Americans have always had a manic-depressive relationship with the environment. From the hoopla that surrounded the creation of Earth Day in 1970 to today, we’re always able to whip up a respectable frenzy about pollution, endangered species, and habitat loss. And it never lasts very long.

I wrote earlier this month about a Gallup poll reporting that more Americans than ever feel that climate change predictions are exaggerated. A solid majority still feel that it’s a major issue, but 41% of Gallup’s poll respondents say the issue’s overblown. That’s hardly reason for climate deniers to claim victory and, as Gallup points out, the environment tends to lose some of its share of public attention after a major event, whether it’s the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the destruction of the economy.

I’m far more troubled about a number that suggests that Americans’ zeal for protecting the environment is on the wane: For the first time in a quarter century of Gallup polling, more Americans now say they’re unwilling to sacrifice economic gains to protect the environment. It’s only a slight majority -- 51%. But compare that to the same question, asked by Gallup during a boom period in environmental interest in 1991: Only 19% of Americans said they would sacrifice the environment for economic growth.

Dig deeper into the numbers and you’ll see just how much a struggling economy can play with the green side of our brains. When posed as an energy vs. economy question, Americans are just about even on whether they’d sacrifice environmental protection to get at domestic energy sources, including coal, oil, and natural gas. The environment had a twelve-point lead when that question was asked in 2001.

Gallup also found record-high support for nuclear power as an electricity source -- 59%. The Gallup question did not fully explore the nuclear question. The industry’s effort to sell itself as a global warming antidote was not a part of Gallup’s inquiry.

The partisan differences on energy and environment are also stronger than ever. 71% of Republicans, and 52% of Democrats, approved of nuclear power. On the energy vs. environment question, 66% of Republicans opted for energy, but only 29% of Democrats did. On whether “global warming is exaggerated,” 66% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats said it is. On the environment vs. economy question, 64% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats were willing to endure some environmental sacrifice for the economy.

The data broke down on age lines, too. Increases in global warming skepticism were concentrated in the 30+ crowd; there was no increase in the 18-29 age group -- the very group that would have the most at stake as the world warms over the 21st century.

Global warming also evoked the least concern among the eight issues tested by Gallup. Clean drinking water drew the highest levels of concern, followed by air pollution, and habitat and species loss. Finally, Gallup contends that environmental concern isn’t really a Guy Thing: Support for nukes ran 71% among male respondents, but only 47% for women.

This is hardly the death of environmental values, but there isn’t any good news in here to be found for those who are passionate about protecting the environment. There may be some negative political opportunities for green-bashing, though.

Michael Steele, who started his reign as Republican National Committee chairman by calling Rush Limbaugh’s show “incendiary” and “ugly”, has now had his dittohead card punched. A few weeks ago, Steele actually declared the earth to be cooling. Steele has now presumably passed the Limbaugh peer review process.

America already stands alone in the world in how its environmental perception is cast as a political litmus test: “Conservative” and “Conservationist” are antonyms here like nowhere else. Look for this to be pressed in congress, and particularly in the media. As a tipping point nears for dealing with our climate, the U.S. may still be tipping the wrong way. Environmentalists who have rejoiced the arrival of a president who “gets it” need to pay very close attention to who doesn’t get it at all.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)