A new survey of environmental attitudes in Pittsburgh holds some surprises. And while many residents are doing less to protect the environment than they think, survey results suggest government has a mandate to do more.
The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Survey (posted at www.pittsburghtoday.org) was conducted by nonprofit PittsburghTODAY and the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research, with phone interviews of more than 800 residents of the seven-county area.
Respondents gave themselves high green marks: 60 percent of survey respondents believe they are doing an excellent or good job protecting the environment. PittsburghTODAY director Douglas Heuck finds that encouraging. "It did seem that people were more aware of environmental issues generally and practiced conservation more than I would have expected," says Heuck, whose foundation-funded group benchmarks Pittsburgh against other regions.
But how good are we at actually protecting the environment? It's true that we are using less of some resources. For instance, 74 percent of survey respondents said they conserve water with strategies like taking shorter showers — and indeed, in recent years, average monthly water usage by Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority residential customers has dropped from 5,000 gallons to under 4,500 gallons, says PWSA spokesperson Melissa Rubin.
Yet asked how much water they use, respondents came up dry: While nearly 80 percent estimated their household uses 50 or fewer gallons a day, according to PWSA figures, the true average is nearly three times that. The info gap recalls the survey's results on air quality: Almost two-thirds of respondents said that air quality here is either a minor problem or no problem. Yet according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the region's air still too frequently harbors dangerous levels of smog, and a big soot problem remains.
On energy usage, most respondents said they turn down thermostats and air-conditioners overnight or when they're away. But actual usage figures are a mixed bag. The average Equitable Gas customer, for instance, uses 90 million cubic feet of natural gas per month. That's down 30 percent from 1997, says Equitable spokesman Scott Waitlevertch, with some of the decline due to conservation measures and some to replacing ancient boilers. But the average Duquesne Light customer's usage of 600-plus kilowatts a month hasn't changed in years.
Given that combating climate change means giving up fossil fuels completely, clearly there's much room for improvement beyond individual effort. And people seem to know it: Although 86 percent of respondents "agree that individual citizens should be responsible" for helping solve environmental problems, "nearly 79 percent believe there is little or nothing they can do" in that cause
Heuck believes this paradox reflects the difference between things people can control — like their thermostats — and things they consider beyond their reach, like global warming.
That's where government comes in. Nearly 80 percent of respondents agreed "that government should be responsible for solving Pennsylvania's environmental problems," and two-thirds agreed that "state government oversight of the environment should increase."
Politicians often say fighting climate change would hurt the economy. But 73 percent of those surveyed favor "mandatory controls to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions." More surprisingly, only 28 percent said that environmental regulations weaken the economy — and 57 percent said they'd protect the environment even if it did slow growth.
"There may be more people interested in responsible government oversight of the environment than we're sometimes led to believe," says Heuck.
Erika Staaf, of statewide group Penn Environment, was pleasantly surprised by the 57 percent of respondents who said they'd prioritize environmental protection over energy production, even if it limited supplies of oil, gas or coal. Meanwhile, although half of those surveyed supported gas drilling, 95 percent of respondents agreed that gas drillers should be required to disclose all the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing. "There's a proposal in Congress right now that would do that," Staaf notes, referring to the FRAC Act. "It's amazing to me that we can't get that passed."
Change requires political action. If people want less pollution, Staaf says, "They need to be sending a strong message to their leaders at any level that, yeah, it's OK to clamp down on this."