Environmental Issue Surveys: What Are They Telling Us?

A fresh environmental issue survey from CNN/Opinion Research finds that a majority of Americans believe that the economy should take precedence over the environment. It wasn’t by a huge number – a little more than half (51%) picked “economy: and slightly less than half (45%) picked “environment.” The margin of error was 3%.

Pollsters love this question and they’ve been asking variations of it for decades. Here is how the question was worded this time around, in this particular environmental issues survey:

“With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree — 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?”

Until recently, majorities of Americans have consistently responded that the environment takes precedence. Sometimes a large majority, sometimes a small one, but always a majority. It was that way for decades. It’s only now, during this brutal, grinding recession, that the economy has inched ahead. And it’s not just this survey, it’s others.

These poll results are disturbing, sure, but I think they are misleading, too. There’s plenty of evidence out there that everyday citizens actually reject the basic premise of that question. When I sift through my extensive collection of environmental issue surveys, I find plenty of poll questions that explore Americans’ attitudes towards the environment and their wallets in more depth.

I think you can summarize the American public’s general attitude towards the environment and their wallets in three statements:

#1) “Environmental regulations and protection don’t burden the economy much”

As a general matter, when pollsters ask Americans if they believe that environmental regulation hurts the economy, the answer is usually “no.” Here’s one example: In a 2005 study conducted by Yale University, more than 3/4 of those who responded agreed with this statement: “You don’t have to sacrifice environmental protection to get economic growth. The choice between jobs and environment is a false one: we can have both.”

Remember, most Americans work in various service industries now. Only a few of us work in mining, agriculture, commercial fishing, forestry, or other industries where environmental compliance is a daily hassle or expense. The businesses that feel the pinch directly are often very outspoken about it — but that is a minority view.

Statement #2: “Environmental regulations hurt some companies sometimes, but they can be good for the economy, too”

When EPA announced last week that it was cracking down on mountain top removal mining, West Virginia mining interests and politicians thumped the table, squealing about lost jobs and economic ruin. So you might be surprised that just a few years ago, almost half of West Virginians told pollsters they believed environmental protection are often good for the economy, and another quarter said they generally don’t have much impact. Only one in 5 reported that environmental protections were generally bad for the economy — and that’s in coal mining, tree cutting West Virginia.

I think most Americans instinctively understand that people and businesses avoid highly polluted areas, that medical costs associated with pollution-related illnesses are a drag on their families’ economic well-being, and that wasteful, polluting businesses are less competitive in the modern economy.

Statement #3: “Environmental regulations and protections may cause higher taxes”

Americans generally see that protecting the environment is a legitimate responsibility of government, and recognize that this costs money — their money. In a study conducted for Duke University’s Nicholas Institute a few years back, researchers found that voters were much more likely to believe that new environmental regulations and protections would lead to tax increases than to lost jobs.

So if everyday citizens are skeptical of the basic premise of the “environment vs. economy” poll questions, what do their answers to those questions tell us? Honestly, I’m not sure. And if everyday citizens are skeptical of the basic premise of this question, why do pollsters keep asking it this way, anyway? Again, I’m not sure.

But I think I’m on safe ground here: The economy is a disaster and few of us have escaped it completely. Everyday citizens want to see our nation’s leaders focusing their attention on getting the economy fired up and moving forward. But there is no evidence whatsoever that voters blame environmental protections for this recession — or that they believe that cutting existing environmental regulations will produce much economic stimulus, either.