Environmental Protection Trending Upward While Economic Growth Slides

Gallup recently released the results of  a telephone survey that asked a random sample of American residents whether “Protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth” or “Economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent?” Perhaps surprising to some, Americans are now more likely to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth, a position not held since the months following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Since 2009 Americans have generally prioritized economic growth over environmental protection. However, this trend follows a high but generally trending down of environmental protection over economic growth since this these questions were first polled in 1984. In the early 1990s the environment was favored by 71% of American residents. In 2011 this priority dropped to its lowest, 36% of Gallup respondents. Inversely, the prioritization of economic growth reached its peak in 2011 with 54%.

Throughout George W. Bush’s presidential terms the prioritization of economic growth increased among poll respondents and with it a decline in the prioritization of environmental protection. Yet this political divide hasn’t always reflected party platforms. Polls from 1997 to 2001 show environmental protection to be a greater priority over economic growth among republican respondents. Democrats too have seen fluctuations in their degree of prioritization, although they consistently indicate environmental protection.

Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on the issues. In fact, the Gallup poll found that the partisan gap over priority, environmental protection or economic growth, is at its largest since these questions were first asked in 1984. Yet despite this polarization, both parties are increasingly prioritizing environmental protection. Democrats have increased their choice of the environment by 20% since 2011 and Republicans by 13%. This gap since 2001 might be explained by increasing polarization between the two parties over the issue of climate change.

The general upward trend of environmental protection might also signal a perceived healthier U.S. economy. Either way we may be at the beginning of a larger cultural shift toward environmental protection. Whereas democrats chose the environment 66% of the time, the poll found that 60% of respondents between 18-29 prioritized the environment. Party affiliation may correlate with prioritization choice, but age group may be an even more significant factor.


– Collin Syfert

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