The Environment Moves Onto the Back Burner

As the economy worsens, evidence accumulates that Americans are willing to subordinate their environmentalist concern for now.

A CBS News/New York Times poll last month asked respondents to say which is more important to them: “stimulating the economy or protecting the environment?” The environment ran a distant second, with 33 percent choosing it as the higher priority, while 58 percent chose the economy. (The rest said “both” or declined to answer.) The poll’s Republicans backed econo-stimulus over eco-protection by 73 percent to 20 percent. Even among the Democrats, revving up the economy pulled a majority of the vote — 52 percent, vs. 38 percent favoring environmental protection.

Polling for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, meanwhile, traces the downward trajectory of environmental emphasis. Pew asked respondents last month to say which domestic issues should be treated as a “top priority” by the feds. Most of those polled (85 percent) accorded this status to the economy. But fewer than half cited the environment (41 percent) or global warming (30 percent), leaving these issues behind the likes of education (61 percent), health insurance (52 percent), crime (46 percent) and “moral decline” (45 percent).

The number saying environmental protection should be a top priority has fallen 15 percentage points since last January, in Pew’s polling, while the number saying the same about global warming has declined 5 points.

Pew’s report says the drop in “top priority” concern for the environment “crosses partisan and demographic lines.” The tally among women has fallen by 14 points since last January (from 57 percent to 43 percent); it’s down by 16 points among men (from 55 percent to 39 percent).

In a breakdown by age group, the decline has been particularly sharp among 50-64-year-olds (56 percent to 35 percent). That’s a dangerous omen for marketers of green goods, since this is an age cohort that has tended to turn its environmentalist sentiment into practical consumer action.