Washington (CNN) – The recession and concerns about the economy have dampened public enthusiasm for policies to protect the environment, a new national poll indicates.
According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, 51 percent of Americans say that economic growth should be a higher priority than protecting the environment, even if the environment suffers to some extent, with 45 percent saying that protecting the environment tops the economy, even at the risk of curbing economic growth.
The poll, which was released Wednesday, indicates that attitudes on the issue have changed over the past few years. The 51 percent who say the economy is a higher priority than the environment is up from 37 percent who felt that way in 2006 before the start of the current recession. The 45 percent who now rank the environment as the top concern represents a seven point drop from 2006.
Older and younger Americans apparently don't see eye to eye on the issue. Fifty-eight percent of people 50 years of age and older questioned in the poll say that the economy should be the top priority, with 37 percent saying that the environment is more important. Among those 18 to 49 years old, just over half say that protecting the environment is most important and 47 percent say the economy is most important.
"Most Americans under 50 years old choose the environment; most older Americans pick the economy," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Not surprisingly, there is a partisan gap as well, with most Democrats giving the environment the top spot while 56 percent of Independents and seven out of ten Republicans choose the economy."
The survey's release comes as President Barack Obama unveiled plans to open large swaths of U.S. coastal waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling - a move that could please the energy industry but upset the administration's environmental supporters.
According to the poll, 43 percent say that current environmental laws should go further, but just over one in four say they are adequate as they are and nearly three in ten say they go too far.
"Barack Obama gets one of his highest marks on the environment, with 55 percent saying they approve of how he has handled environmental policy," adds Holland. "But only two percent say that energy and the environment will be the most important issues affecting their vote this year - dead last among the seven issues tested."
The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted March 19-21, with 1,030 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
– CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report
Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @psteinhausercnn