Environment versus economy: a false choice?

Most Americans believe that environmental protection and the economy go hand-in-hand. So why do polls assume that they are incompatible?

A 150-foot-long blade is moved into position for delivery to a new wind farm in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, 940 miles away.

Watching this country's quadrennial ritual of legitimizing its ruling class got me wondering: As millions lined up Tuesday to check boxes, punch holes, and tap screens in the hopes that the next iteration of the US government would better reflect their values, how much thought did they give to environmental problems?

As it happens, the advocacy group Environment America recently emailed me a 52-slide PowerPoint presentation that tries to answer that very question. Assembled by pollster and Democratic political strategist Celinda Lake, the slide show offers the results of dozens of public opinion surveys from different polling organizations, a glimpse of America's environmental conscience.

There are some broad themes – most Americans believe that the quality of the natural environment is only fair or poor, and most take candidates' environmental policies into account when voting. But when you take a closer look, the results become largely incoherent. According to the slide show, only 46 percent of Americans believe that human activity is responsible for global warming, but 71 percent have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Some 13 percent say that environmental problems are the most significant threat to the US and its allies, but only 5 percent say that these should be the top priorities of the president and Congress. Three-fourths support a five-year moratorium on new coal plants and increased investment in clean energy, but two-thirds believe that the US should promote greater use of coal-fired electricity. Judging by this collection of surveys, we are a nation of environmental Sybils.

Now we all contradict ourselves from time to time, especially when it comes to the environment. But there's no way that one in four Americans are trying to cut their carbon emissions while at the same time believing that carbon emissions don't cause global warming. We may not be perfectly consistent, but we're not schizoid either. The polls themselves must be responsible for sounding some of these dissonant notes.

I'll bet that a lot of it comes down to the wording of the questions. Asking what someone believes will elicit a different answer than asking what they do. Asking about a government's priorities is different from asking about threats to a nation. And perhaps some of the incongruities can be traced to the samples themselves and to when the surveys were conducted.

But I think that many opinion polls are actively inviting contradiction by the way they frame certain questions. Take this query, which the Opinion Research Corporation presented to 1,004 Americans in July:

I'd like to read you a list of priorities. Please tell me which one response you feel is the most important priority/second most important priority for the next President and Congress to address....The economy, health care, education, homeland security, national defense, the environment?

Not surprisingly, the economy won out, with 45 percent calling it the most important. The environment came in last, with only 5 percent.

But in June then the same polling organization asked 1,026 people this question:

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?

Believe it or not, the results were almost evenly split, with slightly more respondents saying that they would favor the environment over economic growth.

How do the same pollsters manage to ask basically the same question within a month and get such wildly disparate results? Because it's a really weird question.

When asked directly, most Americans don't say that the economy and the environment are inherently opposed. Here's what a 2006 Los Angeles Times poll [PDF] of 1,478 adults found:

The public is optimistic . . . that protecting the environment does not have to conflict with economic growth, long a contention of those who are looking to dismantle or weaken environmental protection laws. Almost three times as many said it does not have to conflict as said that it does (70% compared to 25%).

And here's what a 2007 poll by the Center for American Progress of 500 adults found:

Americans view alternative energy and more efficient cars not only as a means for energy independence and reducing global warming, but also as economic boons.
• By a whopping 79 – 17 percent margin, people believe that shifting to new, alternative energy production will help America’s economy and create jobs, not cost American jobs.
• By a 22-point margin, 57 – 35 percent, Americans believe raising car and truck mileage standards will save, not cost, people money.

And in January 2008, a Zogby poll of 32,000 Americans found that a majority "believe that if their local communities adopt more environmentally friendly policies, there will be a positive impact on the local economy. They think green technology will create new local jobs [and] make their communities better places to live."

If these polls are correct, most Americans think that improving the environment and stimulating the economy are quite compatible. So when pollsters frame the two as mutually exclusive, they get bizarre results. It's like asking people if they prefer "exercise" over "jogging" and then expecting the answers to be meaningful.

Polls are about perceptions of facts, not the facts themselves. But reality seems to confirm that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand-in-hand.

As the conservative environmentalist John Bliese pointed out in 1999, US states with stricter environmental regulations outperform states with weaker regulations "on all the economic measures." The same is true for countries – those with the most stringent environmental rules tend to show the best economic performance.

It doesn't necessarily follow from this that strict environmental regulations actively foster economic growth, or even that they never hinder it. But it does suggest that we're not always playing the zero-sum game that many make it out to be.

So why does the media keep pushing this economy versus environment meme? Well, you need some way to categorize things, and there are indeed many cases where an individual company's or industry's profits are directly threatened by environmental interests. It makes for a convenient narrative.

But one of the central messages of environmentalism is that things are often interrelated in surprising ways. How would cutting mercury emissions affect health care costs? How would swapping Saudi oil with American wind power affect national security? How would capping carbon emissions affect the job market?

Like other global problems, environmental degradation doesn't exist in a vacuum. It touches just about everything: agriculture, energy, trade, health, human rights, war, and peace. By listing "the environment" as just one of an inventory of discrete "issues," we are ignoring the fact that, by definition, the environment is everywhere, and occluding visions held by many Americans of societies that are both green and prosperous.

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