Friday, March 21, 2014

Gallup Shows Americans Once Again Choosing Environmental Protection over Economic Growth

A recent poll from Gallup shows that Americans once again say that they value environmental protection over economic growth, a trend that was broken during the economic downturn.

As you can see, the Gallup survey asks respondents whether they agree more with one of two statements:

(A) Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth

(B) Economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent

The peak support for environmental protection over economic growth occurred in 1990 and 1991, at the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Preference for environmental protection stayed high in the 1990s then fell for most of the 2000s. The 2010s have seen a mild bounce-back, but to levels still lower than before.

More interesting than the general numbers, though, is the disaggregation. The partisan gap is at its largest since 1997.

Here's the graph for Republicans:

Republican prioritization of the environment cratered between 2000 and 2003, falling from 60% to 34%. It rebounded a bit between 2003 and 2007 before collapsing again. Since 2011, there has been a rebound although the preference for economic growth is still strong.

And here's the one for Democrats:

Democratic preference for environmental protection fell between 2000 and 2003 as well, from 75% to 51%. It then had a partial rebound through 2007, after which it fell again. A part from an anomalous spike in 2010, it has only been rebounding again since 2011, now mirroring results from the start of the new millennium.

The trends for both parties were largely similar, and they seemed to match the movement on another graph:

For the most part, when real GDP growth trended downward, preference for environmental protection over economic growth fell. When real GDP growth trended upward, preference for environmental protection over economic growth rose. The two collapses in support for environmental protection align with the recessions in 2001 and 2007-2009.

However, the connection with GDP cannot be the full picture. In 1990/1991, there was an economic recession, but support for environmental protection was at a peak. As is often the case, partisan cues, external events, and social movements are also important in shaping public opinion. The election of a strongly anti-environment president like George W. Bush probably influenced the early 2000s collapse in support for environmental protection. The growth in support for environmental protection since 2013 might reflect the greater emphasis that Obama has placed on climate issues in the past year (mostly in rhetoric, but still some in policy).

The disaggregation by age was also interesting. Young people were far more likely than other age groups to choose environmental protection over economic growth. Seniors were more likely to choose economic growth over environmental protection.

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