This section provides information on the public's views about the environment, specific environmental issues, energy technologies, and climate. Overall, the evidence suggests that, while general views about S&T are largely stable, Americans recently have become more concerned about a wide range of environmental issues. Some of these issues—especially climate change and energy technologies—are often the subject of public policy debate and news interest.

Overall Concern about Environmental Quality

International Comparisons

Within Europe, a 2014 Eurobarometer survey on the environment included a broad range of questions about attitudes and behavior (European Commission 2014b). As is often the case with international data, these questions are not always directly comparable to those for the United States in terms of wording and how respondents are selected for inclusion in a survey. Overall, 95% of Europeans said that protecting the environment was “very important” (53%) or “fairly important” (42%), similar to 2011 (94%). About three-quarters of respondents (77%) also indicated that they “totally agreed” (35%) or “tend[ed]” to agree that environmental issues have a direct impact on their daily life. This was also stable from 2011 when 76% agreed (see [NSB 2016] for a discussion of specific countries).

Assessment of Specific Environmental Problems

International Comparisons

The 2014 Eurobarometer on the environment asked respondents to indicate the 5 main environmental issues that they were worried about from a list of 14. Although water pollution was the issue most worried about in the United States, air pollution (56%) was the most commonly named issue in Europe. This was followed by water pollution (50%), the growing amount of waste (43%), the health effect of chemicals used in everyday products (43%), and the depletion of natural resources (36%). Climate change was not included on the list because it was the focus of a separate report earlier in 2014 (European Commission 2014).

Climate Change

International Comparisons

The most recent internationally comparable, representative data on public views about climate change continue to suggest that, on average, about 7 in 10 of those surveyed in a range of countries see climate change as serious. In this regard, Americans appear relatively less concerned about the issue than residents of most other countries. A 2015 multicountry study by the Pew Research Center found that the United States, countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as China, and countries in the Middle East had relatively low levels of concern about global change compared to residents of Europe, Africa, and Latin America (Stokes, Wike, and Carle 2015). For example, 74% of American, 75% of Chinese, and 79% of Jordanian respondents said “global climate change” was at least “somewhat” serious, while 93% of French, 87% of German, and 91% of Italian respondents gave such a response. Further, in South America, 98% of Brazilians, 98% of Chileans, and 93% of Mexicans said they saw climate change as serious. In Africa, 92% of Ugandans, 89% of Kenyans, and 84% of Nigerians said they saw climate change as serious. Related questions showed similar patterns of response, although there were typically some countries in each region (except South America) where attitudes about the seriousness of climate change were more like those held in the United States. These countries were among the least concerned within their regions and included, for example, the UK (77%), Turkey (74%), Indonesia (74%), and South Africa (73%). The countries where the smallest percentage of people said they saw climate change as serious were Pakistan (65%) and Israel (67%), although Pakistan had an unusually high number of respondents (19%) who chose not to answer the question or said they did not know if climate change was a serious problem.

Within Europe, the European Commission (2015) conducted a special Eurobarometer in 2015 on climate change that found that 91% of Europeans see climate change as a problem. Specifically, respondents were asked to use a 10-point scale, where 1 indicated “not at all a serious problem” and 10 indicated “an extremely serious problem,” and found that 69% chose a number between 7 and 10 and another 22% chose 5 or 6. The overall numbers were nearly identical to the results of surveys in 2011 and 2013, but there were still changes within countries. There was also substantial variation between countries. For example, 87% of Greeks, 81% of Italians, and 80% of Bulgarians gave an answer of 7 or higher, but only 37% of Latvians, 53% of those in the UK, and 58% of the Dutch gave such a response. Many of the largest European countries were near the European average. For example, about 69% of French, 72% of Germans, and 79% of Spaniards chose between 7 and 10. The biggest changes were in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, the responses between 7 and 10 increased 13 percentage points to 80%; in Romania, the responses rose 11 percentage points to 74%. The biggest declines were in Austria and Slovakia. Austria declined 8 percentage points to 69%, and Slovakia declined 12 percentage points to 68%.


International Comparisons

Europe’s 2015 Eurobarometer climate change survey (European Commission 2015) also included several questions about energy. Across European countries, between 97% (Cyprus) and 78% (Bulgaria) of residents said that it was “very important” or “fairly important” for national governments to “set targets to increase the amount of renewable energy used, such as wind or solar power, by 2030” (European Commission 2014a:55). The average across the 28 European countries surveyed was 91%. The five largest European economies were relatively similar, with Spain at 93%; Germany, the UK, and Italy at 91%; and France at 90%. The Eurobarometer report suggested that support for renewables was up slightly from 2013 but that there were few differences across demographic groups. However, those who saw climate change as a more serious problem were more likely to see renewable energy targets as important. Almost all EU respondents (92%) similarly indicated that they thought it was “very” or “fairly important” for government to provide support “for improving energy efficiency.” In China, 79% of respondents indicated that they supported funding research on “low carbon” technology (CRISP 2016). The 2014 edition of Indicators also reported the results of a 2010 international survey of a wide range of countries that suggested that the United States was relatively favorable toward nuclear energy when compared to the other countries surveyed (NSB 2014).

Genetically Engineered Food

International Comparisons

A previous analysis of worldwide views on genetic engineering concluded that respondents were more opposed to animal modification than plant modification, that Europeans saw more risks and fewer benefits than Americans or Asians, and that moral concerns are highest in the United States and Asia (Frewer et al. 2013). The 2014 version of Indicators also reported the results of a 2010 international survey of a wide range of countries that suggested that the United States was relatively favorable toward genetic modification compared with other countries, with only 25% of Americans saying they thought such crops should be seen as “extremely dangerous to the environment.” Several other countries, including some European countries (e.g., Belgium, Norway, Denmark), were also relatively favorable toward the technology (NSB 2014). Some of the countries in which residents were least favorable to genetic engineering included Turkey, Chile, and Russia. More recently, 59% of Chinese respondents said they thought that GM foods created an “unpredictable safety risk” (CRISP 2016).


Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at very small scales to create new or improved products that can be used in a variety of ways. Government and the private sector have made relatively large investments in this area in recent years, and innovations based on this work are now common (PEN 2015).

Recent data on public opinion about nanotechnology are limited, but the most recent GSS included a set of questions aimed at updating information previously collected by the NSF in 2006, 2008, and 2010, when there was concern that some Americans might come to see nanotechnology in the way that many people see GE food (e.g., [Einsiedel and Goldenberg 2006]). This does not appear to have happened yet. In 2016, 51% of respondents said they think that the benefits of nanotechnology will be greater than the harms (Figure 7-21; Appendix Table 7-37). This includes 30% who say they expect strong benefits and 21% who expect slight benefits. Another 18% said that they thought the “harmful results” would be greater, including 7% who expect strong harms and 11% who expect slight harms. About 10% volunteered that the benefits and harms would be about equal, and 21% volunteered that they did not know whether benefits or harms were more likely. In other words, these individuals asked to have their views recorded as seeing the benefits and harms as about equal or insisted they could not choose between benefits and harms, even though the survey questionnaire did not provide this option.

Views on nanotechnology: 2008, 2010, 2016


Responses to the two-tiered question Nanotechnology works at the molecular level atom by atom to build new structures, materials, and machines. People have frequently noted that new technologies have produced both benefits and harmful results. Do you think the benefits of nanotechnology will outweigh the harmful results or the harmful results will outweigh the benefits? and Would you say that the balance will be strongly in favor of the benefits/harmful results, or only slightly? Percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding.


NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2008–16).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

The percentage saying they do not know whether nanotechnology is likely to produce harms or benefits rose from 2006 to 2010 but dropped in 2016 (Appendix Table 7-37). In 2006, 32% of respondents gave a “don’t know” response, 40% gave this response in 2008, and 43% gave this response in 2010 but then only 21% said they did not know in 2016 (Appendix Table 7-37). Of those who expressed an opinion, the percentage of people saying they expect benefits from nanotechnology has been fairly stable, with 64% in 2016, 65% in 2010, 64% in 2008, and 59% in 2006. The percentage who expect harms among those who expressed an opinion, however, has also climbed from 13% in 2006 to 23% in 2016. This is possible because the proportion volunteering that they expect about equal benefits and harms has fallen from 28% of those who expressed an opinion in 2006 to 13% in 2016. This increase in uncertainty and concern seems broadly consistent with increased concern about the environment, nuclear energy, and GM foods.

Men, younger respondents, those with more education, and those with higher levels of income were more likely to report that they expected nanotechnology benefits. For example, in 2016, 61% of men said they expected benefits, while only 41% of women gave this response (Appendix Table 7-37). About the same number of men (10%) and women (11%) said they thought the benefits and harms would be equal, and similar proportions (16% of men and 19% of women) said they expected harms. However, about 12% of men said they did not know whether harm was more likely than benefits, but 29% of women said they did not know.

As with the data on GE food, it is important to recognize that people’s low levels of knowledge about nanotechnology may mean that they are largely responding to questions about the issue based on such factors as their overall trust in science or their worldview. Additional factors such as the content or wording of the questions or the context of the survey may contribute to such processes.

Stem Cell Research and Cloning

International Comparisons

The last time a large sample of Europeans was asked about cloning was in 2010, when a Eurobarometer survey found that 63% of respondents across 27 European countries supported the use of stem cells from human embryos, either with no special laws (12%) or “as long as this is regulated by strict laws” (51%). The use of adult stem cells, in contrast, was supported by 69% of Europeans, including 15% who saw no need for special laws and 54% who would approve if use was regulated by strict laws (European Commission 2010b).

Animal Research

International Comparisons

The most recent similar data from Europe are from a 2010 survey showing that, on average, Europeans oppose animal testing, but these views vary widely. Respondents were asked whether “scientists should be allowed to experiment on animals like dogs and monkeys if this can help sort out human health problems.” About 44% of Europeans said they “totally agree” or “tend to agree” that such experiments should be allowed, whereas 37% said they “totally disagree” or “tend to disagree” (European Commission 2010a).