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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2003 : Timelines


The Environment Vs. The Economy
Worries about the economy impact Americans' views about the environment.

According to Gallup’s annual Environment/Earth Day poll conducted in March 2003, Americans grew more negative over the past year about the quality of the environment in the United States. At the same time, they also became less likely to favor aggressive action to correct environmental problems. An important reason for this incongruity in environmental views appeared to be Americans’ heightened worries about the U.S. economy, although the situation with Iraq could also have been a factor.

The percentage of Americans who evaluate the U.S. economy positively—calling it “excellent” or “good”—has inched downward each of the last two years, from 46 percent in March 2001 to 44 percent in March 2002, and to 41 percent in March 2003. (See Chart 1.) Over the same period, the outlook on the environment has fluctuated, with the percentage saying it is “getting better” rising from 36 percent in 2001 to 40 percent in 2002, and then dropping to 33 percent this year.

The net result of these findings is that the percentage holding a negative view of environmental conditions increased sharply over the past year, from 38 percent in 2002 to 47 percent today as illustrated in Chart 2. (This is the percentage of Americans who simultaneously think environmental conditions are “poor” and staying that way or “only fair” but worsening.)

Despite this change in Americans’ impressions about environmental conditions, the public appears less willing than in the past to support strong environmental protection measures.

One of the most striking findings in the Environment/Earth Day poll comes from a question that asks Americans whether environmental protection or economic growth should be given priority when the two interests conflict. Since first asked in 1984, this has been a key Gallup indicator of public sympathy toward the environmental movement. This year’s results show the lowest percentage ever recorded of Americans choosing environmental protection. Just 47 percent say protection of the environment should be given priority, while nearly as many (42 percent) say economic growth should take priority. Last year, the margin in favor of the environment on this question was much stronger: 54 percent versus 36 percent. But even that was low by historical standards. For most of the 1990s, the public sided with the environment over the economy by more than a two-to-one margin.

Consistent with this finding, Gallup also recorded a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who believe additional action is needed to prevent any major environmental disruptions. Over the past year, the percentage saying “immediate, drastic action” or “some additional action” is needed fell from 84 percent to 79 percent. At the same time, the percentage believing “we should take just the same actions we have been taking on the environment” rose from 14 percent to 20 percent.

The Economic Factor
Americans have developed a great deal of economic apprehension over the past two years, and this may largely explain the recent drop in their environmental concern. A year ago at this time, a quarter of Americans were upbeat about the economy (rating it “excellent” or “good” and expecting it to remain that way), about a third had mixed views, and another third were negative (rating the economy “poor,” or “only fair,” but getting worse). Today, nearly two-thirds are negative, while only 12 percent are upbeat.

The percentage of Americans saying they worry “a great deal” about the economy increased from 37 percent in 2002 to 44 percent this year—the largest jump in worry seen for any of 11 different issues rated. Concern about the environment has remained about the same, with 34 percent to 35 percent of Americans in both 2002 and 2003 saying they worry a great deal.

Punctuating these findings, Gallup finds a strong reversal in what was once a traditional pattern of public perception about long-term U.S. problems. In the past, Gallup found relatively few Americans naming the environment when asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today,” but a big jump in environmental mentions when the question is, “What do you think will be the most important problem facing our nation 25 years from now?” In fact, the environment is typically the most frequently mentioned problem on the 25-year outlook measure. This year, the economy is the clear leader and the environment ranks second. Last year, the two problems were closely rated, but the environment had led by significant margins before that.

In the March poll, a combined 54 percent of Americans named war, terrorism or other international problems as the top problem facing the United States today. But relatively few named these as long-term problems for the country (a combined 16 percent), similar to the 15 percent in March 2002. These figures are just slightly higher than the eight percent in March 2001 (prior to 9-11)—suggesting that the new international challenges the United States faces from terrorism and the war with Iraq are not strongly affecting Americans’ long-term views of the country. This is particularly interesting when contrasted with the sharp increase since 2001 in long-term concerns about the economy.

These survey results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,003 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 3 to 5, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±three percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Lydia Saad is with the Gallup News Service. For more information, visit

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