Standard survey questions often uphold (or manufacture) false dichotomies. Case in point: the perpetual practice of pitting the environment against the economy. Nonetheless, these questions can reveal interesting trends over time. And every now and then, the numbers show that the public sees right through “either/or” questions that just don’t add up — like recent research that shows Americans link economic opportunity to environmental protection.

First, recent trends on that pesky “environment vs. economy” question:

According to a new Gallup poll conducted March 6-9, despite fears of a looming recession, Americans continue to favor protecting the environment even at the risk of curbing economic growth: 49 percent to 42 percent. But this seven-point margin is down from the 18-point margin of a year ago, when 55 percent favored the environment. Further, the 49 percent of Americans currently favoring the environment over growth is only two points above the historical low over the past couple of decades.

It’s no wonder margins are narrowing for the environment. Ninety-five percent of Americans believe the current U.S. energy situation is very serious (46 percent) or fairly serious (49 percent). Further, 62 percent think the United States is likely to face a critical energy shortage during the next five years. The economy consistently ranks first as Americans’ top concern.

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In spite of these fears and today’s high gas prices (Americans expect gas prices to rise by 21 percent this year), 50 percent of Americans say protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies such as oil, gas, and coal that the United States produces. However, this 9-point margin is down from 24 points last year, when Americans favored prioritizing the environment by 58 percent to 34 percent.

(In this same vein, just over half of Americans continue to oppose opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration.)

Majorities say ‘conservation is key’:

By a margin of 61 percent to 29 percent, Americans favor emphasizing more consumer conservation of existing energy supplies, rather than emphasizing the production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies. This is down from the 64 percent to 26 percent margin of a year ago. Still, despite their fears of a future energy shortage and in the face of record gas prices, Americans continue to favor a conservation approach by a margin similar to that seen in most Gallup polls since 2001.

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And, finally, the public’s triumph over the tyranny of survey questions:

Polling conducted elsewhere has shown that the public sees a false dichotomy for what it is. An L.A. Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans endorsed the idea that improving the environment need not conflict with economic growth (only 25 percent thought that improving the environment conflicts with economic growth). And a survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Center for American Progress shows that last year, Americans had already started to see climate fighting measures as pathways to economic growth and new jobs. For example:

  • By a whopping 79 to 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 to 35 percent, Americans believe raising car and truck mileage standards will save, not cost, people money.

Further, the majority of 32,000 Americans surveyed for the Conference of Mayors in a Jan. 2008 public opinion poll “believe local efforts to be environmentally sensitive by ‘going green’ will pay off for their communities by attracting new businesses and development, creating ‘green collar jobs,’ and boosting the local economy.”

As economic woes have Americans wringing their hands, it’s up to drafters of smart climate policy and elected officials to deliver on this optimism and to reinforce the reality that healthy economies and thriving environments go hand in hand.