Is economic growth more important than the environment?

February 05, 2015, 4:07 PM GMT+0

Republicans stand out from Democrats and independents by explicitly saying that economic growth is more important than protecting the environment

Sometimes the environment takes a back seat to economic development.  That happens in developing countries and elsewhere in economic bad times, but it also can be the case when a developed country is coming out of a “great recession.”  The latest Economist/YouGov Poll finds few Americans willing to put environment protection ahead of economic development. 

A majority puts the two goals on an equal footing; those who choose are more than twice as likely to place growing the economy ahead of protecting the environment.  Republicans who would make one more important than the other overwhelmingly choose the economy, while Democrats are closely divided.

This partisan split on the importance of the environment also shows up when Americans are asked how important a number of issues are to them.   Nearly all Democrats, 91%, say the environment is at least “somewhat important,” compared with 63% of Republicans.     

While younger adults are not much different that the public overall on their assessment of the importance of the environment as an issue in general, the environment ranks just behind the economy and education when those under 30 are asked to name their most important issue. 

The clash of the economy and the environment also exists on two current issues: hydraulic fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline.  Fracking, which aims to extract oil and natural gas from shale rocks by drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure, is not viewed as safe by many Americans, and more oppose than favor expanding its use. 

Both questions exhibit a party and an age gap.  By 60% to 19%, Republicans say fracking is safe; by 53% to 17%, Democrats do not.  Adults under 45 say fracking is not safe, while older adults think it is.  Those opinions influence whether people want more fracking or not. 

Southerners are the most worried of those in any region about safety: by 43% to 29%, they believe fracking isn’t safe. 

The balance of opinion is on the other side when it comes to the Keystone pipeline, though the partisan divide remains.  Americans approve of the legislation just passed in Congress, but a third have no opinion. 

Supporters of the pipeline point to its economic benefits.  And the economy/environment splits are visible here too.  Republicans overwhelmingly support the pipeline, Democrats do not, though by a smaller margin.  One in five Democrats are in favor.   Those under 30 narrowly oppose the pipeline. 

The Keystone pipeline would run through the middle of the country, and those in the Midwest and South (along with people in the West) are significantly in favor.  Those who live in the Northeast are divided: one-third in favor, one third opposed.

See the full poll results

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.