Bearing in mind that, by the time the planet is totally ruined, most of us (if not all) will be long gone, then why should an athiest care about the environment?

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Because unlike theists, who embrace death and prepare all their lives for the afterlife, atheists know that the only life they'll have is right now, and so they embrace life.
Whereas theists believe there is a heaven and a hell, most atheists don't (the type of atheists I think you're talking about).

So, we must work hard to make Earth a living heaven, according to our visions, because there certainly isn't an invisible imaginary skydaddy to make one for us.
Why would theists care about the environment? They believe in the rapture, anyways. They believe this "perfect world" is already made just for them.
Why work to make Earth a heaven when there's already one? When I think of the religious right, I think about how they're making this planet a living hell.

edit: the bible teaches christians that they should consume everything on Earth, since god made everything for them.
Atheists don't adhere to this dogma, of course.
Well, the fact that all theists do not care about the environment (which is debatable) should have no influence on your opinion.
From an economic point of view, polluting represents an externality, meaning that people will continue to pollute as long as it costs them nothing. Currently, the biggest polluters on the planet are the rich countries that happen to have secular regimes. These countries are plundering the world resources in a disproportionate manner. Example: The U.S. consumes about 25% of the world oil production (19 million barrels per day) out of a total of 74 million barrels per day, while the U.S. population of 309 million, represents 5% out of a total world population of 6.7 billions. China which is an atheist regime, pollutes all the way with the consequences on its own population. So good for rationality. I think, it is plain simplistic to attribute all the ills of this planet to religion. Greed and selfishness are the real causes of the problem. An atheist may want to maximize his fun before dying not caring about those who come later, especially if he decide to not have kids.
How can you say the U.S. has a secular regime when every President in my lifetime, and probably every President in well over a century has paid lip service to religion, assumed the priestly authority to confer the blessings of God on the United States and its people, Congress and the Supreme Court open all their sessions with prayer and the Supreme Court has ruled that requiring public school teachers to lead a pledge of allegiance to a tricolor rag that proclaims the nation to be one "under God" does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment?
I know how you can say it. How can you justify saying it?
What I have learned through age and experience is that things are rarely black or white but mostly gray. In fact, life is made of a combination of different colors and shapes (this is a figure of speech to describe diversity in all aspects of life). The U.S. institutions are IMHO to a large extent secular, albeit the idiosyncrasies you have mentioned. France has since the 1789 revolution actively fought against the church to the extent of incarcerating the refractory priest in inhuman conditions. My own great grand father had to hide his religious affiliation too avoid loosing his public office job. Yet, in the Jacobin French society, political elements attempt to impose the Judeo-Christian aspect of the French and more broadly European culture. In fact, I can hardly figure out a society that would be purely 100% atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist unless we are ready to live under a totalitarian regime that would impose a particular religion/ideology to everybody. We have seen such attempts and their results in the Cultural Revolution.
All you seem to be saying here is that there are no absolutes. Of course there aren't. People in this forum are merely expressing generalisations for the sake of comparing different trends.

The fact remains that while christian (or other religious) thinking diminishes the importance of terrestrial life, Atheism (or non religious) thinking does not. To an Atheist, this is THE life we live. This is THE arena that life exists in. To trash it is idiotic, so while there are those who will not heed this because of their personal motivation, at least there is a basis for argument and reason.
What I replied was about the U.S. being a secular state, which I think it is mostly.
"The fact remains that while christian (or other religious) thinking diminishes the importance of terrestrial life"
Well, linking the belief of an afterlife to a complete disregard to the environment is an extrapolation that needs solid evidence beyond claims and generalizations. A complete worldwide study would be needed to confirm such theory. As a counterexample, China which is again mostly Atheistic in nature has a total disregard for the environment. The U.S. population represents but 5% of the population of this planet. Christians in America even less. You have no idea what Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jewish have to say about the environment. Until a complete study is done, which results maybe more complex that we imagine, we cannot just rationally throw unverified claims as facts.
Because I care what environment my children grow up in? And my grandchildren. And my great-grandchildren. And after that, when I'm dead, I expect my offspring to care about what environment their offspring grow up in. My parents live in the country and it's gorgeous. I'm going to school in the city and I hate it. I want my children to see the beauty of the natural, so I'll do what I can to preserve it.
It's an interesting question and I am certainly aligned with Jennifer's response. Being an atheist, I don't believe in god, but I also don't believe in promoting waste or inefficiency either. Ostensibly we strive to apply reason and logic to our daily lives and I don't think this should stop at religious viewpoints. I certainly believe that in being a good and moral person, I should leave this planet as good or better than I found it. To the environment, whether or not you buy into the causation (or existence) of global warming [insert your own environmental cause here] I think most everyone can agree that wasting resources is generally not a good thing. Can I run my shower all day? Yes. Do I need to? No, I don't require that amount of resource. But someone else might; we're all in this together. It's a beautiful, resourceful little planet we have here - it gives us what we need.

That being said, as an atheist I don't care about the environment at all. But as a member of the human race I have vested interest in the environment. Being an atheist does not conflict with me being human and therefore having an instinct to ensure the propagation of the species.
Because we have a choice.

I can choose to spend my life being an ass, or I can choose to spend my life being as decent as I can.

The only choice I DON'T have is to sit on the fence. I figure, I might as well choose the more decent path, because it makes me happier, makes the planet happier, and makes future humans who want to live a good life like I have, happier.

Being an athiest, doesn't mean you can't care. It just means you have to accept that there isn't any overall "point" to it. This question is almost the same as saying, why bother living at all? Why not just end it?

Some-one once asked me, what I would say if there was a God, and he gave me a choice to live for 5 minutues or a choice to never exist.

I'd say, Give me my 5 minutes, everytime.

I remember this, and live with that philosophy. I'll still take life and make it good, and hope others do the same. It would be pretty boring never to have existed and we need a healthy planet so that everyone else, can take their 5 minutes too.
The same reason we should have any sense of morality. We won't be punished in some afterlife but we should do something because it's the right thing to do. And the environment is a moral issue b/c others (human and other species) are harmed by environmental problems. Most of our morality is for preservation of the species but the environmental issue is more inclusive--it's for the preservation of all species. Also, we may not see the environment get "totally ruined", but most of us will probably live to see things get much worse (or have already seen it happen).
If you wish to be perfectly selfish, there is no reason that you should concern yourself with anything that does not immediately benefit you. Expect to be treated with hostility if you act this selfishly though. That may be sufficient reason for you to care.

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