Success of Environmental Laws Hinges on Public Perception

Sharon M. Stern is a lecturer in the department of environmental analysis and design at UC Irvine. Erin Aiello is a graduate student in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington

Strong environmental laws, even when they protect public health, often are considered counterproductive to economic growth and community satisfaction.

Despite enhanced protection, the drawbacks are often promoted as cause for maintaining weaker legislation.

But is this what always happens? Are some laws more effective in gaining public support despite stricter protection requirements? And if so, why? How does behavior change when scientists conclude the risk no longer exists?


We propose that there are three main factors that influence the public’s risk perception and their future behavior: how the risk is conveyed to the public by the media, faith in government protection policies, and the amount of control people have over their health. These factors are of paramount importance in determining the success of an environmental law and should be considered when new laws are proposed.

Safe recreational waters are a high priority for California, a symbol of the beach ideal. So we used a new beach protection law, California AB411, to evaluate how the community perceives the risk of ocean pollution.

As we are all aware, polluted water necessitated closing most of Huntington Beach’s coast during the summer of 1999. Other beaches have also required closure. With these stricter requirements on sampling involving new indicator bacteria, monitoring and public notification, the public was assured that its health was better protected than previously. The news media, primarily newspapers and television, chronicled the search for the contaminant source and were instrumental in keeping people informed.

Last spring we conducted informal written interviews with roughly 125 people representing various ages and cultures at Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach. We asked about their perception of the previous summer’s contamination. Specifically, we wanted to discover the extent of their information about the contamination and the closures, where they got their information, and how this information influenced their decisions to go to the beach.

We felt this information would be important for city and state officials as they evaluated the impact of this new law. Our study provided interesting observations about the public’s perception of risk and its behavior as a result of the Huntington Beach bacterial contamination. We found that most (84%) of the beachgoers were aware of the previous summer’s contamination and prolonged closure at Huntington State Beach, the majority (81%) having learned of the problems from the newspaper or TV news.

The accuracy of their knowledge, however, reflected the vagaries of the reporting in the different media and any sensationalism. Half (49%) of the people interviewed were aware that the problem was a result of urban runoff and not sewage, but the other half (51%) thought it was sewage and fecal-related.

Apparently, the second-guessing by the media during the exploration of the problem was recalled as frequently as the true source. Only a third (32%) of the beachgoers were aware that specific bacteria were used to detect pollution, which told us that the public wasn’t very informed, had minimal recall about, or wasn’t interested in the science that goes into beach closures. Posting is required and closure mandated if one bacterial standard is exceeded. The beachgoers were aware that a closure sign signified unhealthful conditions.

Our study also provided insight into the impact of strong environmental laws. Some observers predicted dire fallout from AB411 because of the intense media coverage and the high visibility of closure signs. Surprisingly, we found that most (81%) respondents had not changed the frequency of their beach visits.

This was true in part because the beachgoers said they were attracted to the beach for aesthetic reasons as well as for recreation. Only 2% responded that they would enter the water if there were “closed” signs even if the water looked clean, but, surprisingly, 30% said they would enter dirty and brown water if the beach were not posted as contaminated.

Our study results showed that many people’s perceptions were influenced by their faith in the government, the beauty of the beach, the influence of the news and the control people felt they have over their own health.

It is important that policymakers recognize what the public thinks because public perception can have a significant impact on both future policy and economics.