Eight in 10 Americans say they support pro-environmental policies, but a new national survey by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University finds their support often stops short of the ballot box.

The survey of 800 registered voters found that 79 percent favored “stronger national standards to protect our land, air and water,” with 40 percent strongly supporting it. But only 22 percent said environmental concerns have played a major role in determining whom they voted for in recent federal, state or local elections.

Even among self-described environmentalists, only 39 percent could recall an election where a candidate’s environmental stance was among the two or three most important reasons why they voted for or against him.

“There is a clear disconnect here,” says William Reilly, former Environmental Protection Agency head and chair of the advisory board of the Nicholas Institute. “Seventy-four percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats say they support stronger environmental standards. Yet, when it comes time to vote, they rank the environment low on their list of priorities.”

The pollsters identified five reasons for the discrepancy between voters’ support of the environment in general, and their inconsistent support of it at the ballot box:

• Misperceptions: A majority of voters, 57 percent, believe that “a lot” or “some” progress already has been made and that environmental problems are not as bad as they used to be. Only 30 percent described themselves as “angry” about lack of action.
• Concerns about economic trade-offs: Eighty-seven percent of voters believe it is “at least somewhat likely” that stronger national environmental standards will result in higher taxes. Fifty-six percent fear higher standards will hurt the economy and cause some people to lose their jobs.
• Lack of immediacy: In focus groups, voters told pollsters they perceive the environment as a long-term problem that can’t compare in urgency to immediate concerns such as jobs, health care or taxes.
• Breadth of issues: The environment encompasses a broad range of issues, from global warming and sustainable agriculture to water quality and urban sprawl. Few voters care about them all.
• Personal factors: Voters’ perceptions and priorities change in response to changing circumstances and personal responsibilities. “Voters can have on the equivalent of five different pairs of glasses when they judge a policy proposal,” pollster Peter Hart said.

The issue of trust—or lack of it—appeared to play a role in many voters’ ambivalent attitudes toward environmental problems. Only 19 percent said there are “a lot” of trustworthy sources of information on environmental issues, while another 40 percent said there are “likely some trustworthy sources.”

Voters generally viewed universities and research institutes as the most credible sources of information and the least likely to have hidden agendas or special interests.