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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Clean Water Leads Environmental Priorities

In the wake of Earth Day, this year’s annual barrage of media coverage about environmental concerns focuses on climate change and energy policy reforms, encouraged by the White House, other political leaders and environmental activists. Addressing climate change and energy policy may well be the most critical priorities facing America and the world. But neither climate change or energy policy are the top environmental concern of Americans, according to recent polling data.

In “Water Pollution Remains Top Environmental Concern in U.S.” Megan Brenan writes at Gallup:

Of six environmental problems facing the U.S., Americans remain most worried about those that affect water quality. Majorities express “a great deal” of worry about the pollution of both drinking water (56%) and rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53%).

Fewer, though still substantial minorities ranging between 40% and 45%, express a great deal of concern about the loss of tropical rain forests, global warming or climate change, air pollution, and the extinction of plant and animal species. Although less than half of Americans register the highest level of worry about these four issues, broad majorities say they worry at least “a fair amount” about each.

“Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 1-15, 2021, with a random sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.” With respect to partisan differences:

Majorities of Democrats, ranging from 51% to 69%, say they are worried a great deal about all six of the environmental threats, while no more than 40% of Republicans say the same. The party groups diverge the most in their concern about global warming, with 68% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans highly concerned.

Additionally, several other partisan views stand out:

  • The pollution of drinking water is tied for the top worry among both Democrats and Republicans.
  • Democrats worry as much about global warming/climate change as about polluted drinking water.
  • Worry about the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs ties with pollution of drinking water as the top concern for Republicans.

There have been persistent and sizable gaps in degrees of worry expressed by partisans over the past two decades. Since 2001, on average, the percentage of Democrats highly concerned about each of the six environmental threats has been more than 20 percentage points higher than that of Republicans.

Concerns about safe water are well-founded. At consumerreports.org, Emily Holden, Caty Enders, Niko Kommenda, and Vivian Ho, reporters for the Guardian, note that “America’s worst public water systems—those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years—serve more than 25 million Americans, the research shows….Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the U.S. and county-level demographic data.” in 2019, 1,650 of Florida’s public water systems violated the EPA’s water quality standards, while 3,358 of Texas’s public water systems violated the EPA’s water quality standards in the same year, as did 4,010 of Pennsylvania’s public water systems.

Without diminishing the importance of air pollution, energy policy and climate change, Democrats would be wise to make sure that a hefty share of infrastructure projects be directed to cleaning up water pollution and upgrading water facilities where it is most needed — especially in the swing districts and states.

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