Gallup Finds Fewer Americans Prioritize the Environment During the Pandemic

Graphic: Gallup

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Continuing its set of opinion surveys in the run-up to Earth Day, Gallup has released the results of another poll, finding that the percent of American adults who say that “protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth” has dropped by 15% since 2018. Experts say that this number often correlates with unemployment, which the COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased, so it could be an aberration. Environmental advocates hope that with higher vaccination rates and growing economic recovery, Americans can refocus and reunite behind the fight for clean air and water, and to address climate change.

Why This Matters: The Biden administration has worked hard to debunk the jobs vs. environment arguments of Republicans — he instead maintains that job creation and economic growth go hand in hand with investment in clean energy and other “green” policies. But he’ll need to keep making the case across America.  He is starting from a position of strength — 50% of Americans still prioritize the environment, while only 42% put the economy first.  Republicans may feel pressure from their base to put off new investments in infrastructure that supports conservation and the environment, but public support for the environment remains 8 points more popular than the alternative.

By the Numbers

Approximately 50% of Americans now believe that the environment should be prioritized over the economy, down from 60% in early 2020 and 65% in 2018.

  • Although this new statistic is in keeping with the average opinion since 2001, it’s drastically lower than the average of 66%, which held from 1985 to 2000. Within these averages, however, are significant fluctuations; in 2001, the rate dropped from 70% the previous year to just 47%.
  • At 50%, this year’s findings are the lowest recorded since 2015.

Over the years, researchers have noted that environmental priorities suffer in the wake of major events like the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession, and even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They found that when unemployment ticks above 7%, Americans will prioritize the economy over the environment, a trend that lasted from 2008 to 2013.

Under the looming threat of Coronavirus, members of both parties have become more likely to choose the economy over the environment, but the disparities are larger than ever.

  • 68% of Republicans prioritize the economy, up from 54% a year ago.
  • For Democrats, those numbers are significantly lower, landing at 23% this year, compared to 16% last year.

Even among Democrats, however, the number who prioritize the environment dropped 10%, from 81% in early 2020 to 71% in 2021.

But There’s Still Hope…

As vaccination rates reach 20%, an achievement that felt unimaginable just four months ago, economists are seeing the unemployment rate edging down, dropping below 6% in March. As Americans get back to a (close to) normal life, experts expect them to embrace Biden’s climate action plans, which he has said could create 10 million new jobs in clean energy and infrastructure and pull the nation out of the COVID-19 slump.

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