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Americans' Emphasis on Environmental Protection Shrinks

Americans' Emphasis on Environmental Protection Shrinks

Story Highlights

  • Half now say the environment should be the priority over economic growth
  • Two-thirds took pro-environment position two years ago
  • Current attitudes consistent with U.S. unemployment rate near 6%

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the country continues to recover from the economic shock waves created by the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are more divided than they have been in several years about whether protecting the environment (50%) or strengthening the economy (42%) should be the greater priority.


Line graph. Trend from 1985 to 2021 in Americans preference for the environment versus the economy as the greater priority. After years from 1985 to 2000, when the large majority preferred the environment, attitudes were closely split from 2001 to 2015. Preference for the environment expanded to 65% in 2020 before falling to 50% today.

Gallup asked this question occasionally between 1985 and 2000, but since 2001 has measured it each March as part of its annual Environment poll. The latest result is based on a March 1-15 survey.

While slightly more U.S. adults today prioritize the environment over economic growth, the 50% doing so is down from 60% in early 2020 (largely before the pandemic was declared) and 65% in 2019, and is the lowest recorded since 2015, when 46% held this view.

The current rate matches the average since 2001. Prior to that, from 1985 to 2000, 66% of Americans on average said the environment should take precedence over economic growth. This included 70% naming the environment in January 2000. But the percentage fell to 57% the following year and to 47% by 2003.

A special update of the question in May 2010 found a surge in support for the environment that was out of sync with the higher support for the economy otherwise seen between 2009 and 2013. That reflected public reaction to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, the largest marine-drilling oil spill in history.

Prioritizing Economy Still Closely Linked With Employment

As Gallup has reported previously, Americans' views on the environment vs. economy question are sensitive to national economic conditions. In general, the higher the unemployment rate, the higher the percentage prioritizing the economy.

The accompanying graph displays the closeness of this relationship since 1997. For this analysis, Gallup's annual measures of Americans' views are compared with the U.S. unemployment rate for the month prior to the survey each year. After declining for nearly a decade along with shrinking unemployment, the percentage of Americans citing the economy increased this year, reflecting the higher rate of unemployment today compared with just before the pandemic in 2020.


Line and bar graph: Trend from 1997 to 2021 showing the percentage of Americans prioritizing economic growth over the environment, represented as a line versus the unemployment rate for each year, represented as bars. For the most part, the higher the unemployment rate, the higher the percentage of Americans prioritizing economic growth.

The percentage of Americans favoring the economy has exceeded the percentage favoring the environment at times when the U.S. unemployment rate was greater than 7%. That occurred during the five-year period from 2009 to 2013.

At all other times, the environment has had at least a slight edge over economic growth as the American people's priority; this trend continues as the unemployment rate heading into the field period for the survey was 6.2%. The environment has received majority support only when the unemployment rate is below 6%, with most of those readings occurring when unemployment is below 5%.

Republicans' Pro-Economy Position More Entrenched

Both party groups are more likely than they were a year ago to prioritize the economy. However, the current percentages are starkly different: 68% of Republicans (up from 54% a year ago) vs. 23% of Democrats (up from 16%) now say the economy should have precedence. Meanwhile, 22% of Republicans (down from 36% in 2020) vs. 71% of Democrats (down from 81%) prioritize the environment.

More generally, although both party groups' views have shifted over the past two decades in accordance with unemployment, Democrats became much less inclined between the end of the Great Recession in 2009 and March 2020 to prioritize the economy as unemployment was falling. Meanwhile, Republicans' preference for the economy waned only slightly, indicating that prioritization of economic growth over environmental protection has become the standard for them, with their views on the tradeoff less connected to economic circumstances.


Line graph. Trend from 1997 to 2021 in percentages of Republicans/Republican leaners and Democrats/Democratic leaners prioritizing the economy rather than environmental growth. Republicans' preference for the economy was 35% in 1997 and rose fairly steadily to 72% in 2011 before tapering off to 54% in 2019 and 2020. It has rebounded to 68% in 2021. Democrats' preference for the economy was 19% in 1997 and rose to 45% in 2009, after which it trended down to 12% in 2019. It is 23% in 2021.

Bottom Line

President Joe Biden began acting on his environmental agenda on his first day in office by signing executive orders authorizing America's reentry into the international Paris Agreement on climate change and canceling federal construction permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Both decisions are not without economic risks to U.S. jobs and business competitiveness, which no doubt resonates with the large segment of Americans who favor prioritizing the economy over the environment. At the same time, others, as Gallup found in 2019, no doubt believe efforts to address global warming will help the economy. Regardless, despite the economic challenges of the past year, the slim plurality of Americans values environmental protection more. And with the unemployment rate edging down to 6% in March and likely to decline further as the recovery accelerates, that pro-environment sentiment may only gain ground in the coming months.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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