WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans are more likely to say protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Since 2009, during the economic downturn, Americans generally prioritized economic growth over the environment, except for immediately after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in May 2010.
In a March 6-9 Gallup Poll Social Series survey on the environment, Americans said the environment is a priority over economic growth by a 50%-to-41% margin. In the 30 years that Gallup has asked this question, Americans have almost always chosen the environment over economic growth as a priority.
The percentage of Americans who prioritized the environment swelled to 71% in 1990 and 1991, with the lowest percentage for economic growth occurring in 1990, at 19%. That year is notable for the mass revival of Earth Day, begun in 1970 by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson as a way to boost environmental awareness. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day attracted hundreds of conservational groups that pressured businesses for tighter environmental regulations.
Democrats and Republicans Far Apart on Environment and Economic Growth Priorities
Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided as to whether the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Two-thirds of Democrats say the environment should be prioritized higher, while about one-third of Republicans say the same thing. This is the largest partisan gulf since 1997, mainly as result of the sharp rise among Democrats prioritizing the environment higher than economic growth. Both parties give higher priority to the environment than they did prior to the 2008-2009 economic recession.
A majority of both Republicans and Democrats prioritized the environment prior to George W. Bush becoming president in 2001. The drop in Republican support for the environment over economic growth coincided with President Bush placing less of a priority on the environment. During this era, the Bush Administration did not take part in the Kyoto Protocol, citing that the cost was prohibitive to the U.S. economy. Since 2001, Republicans have chosen economic growth over the environment, with the largest gap between the two parties occurring in 2011, when economic growth was favored over the environment by a margin of 74%-to-19%. However, there has been a slight increase in the percentage of Republicans prioritizing the environment and a slight decrease in the percentage prioritizing economic growth in the last year.
The percentage of Democrats choosing the environment over economic growth surged 11 percentage points in the past year and 20 points since 2011. This increase suggests that Democrats may believe the economy is improving and it is now acceptable to favor protecting the environment, even if it curbs economic growth. As the leader of the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama has made climate change one of his top priorities for his second term. The 66% of Democrats who prioritize the environment over economic growth is the highest since 2000.
Younger Americans Choose Environment, Older Americans Choose Economic Growth
Among age groups, Americans aged 18 to 29 are most likely to say the environment should be given priority over economic growth, by a 60%-to-30% margin. Americans aged 65 and older, on the other hand, say economic growth should be prioritized, by a margin of 50%-to-39%. Both 30- to 49-year-olds and 50- to 64-year-olds prioritize the environment over economic growth, but the gap between the two topics narrows as the age group becomes older.
When Americans prioritize the environment over economic growth, it could be a sign that they perceive a healthier U.S. economy. Gallup's Economic Confidence Index has rebounded since the Great Recession, suggesting Americans believe that the U.S. economy is improving. Perhaps the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of prioritizing the environment or economic growth since 2001 can be explained by the increasing polarization between the two parties over the issue of climate change and global warming.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 6-9, 2014, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 1,048 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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