Save the Earth, but Save Economy First

Gallup updated a whole slew of questions about the environment in time for Thursday's 40th Earth Day celebration. Their results, along with those of other pollsters, show that the neither the environment nor global warming are top national priorities. While Americans haven't stopped caring about a clean and healthy environment or global warming, concerns about the economy have pushed environmental concerns to the back burner. Beyond that, people are more satisfied than in the past with what is being done to protect the environment.

In its March 2010 poll 53% of respondents told Gallup interviewers that "economic growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent," while 38% chose the response "protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth." This is the second year in a row that a majority have said the economy should be policymakers' top focus. I've never liked questions that ask people to choose between a clean environment and a good economy, because I think Americans want both and think we can have both. But Gallup's question, which has been asked more than a dozen times since 1984, does show how public emphasis changes over time.

Most Americans seem confident that they have been heard on environmental concerns, that policy makers are paying attention, and that good policy will result from the clash of the parties and interest groups debating specific environmental policies.

Other polls confirm that Americans are more concerned about the economy. A survey conducted in January by the Pew Research Center found that 44% said protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Almost twice as many, 83%, said strengthening the economy should be. Another Gallup question asks people to describe in their own words the top problem facing the country. In March 2% volunteered the environment or pollution, less than 1% global warming, while 31% mentioned the economy.

Gallup also says that "increased optimism about the environment" may explain people's preference for greater attention to the economy. Indeed, the numbers in Gallup's polls are striking. Forty-two percent in 2001 said they worried "a great deal" about the quality of the environment. That's now 34%. Similarly, Americans are less worried about pollution of drinking water (65% said they worried a great deal about it in 1990, 50% in 2010), pollution of lakes and reservoirs (72% in 1989, 46% now), and air pollution (63% in 1989, 38% now).

As for global warming, 35% told Gallup it was a big worry in 1989, while 28% gave that response in March. In Pew's polling 28% percent said dealing with global warming should be a top priority for policymakers. Of the 21 issues Pew examined in the poll, it ranked dead last.

These data should not be misunderstood. Americans think global warming is real and they support efforts to address it. Fifty-three percent of respondents in a March Gallup poll said warming has already begun or will begin in a few years. Their commitment to environmental protection hasn't waned, nor has their conviction that we should spend considerable sums to address environmental problems. But most Americans seem confident that they have been heard on environmental concerns, that policy makers are paying attention, and that good policy will result from the clash of the parties and interest groups debating specific environmental policies. Americans rarely give specific legislative guidance, and they aren't following complex environmental debates closely.

Media hype may also be contributing to lower levels of environmental concern. In 2006 Time magazine ran a cover story on global warming with the tag line "Be Worried, Be Very Worried" highlighted on the magazine's cover. But media credibility isn't what it once was. In Gallup's polling, a strong plurality, 48%, now say the seriousness of global warming is "generally exaggerated" in the news. Around a quarter say the seriousness is underestimated and separately, that its seriousness is generally correct.

The vast majority of Americans today consider themselves sympathetic but not active environmentalists. The urgency associated with the issue is lower than it once was, but our commitment to it remains strong.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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