Amid Struggling Economy, Environment Still a Priority

By David Bositis, Joint Center Senior Political Analyst

Recent surveys and news reports have suggested that Americans have lost their appetite for protecting the environment and dealing with climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth.

At the present time, the discussion of public support for legislation to reduce emissions related to global warming is being juxtaposed against the government dealing with the country’s economic crisis. The suggestion that climate change legislation cannot be enacted because that somehow will harm the economy is false for many reasons.

First, the provisions in the current climate change legislation are not intended to take effect until the economy has recovered from its current downturn. Further, climate change legislation does not represent a threat to the economy; on the contrary, in the future, green jobs will represent a major source of new employment in the U.S.

Second, The notion that the Obama Administration is not focused on the jobs and the economy is partisan critique, nothing more. President Obama proposed and his allies in the U.S. Congress successfully enacted a massive–and historic–stimulus bill to deal with the economic crisis almost immediately after he assumed office. His administration is still strongly focused on the economy with plans to redirect some of the money appropriated for TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) toward job creation efforts.

This misrepresentation of public views on global warming takes advantage of one of the most fundamental truisms in public opinion polling. When the economy is in trouble, job loss and economic insecurity dominate the public’s thinking. Since the end of the draft and the all-volunteer military, during economic downturns, not even issues of war and peace have been as important in the public’s mind as jobs and the economy.

The public’s focus on jobs and the economy does not mean other issues are not important to them; they will rise in the public’s cognitive agenda as anxiety about the economy recedes. As the U.S. economy improves, environmental issues and global warming will once again become major issues with the public.

The Joint Center has been conducting surveys of African Americans for 25 years, and over that time period there have been several issues–racial discrimination, police brutality, poor schools, and health care disparities–that have been major concerns to African Americans. However, during that time period, whenever the economy was in a downturn, jobs and the economy became the dominant issues on their minds. Does that mean African Americans were no longer concerned about racism, policy brutality, and their children’s schools? Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Last fall we released a survey showing that African Americans were concerned about climate change and were willing to sacrifice to deal with the problem. Is climate change the most important issue to African Americans at this time? Of course not–like everyone else, jobs and the economy are what most African Americans have on their minds. But when people stop worrying about where their next meal, or car payment, or mortgage payment will come from, things will be different.


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