Americans prefer climate regulations over market-based measures

Source: Julia Pyper, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2012

Economists commonly favor market-based methods of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, such as taxes and emissions trading schemes, but a new survey shows that the American public does not.

Rather than putting a price on carbon, Americans tend to support regulatory programs on clean energy development, industrial emission controls and vehicle mileage standards, according to the spring 2012 National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (NSAPOCC).

“Since we started the survey, we have generally seen a pattern where regulations, especially when they’re not directly tied to a cost on individuals, are fairly well-received by Americans,” said Christopher Borick, a professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

Borick and his co-author, Barry Rabe, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, launched the NSAPOCC survey in the fall of 2008.

“Our very first fielding came right at the time when the economy was really in the midst of a free fall,” he said. “But we still at that point saw some genuinely strong support for a number of policies, but never support for a price on carbon.”

A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents “strongly oppose” increasing taxes on fossil fuels, according to the survey. But Democrats are highly divided, with 48 percent overall showing some form of support for the tax and 46 percent against.

Views are more aligned against a tax on gasoline, which a clear majority of all political groups oppose.

Cap and trade — a key component of climate change legislation that passed in the House in 2009 but died in the Senate — remains a polarizing issue with 42 percent of the national population opposed, 35 percent in support and 22 percent unsure. Democrats made up the majority of supporters, but these findings reflect a continuous overall decline in support for cap and trade from 2008.

National clean energy standard gets bipartisan support

Public opinion on climate policy was more unified around regulatory options for tackling climate change. A majority of Americans — 59 percent — support some kind of federal greenhouse gas regulations. Democrats and independents made up the bulk of that number.

Overall support dropped to 52 percent and became more politically polarized when respondents were asked whether they specifically supported the Obama administration’s policy to use the Clean Air Act to enforce greenhouse gas emissions reductions from major industrial sources.

On vehicle fuel efficiency, 73 percent of Americans support the increase of average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Fifty-three percent and a majority across all groups continued to support the regulation even if the price of a new car went up 5 percent.

Perhaps most noteworthy, while there is currently no federal policy mandating the use of renewable energy, the clear majority of survey respondents support a national standard to reduce greenhouse gases by requiring that a certain amount of electricity come from clean energy sources such as wind, solar or hydroelectric power.

More than 90 percent of Democrats “strongly support” or “somewhat support” a federal clean energy standard, and 81 percent of independents were also supportive of such a policy. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans were in support but still a clear majority of that group.

Ted Gayer, an economist with the Brookings Institution, argued in a recent paper, however, that regulatory means of addressing climate change are more inflexible, inefficient and costly compared to a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax (ClimateWire, June 12).

Democrats and independents sense warming

The report on climate policy coincides with another NSAPOCC survey that found an uptick in the number of American adults who believe climate change is taking place. This spring, 65 percent of respondents said they think there is solid evidence that the temperature on Earth has been increasing over the past four decades — the highest rate since the fall of 2009. Last spring, that number was 55 percent.

The survey found that views on climate change were highly correlated to political affiliation. Eighty-one percent of Democrats said there is solid evidence of global warming, up from 73 percent last year. For Republicans, that number remained unchanged, at 42 percent, from one year to the next. The percentage of independents made the biggest jump from 52 percent last spring to 72 percent this year.

“I think economic factors can absolutely contribute, but I would argue that the most compelling evidence for the uptick is related to meteorological events and conditions,” Borick said.

In spring surveys following the cold and snowy winters of 2010 and 2011, the authors saw a decline in belief levels. After the very mild and relatively snow-free winter of 2012, belief levels increased.

Independents, who are the key group in swaying national averages, were aligned closer to Republicans both in terms of their beliefs and policy positions on climate change in earlier years. But in this spring’s survey, they clustered closer to Democrats.