The pollsters themselves seemed surprised by new findings that majorities of Americans would support a carbon tax. They start their report saying that “conventional wisdom holds that a carbon tax is a political non-starter.” But they end with the note that “there may be more support for a carbon tax than is commonly believed.”

Indeed, what they found may indicate a narrow political opening.

Here’s how attitudes played out in this research by University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy and Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion research.

Voters don’t much like the idea of a policy of “taxing carbon-based fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” when the destination of the tax revenues is not specified. Overall support for that started at 34 percent.

Support then dropped down to 29 percent when a 10 percent increase in monthly energy costs was mentioned as a result of a tax like this.

  • Support for a carbon tax with revenues used to reduce the federal budget deficit only garnered 38 percent support, with majorities of all political persuasions opposing the idea.

    But, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in which all the money would be returned to the public as a rebate check, brought support up to 56 percent! And notably, the largest gains in support came from Republicans, though among Republicans opponents outnumbered supporters, 53 percent to 43 percent. (Typically, the rebate check idea has been rejected because voters don’t believe they’d actually get the money. And that’s likely still a significant obstacle for such a policy.)

    The big news is that support jumped to 60 percent for a carbon tax with revenues dedicated to funding “research and development for renewable energy programs.” Significantly, 51 percent of the declared Republican respondents said they would support this kind of tax.

    But before anybody starts jumping for joy, the LA Times gives us lots of grains of salt to pour on these findings:

    Yet policymakers shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that the skids have been greased for a tax on the carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The survey results hint that the public may not accept a tax large enough to put much of a dent in emissions. And the majority it found in favor of certain types of carbon taxes included both those who said they “strongly” supported the idea those who said they “somewhat” supported it, which may overstate the real level of approval.

    But it’s encouraging nonetheless as a step in the right direction—and perhaps a little guidance when we do get to work designing carbon taxes as to what variety would be most popular.