By the widest margin since 2000, more Americans believe environmental protection should take precedence over economic growth when the two goals conflict. Sixty-five percent now choose the environment, up eight percentage points from a year ago, while 30% choose the economy.
Since 1984, Gallup has asked 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.” A preference for environmental protection has typically led economic growth on this question by a significant margin. However, between 2009 and 2013 as the economy struggled to emerge from the recession, more Americans prioritized the economy over the environment, with a brief exception in May 2010 after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The latest results are from Gallup’s 2019 Environment survey, conducted March 1-10.
There is some variation on this question by age. Adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely than those 35 and older to give precedence to environmental protection over economic growth. However, the sharpest differences are by party. Eight in 10 Democrats (82%) and 71% of independents prioritize environmental protection, versus 35% of Republicans. On the flip side, the majority of Republicans (60%) say economic growth should be considered first, versus 24% of independents and 13% of Democrats.
Prioritizing Economy Over Environment Tracks Jobs Rate
In comparing preferences for the economy on this question with U.S. economic indicators, it is clear that when the economy is doing well, fewer Americans believe economic growth should be the priority and more are willing to give precedence to environmental protection.
The accompanying graph displays the percentage of Americans prioritizing the economy on this question since 1997 alongside the unemployment rate at the start of each year. This shows the degree to which the two metrics have moved in tandem over the years that Gallup has asked the question at least annually.
More specifically, the correlation between Americans’ preference for prioritizing the economy over the environment and the U.S. unemployment rate has been 0.87 since 1997. This is on a scale from -1.0 to 1.0, where a score of 1.0 represents a perfect correlation — meaning the two figures move at the same rate in the same direction. A score of zero would indicate no correlation, while a score of -1.0 would represent a perfect negative correlation — meaning the figures move at the same rate in opposite directions.
Gallup also finds a relationship between Americans’ preference for prioritizing the economy and annual changes in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), with a 0.55 correlation. However, this is not nearly as strong as the correlation seen with unemployment, possibly because Americans are not as familiar with GDP as they are with the unemployment rate.
With the U.S. unemployment rate holding at or below 4% for much of the past year, Americans are less likely to prioritize economic growth over environmental protection. While the two goals don’t always conflict, to the extent they do, it appears that now is a good time to promote aggressive climate legislation such as the Green New Deal being discussed in Congress, as most Americans are currently willing to accept some economic costs. Indeed, the same March poll found a majority of Americans saying they would favor policies aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuels within the next 10 or 20 years. However, the trends suggest attitudes would be very different during more challenging economic times.