his influence to bear on the PR people.

Here's what the Pace press release said:

Although the modern environmental movement was born along the shores of the Hudson River, a new survey by The Pace Poll in conjunction with The Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University finds the region’s environmental consciousness submerged beneath a flood of other issues....

“A new complacency is overtaking public opinion about the Hudson River,” said John Cronin, the Hudson’s first Riverkeeper who now is Director of the Pace Academy for the Environment. “It is a disturbing trend that if left alone will prove catastrophic for the river’s future.”

There's really no evidence, of course, for the assertion that there's "a new complacency," except for what Cronin remembers of attitudes from when he was Riverkeeper, from about 1982 until 2000. No other polls have been done, to my knowledge, and it's not even clear to me that the Pace poll shows that people are complacent. What it shows is that people have a lot of concerns, and that the environment is one of them.

Here's what the pollsters say:

Perhaps the environmental movement's success has reduced environmental issues' profile. To illustrate this point, consider the many differences between the recent fight to block a proposed cement plant in the City of Hudson and the fight during the 1960s to block a proposed power plant on Storm King Mountain. Leaders of the latter fight had to contend with a legal system that did not even acknowledge their right to contest the proposed plant, and they had to build their organization even as they fought. In contrast, opponents of the cement plant could rely on a well-developed body of law as well as the resources of pre-existing environmental advocacy organizations. Given the environmental movement's enhanced strength, citizens at large may be less likely to worry about the environment because they are more likely to believe that these environmental groups can and will take care of these issues for them.

For years activists on the Hudson have been telling us that two things are happening. The Hudson is improving, so much so that it is now considered the east coast's most vibrant estuary; and the Hudson still faces threats.

Here's what the pollsters say: "Generally speaking, residents are satisfied with their local environment; a majority (55%) rates their local environment conditions either 'very good' (47%) or 'excellent' (8%)" (although only 30 percent rate the Hudson itself either fair or good).

To me, this makes perfect sense. I live in a Hudson Valley county (Westchester, although I live in the Sound's watershed); it's a beautiful place. The Hudson Highlands are beautiful. The stretch of the river along Manhattan and the Bronx is beautiful. Dutchess County and Columbia County are beautiful. Groups like Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, and Clearwater, not to mention government agencies, celebrate the Hudson Valley's beauty constantly. Why would residents not be satisfied?

The truth is, Hudson River advocates (Cronin is in the pantheon) have done an excellent job in forcing the cleanup of the river. Here's what the pollsters say:

Suprisingly, however, the Young (64%) are less likely to rate the environment an important issue than Hudsoners generally (66%). Likewise, the Young (64%) are less likely to rate the environment as an important issue than the Senior Middle Aged (85%) are. [The Young are people aged 18-24; the Senior Middle Aged are people 45-54]. Pending further research, it is impossible to identify the ultimate source of this generational discrepancy, but we can offer a tentative hypothesis: time heals all wounds, making the parents' obsession the child's curiosity. As Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the gas crisis fade from memory, environmental issues do not presently force themselves upon public consciousness as perhaps they once did. ... these younger residents did not experience the environmental movement of the 70's first-hand; for them, environmentalism may just be another historical movement, like the Temperance Movement, that has little effect on their daily lives.

And yet here's how the newspapers played the story.

The Journal News (where I worked for 17 years):

A Pace University study released today shows that despite the Hudson River region's history of environmental activism, concerns about water and air quality or waste treatment rank far down the list of issues residents of the area feel are important.

The Poughkeepsie Journal:

Protecting the environment is a low priority for Hudson Valley residents, a new poll has found.

The Pace University poll of 608 Hudson Valley residents found only 5 percent said the environment was the most important problem facing the area. Jobs and the economy, taxes, education and schools, and affordable housing all ranked higher.

The Albany Times Union, which (bizarrely) turned it into a weather story by focusing on one misconception that the poll turned up -- that people think it's unsafe to swim in the Hudson:

This week's sudden onset of summer-like heat has made the days perfect for a swim, but most people who live along the Hudson River apparently don't think it's safe to cool off in its waters.

A new poll of 608 Hudson Valley residents by a downstate think-tank found that 71 percent think swimming in the Hudson is unsafe. Only 19 percent said swimming is OK.

I wrote once a long time ago that John Cronin is something of a PR genius. He knows that if you pitch a story that says people are generally happy with their local environment (although it could always be better) and that the environment is an important issue, reporters and editors will yawn. And if you spend a lot of time and energy on a public opinion poll, a yawn is the last thing you want.


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