May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 9: The Environment and the Economy

The public continues to express widespread support, in principle, for protecting the environment. Overall, a large majority (83%) agrees that stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment are needed, a view that has changed little over the past decade.

But there have been substantial declines in the proportions of Americans who view environmental protection as a priority if it means slower economic growth or higher prices. Currently, just 51% say that protecting the environment should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and some job losses. That is down from 66% in 2007.

Similarly, 49% agree that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment, a decline of 11 points since 2007 and the lowest percentage agreeing with this statement since the Pew Research Center began asking this question in 1992.

The partisan divide over environmental values has widened considerably since the early 1990s, as far fewer Republicans express support for protecting the environment. The current survey also shows fewer independents agreeing that environmental protection should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and that people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment. In addition, fewer young people support environmental protection when these economic tradeoffs are mentioned than in 2007.

Meanwhile, there has been no change in the public’s broad support for several proposals aimed at addressing the nation’s energy supply. Large majorities favor funding for alternative energy (82%), spending on mass transit (70%) and allowing more offshore drilling in U.S. waters (68%).

Public opinion about direct government investment in new energy technology breaks down along familiar partisan lines, with Democrats strongly in favor of such investments and Republicans saying that business will produce needed technology without government investment.

Long-Term Trends in Environmental Values

In 1992, 90% agreed that stricter environmental laws and regulations were needed; this percentage declined to 82% two years later and has remained relatively stable for over a decade. In addition, substantially fewer completely agree that tougher laws and regulations are needed than did so in 1992.

At that time, 55% completely agreed such laws and regulations were needed. That figure declined subsequently, reaching a low of 35% in 2007 before recovering somewhat to 41% in the current survey.

Opinions about whether people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment have changed dramatically in just the past two years. The public is now evenly divided on the question: 49% agree and 48% disagree that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment. In 2007, 60% agreed and 37% disagreed, and as recently as 2003, 65% agreed that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.

In addition, far fewer Americans say protecting the environment should be given priority even if it means slower economic growth and some job losses. About half (51%) now agree that protecting the environment should be given priority while 43% disagree. Views have changed considerably since 2007 when 66% agreed and 30% disagreed; little change in views had occurred between 2002 and 2007.

These findings are consistent with those from the Pew Research Center’s annual review of the public’s policy priorities conducted in January where the percent saying the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress was 41%, down from 56% in 2008. The percent who believe strengthening the nation’s economy should be a top priority increased from 75% in 2008 to 85% in 2009 and improving the job situation grew from 61% to 82%. As Americans have become more focused on the economy, there has been some decline in support for the environment, at least when economic issues are raised in the question. (For more information see Jan. 2009 Economy, Jobs Trump All Other Policy Priorities in 2009).

Partisan Differences over the Environment

Democrats express far more support than Republicans for environmental protection and this gap has widened considerably since the early 1990s. In the current survey, nearly all Democrats (94%) agree that there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, compared with 64% of Republicans. In 2003, 96% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans said stricter environmental laws and regulations were needed. In 1992, the partisan gap was just seven points; since then, the proportion of Republicans agreeing with this statement has declined 22 points (from 86% to 64%), while Democratic opinions have fluctuated very little.

Independents’ opinions about the need for tougher environmental regulations have changed modestly since 1992. Currently, 82% of independents support stricter environmental laws and regulations, down slightly from 85% in 2007. In 1992, 91% of independents backed tougher rules to protect the environment.

There has been a decline across partisan lines in the percent who agree that people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment (60% to 49%), but the drop is steepest among independents and Republicans. About half of independents (49%) agree that people should pay higher prices to help protect the environment, a decline of 17 points since 2007. Slightly more than a third of Republicans (36%) say that people should be willing to pay more to protect the environment, down from 46% in 2007 and from 60% in 2003.

A majority of Democrats (59%) believe that people should pay higher prices to help protect the environment, only a slight decrease since 2007 (64%). The nine-point partisan gap on this issue in 2003 has now more than doubled to 23 points.

A similar pattern emerges on whether people think protecting the environment should be given priority even if it means slower economic growth and some job losses. The percent agreeing that protecting the environment should be given priority is down across party lines and the party gap on this issue remains wide. A majority of Democrats (63%) and independents (53%) agree that the environment should be given priority compared with 38% of Republicans. Democrats and Republicans have dropped 10 and 12 points respectively over the past two years, but the drop among independents has been even larger. In 2007, 72% of independents agreed that the environment should be given priority even if it means slower economic growth and some job losses but the percent agreeing with this statement has dropped 19 points in just two years.

Divides in Both Parties over the Environment

There are also large ideological differences within the two major parties over protecting the environment. Republicans are divided over the need for stricter environmental laws and regulations. More than three-fourths (77%) of moderate and liberal Republicans agree that tougher laws are needed compared with only 57% of conservative Republicans. By contrast, Democrats uniformly support more environmental protection.

Members of both parties differ over whether protecting the environment should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and some job losses. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of liberal Democrats agree that environmental protection should be the priority compared with 57% of moderate and conservative Democrats, 44% of moderate and liberal Republicans and only 34% of conservative Republicans. There is a similar pattern in opinions about whether people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.

Fewer Young People See Environment as Priority

There have been declines across most social and demographic groups in the percent who agree that protecting the environment should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and some job losses and the share that says people should be willing to pay higher prices to help protect the environment. But the decline has been particularly steep among young people, the affluent and college graduates.

Currently, opinion among young people is divided on whether the environment should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth; 49% of those under 30 agree while 47% disagree. Two years ago 70% of people under 30 agreed and only 27% disagreed. In 2007, 71% of people with family incomes of $75,000 or more agreed that the environment should be a priority; 54% do so today. Similarly, 59% of college graduates say the environment should be a priority, a decline of 18 points over the last two years.

On the issue of whether people should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment, 46% of young people agree, down 17 points in two years. There has been no change in support among those with family incomes of less than $30,000, but the percent of those who agree that people should be willing to pay higher prices has declined among those earning $30,000 or more. Support among college graduates is also down from 71% in 2007 to 57% now.

More than three-fourths of Americans (77%) recycle paper, plastic or glass from home. People who recycle express more support for environmental protection than those who do not recycle. More than eight-in-ten recyclers (84%) say there needs to be stricter environmental laws and regulations, compared with 77% of those who do not recycle. Similarly, 52% of recyclers say people should be willing to pay higher prices to help protect the environment, compared with 41% of those who do not recycle. This is similar to 2002 when more recyclers supported environmental protection than those who did not recycle.

Government Investment in Energy

Overall, a majority of Americans (58%) think that government investment is necessary to develop new energy technology while 32% say that businesses will produce the technology that is needed and 10% are unsure. Differences vary considerably across party lines. Three-fourths of Democrats and a majority of independents (56%) think that government investment is necessary compared with only 37% of Republicans. A majority of Republicans (51%) think businesses will produce the technology we need. There are also differences in opinion about government investment in energy technology by age. Among those under 30, seven-in-ten say that government investment is necessary, compared with 59% of those ages 30 to 49, 56% of those 50 to 64 and only 43% of those 65 and older.

There has been no change in the public’s support for various energy policies. A large majority continues to favor increasing federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen technology (82%) and spending more on subway, rail and bus systems (70%). Opinions on alternative energy and mass transit have remained relatively stable over the past four years and these policies garner support across party lines.

Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) also support allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, while 27% oppose this policy. These views have changed little since September 2008 but continue to differ by party affiliation. Nearly nine-in-ten Republicans (88%) favor allowing more offshore drilling, compared with 67% of independents and 56% of Democrats.

Americans are more divided on whether the government should promote the increased use of nuclear power (45% favor while 48% oppose). These numbers are similar to February of 2008 when 44% favored this policy but down slightly from the 50% in September of 2008 who favored the increased use of nuclear power. More than half of Republicans (57%) and half of independents favor expanding nuclear power, compared with only 35% of Democrats. Increasing taxes on gasoline to encourage conservation receives the lowest levels of support with only 24% favoring this policy, similar to last time it was asked in February 2008. About a third of Democrats (34%) favor this policy compared with only 22% of independents and 16% of Republicans.

Westerners Wary of Offshore Drilling

Opinions about energy policy also differ by region. There is greater support in the Northeast for increasing funding for wind, solar and hydrogen technology (90%) and spending more on mass transit (76%) than in the South. Although a majority in the West (55%) favors expanding offshore drilling, the share is significantly smaller than the share in the South and the Midwest. A greater share of those in the West (32%) favor increasing gas taxes compared with those living in the South (18%).

College graduates are significantly more likely than those with lower levels of education to favor increasing funding for alternative energy, spending more on mass transit, promoting the increased use of nuclear power and increasing taxes on gasoline. Nine-in-ten college graduates favor increasing funding for wind, solar and hydrogen, compared with 76% of people with a high school degree or less education. College graduates also are more likely to favor promoting the increased use of nuclear power (60%) than those with only a high school education (38%). More than twice as many college graduates favor increasing gasoline taxes as non-college graduates.

Who Recycles?

More than three-fourths of Americans (77%) recycle paper, plastic or glass from home, up from 70% in 2002. Recycling is up among virtually all demographic groups.

In general, slightly more women than men recycle (79% vs. 74%). There are no age differences in who recycles but significantly more young people are recycling than in 2002. Similar to 2002, more college graduates recycle than those who have not graduated from college.

Unlike many environmental policies, there are no differences in recycling by partisan affiliation or ideology. Fewer people living in the South recycle (67%) than those who live in other regions although recycling is up since 2002 in all regions except the Northeast.