America’s Top Fears 2017

October 13, 2017

The Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 4 (2017) provides an in-depth examination into the fears of average Americans. In May of 2017, a random sample of 1,207 adults from across the United States were asked their level of fear about eighty different fears across a huge variety of topics ranging from crime, the government, the environment, disasters, personal anxieties, technology and many others.

The 2017 list of fears clearly reflects political unrest and uncertainty in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. Increased tensions with North Korea, concerns about sweeping changes proposed to health care and discussion (at the time the survey was administered) of the United States leaving the Paris Climate Accords produced a much different list from 2016.

Environmental Quality Ranks among Americans’ Top Fears

What is, perhaps, most striking about American fear in 2017 is that environmental fears, including water pollution and drinking water quality, figure more prominently than ever before. Environmental issues never cracked the top ten fears in our previous surveys.

In 2017, there was a sharp increase in environmental fears, likely due to fears about policy changes in Washington. The Trump Administration has charted a drastically different path; ordering the US Environmental Protection Agency not to enforce major pollution laws, and firing the EPA’s entire Science Advisory Board.

Water Pollution

A majority of Americans [53.1%] fear pollution of “oceans, rivers and streams.” This is the first time our survey found an environmental issue appeared in the top ten fears. The fact that water pollution has become such a prominent fear in 2017 may be traced to the reversal of environmental policies of the Obama Administration.

One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the EPA’s “Waters of the United States” rule. This action drastically reduced the number of rivers and streams that could be protected from agricultural runoff under the Clean Water Act. Another of the administration’s first actions was to withdraw the “Stream Buffer” rule, which had been enacted to protect Appalachian rivers and streams from strip mining.

Drinking Water Quality

4% fear for the quality of their drinking water. This should not be a surprise, considering the prominent news coverage of lead poisoning in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, during the past year, as well as the subsequent discovery of contaminated drinking water in other communities around the country.

The prominence of these fears is consistent with years of public opinion polling which shows that water pollution typically outranks other environmental problems in the mind of the public. Water pollution ranks third overall, followed closely by Drinking Water Quality.

Climate Change and Air Pollution

Americans fear climate change [48%] and air pollution [44.9%]. These are the eighth and tenth greatest fears, respectively. The sharp rise in the number of Americans who now say they fear climate change (and air pollution, which contributes to climate change) may be linked to Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.

Public opinion polls show that climate change ranks lower than most other environmental issues as a source of public concern. This is likely due to the perception that the effects of the warming oceans and atmosphere are remote, far in the future, and more likely to affect “other people.”

The Complete List of Fears, 2017

The following is a complete, list of all eighty of the fears addressed by the Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 4 (2017), including the percent of Americans who reported being afraid or very afraid.

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