Green Issues Suffer During Economic Blues

Americans are less inclined to give top priority to environmental issues during a time of economic hardship, saying they feel economic hardship is primary, according to a number of opinion polls taken over the last year. The more recent polls suggest a degree of partisan difference in an election year, but the tendency is still widespread across the political spectrum.

There's no question that the economic crisis is key for most Americans. A recent Gallup poll on the economy released Oct. 15 found that 66% of Americans said the economic crisis was hurting their personal finances--up from 56% at the end of September.

According to Gallup, 29% of respondents said their personal finances were hurt a great deal, while 37% said they were hurt a moderate amount. This follows a Gallup poll in April of this year, which showed that 55% of Americans were worried that they would not be able to maintain their standard of living--up from 49% in 2006.

Gallup has also polled Americans about prioritizing economic and environmental well-being--which are commonly viewed as inversely related, requiring trade-offs to benefit one or the other. In March 2008, Gallup found that 49% said they would choose saving the environment over economic growth, versus 42% saying they would choose the opposite ranking of priorities.



While this puts the pro-environment faction slightly ahead of the pro-economy faction, Gallup pointed out that this reflects a major shift in public opinion, compared to periods of greater economic security.

For example, in January 2000, at the end of the dot-com era, 70% of Americans said they believed the environment should take priority over the economy. This suggests that public opinion on this subject is highly malleable, and can change dramatically in response to economic pressures.

Subsequent Gallup polls have found broad support for policies that are perceived as economically beneficial but environmentally harmful. In May 2008, the polling organization found that 54% of Americans favored suspending the federal gas tax in the belief that it would lower gas prices. Meanwhile, "drill, baby, drill!" may be a more common sentiment than eco-warriors like to admit. Also in May, Gallup found 57% of Americans said they favored the expansion of oil drilling in offshore and wilderness areas that are currently "off limits," also to reduce the price of gas.

Indeed, the strong current in public opinion on this issue prompted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to adopt a moderate pro-drilling stance. Likewise, the financial crisis could force a retreat on regulations to limit industrial emissions. In a recent interview with Time, eco-pollster Ted Nordhaus had to admit: "I think the financial crisis will strengthen the hand of opponents of carbon trading on both the left and right."

Surveys have found evidence of similar trends overseas, with even environmentally conscious European countries changing their tune. For example, over the last year, Tesco--one of Britain's largest retailers--found consumer purchase patterns shifting to "economy" products, away from more expensive "premium" and "green" products.

The shift has taken an especially big bite out of British organic food sales as consumers move to discount grocers, according to research firm Mintel. Another survey from British researcher Guardian/ICM found that 19% of Brits would pay more for an environmentally friendly product, compared to 58% who would buy a cheaper product even if it were worse for the environment.

Next story loading loading..