The Gallup annual environmental survey, released March 29, 2012, shows that 49% of Americans prioritize economic growth over environmental protection, while 41% of Americans value protection over growth. That’s an 8-point margin in favor of growth, down from last year’s 18-point margin.

During times of economic hardship it’s understandable that people, especially those that are having trouble paying their bills or are in danger of losing their jobs, would prioritize economic growth over protection of the environment.

But there’s something funny going on with this poll. Let’s take a look at the question:

With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree – [ROTATED: 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]?

This question strikes me as a little misleading. They seem to suggest that environmental protection and economic growth cannot occur simultaneously. Perhaps the phrasing of the question is a reflection of the common misconception that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic growth.

So what this poll has actually discovered is that 49% of Americans favor the economy over the environment when protecting the environment curbs economic growth.

Economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive; economic growth can spur innovation in renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, and investment in such technologies can promote economic growth.

As Robert and Edward Ayres report in Crossing the Energy Divide, American steelmaker ArcelorMittal has a program called “cokenergy”, where excess heat from blast furnaces is used to generate electricity and heat their facilities. The program generates enough electricity to power their entire Chicago plant, at about half the cost of electricity from the local utility. This saves ArcelorMittal money that can then be used elsewhere, like hiring workers, buying equipment, or R&D.

Some estimates say the US gained over 9 million jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency industry in 2007 alone. This might be an optimistic estimate, but even if only a fraction of that number of jobs have been created, implying that environmental protection cannot occur at the same time as economic growth is simply incorrect.

And then there are all the jobs from natural gas development. Granted, natural gas isn’t as environmentally friendly as solar or wind, but I think an argument can be made that the expansion in natural gas exploration (and subsequent job creation) was at least partly influenced by the push toward lower-carbon energy sources.

But I digress. The point is that the wording of the question above from Gallup’s annual environmental survey appears somewhat misleading, which may affect the results of the survey.

That’s not to say that Gallup’s results are invalid, just that the results may not accurately reflect Americans’ attitudes toward the importance of environmental protection. It’s possible that, if the phrases “even at the risk of curbing economic growth” and “even if the environment suffers to some extent” were removed from the survey, the results would reflect a different trend among Americans.

That doesn’t mean that changing the language would necessarily show that more Americans are concerned about the environment. Maybe environmentalists would be more willing to choose the economic development option if they didn’t think it reduced environmental protections. Or maybe others would be more inclined to promote environmental protection if it wasn’t portrayed as reducing economic growth.

There is no doubt that the pollsters at Gallup are very careful to write questions that are unbiased. It’s possible that they’ve considered all of this already, and have decided that the effects are negligible.

One last thing. The chart below shows a decent correlation between the recessions in ’81,’90,’01, and ’07 and a narrowing of the gap between those who support environmental protection and those who support economic growth.

Image Credit: Gallup