Today the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication released the second report from their latest national survey. Reinforcing several polls that show a recent uptick in American concern about climate change, this study (fielded in March) shows that despite more immediately pressing priorities—namely economic ones—Americans are surprisingly open to climate solutions—across party lines.

In fact, Yale/George Mason found that “majorities of Americans say that global warming and clean energy should be among the nation’s priorities.” Americans also say they want more action by elected officials, corporations and citizens themselves. Three quarters—including majorities of Independents, Democrats, and Republicans—support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. And a majority says we should hold fossil fuel companies responsible for all the ‘hidden costs’ of their products.

Of particular note for Sightline audiences and fellow climate hawks, a “majority also say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a ‘revenue neutral’ tax shift from income taxes to fossil fuels.”

Of course we’ve seen Americans support policy solutions before—at least in their minds. The question now is whether our hearts are really in it—and more importantly, whether our leaders’ hearts are in it too.

  • So, there’s lots of good news here—if you’re a climate hawk. On the flip side, the partisan backlash against clean-tech and green jobs has taken a toll (but still hasn’t  made that big of a dent in Americans’ enthusiasm for clean energy). Americans are split on whether or not to end all energy subsidies—for fossil fuels and renewables (to me, it seems weird to lump clean energy with Big Oil subsidies in the question in the first place.) And, Americans still favor domestic drilling (though strong support is in decline.)

    That’s the snapshot. Now for the details.

    Yale/George Mason survey, fairly healthy shares of Americans across the political spectrum see both global warming and clean energy as a priority:

    • 72 percent of Americans think that global warming should be a very high (12%), high (28%), or medium (32%) priority for the president and Congress. Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, and 52 percent of Republicans think global warming should be a priority.
    • 92 percent of Americans think that developing sources of clean energy should be a very high (31%), high (38%), or medium (23%) priority for the president and Congress. Among registered voters, 96 percent of Democrats and Independents, and 84 percent of Republicans think clean energy should be a priority.

    Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

    Where do Americans come down on specific climate policy questions?

    As mentioned above, 61 percent said they’d be much more or somewhat more likely to support a candidate who supports tax shift legislation, described as policy “to reduce the federal income tax that Americans pay each year, but increase taxes on coal, oil, and natural gas by an equal amount,”  The question also says “This tax shift would be “revenue neutral” (meaning the total amount of taxes collected by the government would stay the same), and would create jobs and decrease pollution.”

    Standard-issue partisan divides apply here, but not as deeply as you might think. As the LA Times reports, “Support for the revenue-neutral tax falls along predictable party lines: 51% of Republicans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported a carbon tax, compared with 71% of Democrats. Among independents or those with no party affiliation the figure was 60%.”

    Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

    And while I’m on the subject of carbon taxes, I should make a brief aside to mention that Canadians—who have long showed more concern about climate change than their American counterparts, as well as far lower rates of science denial (a 2011 survey found that 80 percent of Canadians acknowledge clear scientific evidence that climate change is happening, compared to only 58 percent of Americans), and far stronger conviction that government is the best tool for solutions—also appear to be ready for climate and energy policy, including a carbon tax shift.

    Here are numbers from a Canadian poll conducted late last year by Environics Research Group:

    • When it came to the question of a carbon tax, 74 per cent of Canadians were in favour of setting limits on emissions and making companies pay for what they emit.
    • In British Columbia, where the provincial carbon tax has been in effect since 2008, public support for the tax is at an “all time high”. The poll revealed that 57 per cent of BC residents agree with the carbon tax, up from 46 per cent when surveyed in 2010.
    • In other provinces, up to 58 per cent of citizens would like to see a similar carbon tax implemented, marking a substantial increase over the past few years.

    Despite lack of real climate leadership in both countries, are US voters catching up to their northern neighbors?

    Back to US attitudes from Yale/George Mason’s report:

    • 75 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans support this policy. As Brendan Demelle points out over at DeSmogBlog, these numbers are “a stark contrast to Republican politicos who consistently suggest that the government is over-stepping its bounds by trying to regulate global warming pollution.”
    • More than two-thirds of Americans (68%) say the US should make either a large-scale or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming, even if this has large or moderate economic costs.
    • 65 percent of Americans support an international treaty requiring the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide 90% by the year 2050. Among registered voters, 78 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents, and 42 percent of Republicans support this policy. And, notably, 63 percent say the U.S. should act on its own to reduce greenhouse gases, regardless of what other nations do. (Worth noting: One answer choice names China, India—and Brazil—as nations the US should require reductions from before it acts.)
    • 61 percent of Americans support holding the fossil fuel industry (coal, oil and natural gas)
      responsible for “all the hidden costs we pay for citizens who get sick from polluted air and water, military costs to maintain our access to foreign oil, and the environmental costs of spills and accidents.” Among registered voters, 68 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Independents, and 54 percent of Republicans support this policy.

    Interestingly, Americans appear to be split on ending subsidies for energy companies (49% support, 50% oppose). But the question doesn’t single out subsidies for oil companies, which may have resulted in stronger support (at this time last year, 74 percent of American voters told pollsters they favored ending subsidies to Big Oil. The Yale/George Mason research team found similar attitudes. See: “Poll Finds Americans, Especially Independents, Overwhelmingly Oppose Subsidies to Fossil Fuels.”). In this particular survey, the researchers lumped all forms of energy production together—including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, corn ethanol, solar, and wind.

    But Americans are still keen on clean energy, despite the anti-clean backlash we’ve seen across the nation. A large majority of Americans (79%) supports funding more research into renewable energy sources. Among registered voters, 91 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 74 percent of Republicans support this policy.

    However, as the researchers surmise, it may be that some of the concerted green jobs bashing by opponents of climate policy has had a backlash effect (e.g. the much-hyped Solyndra story). The survey found that “strong support” for more research into renewables fell from 53 percent in the fall of 2008 to 36 percent in March 2012. Meanwhile opposition to renewable energy research more than doubled, from 8 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2012.

    As one of the survey’s authors, Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz, explains it in the LA Times, a handful of recent polls have identified renewable energy as a wedge issue, particularly among Republicans. “All of this is politicized—climate change is politicized,” he said, “that’s part of the real problem right now. Back in 1997, Democrats and Republicans were not that far apart on this issue. The gap between the two parties has widened and widened ever since.” (Added 4/27: See Dave Roberts’ post on clean energy as a wedge issue that favors Democrats—if they do it right.)

    When it comes to tax breaks for renewables and clean energy standards, support is still  robust. Over three quarters (76 %) supports providing tax rebates for people who purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels. And 63 percent support requiring utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if household costs increase by $100 a year. (“Strong support,” however, has decreased from 31 percent in 2008 to 20 percent now.)

    Still, when on questions of domestic oil extraction and nuclear energy, Americans do seem to be embracing the so-called “all of the above” energy strategy, but not as unequivocally as some would insist: 62 percent support expanded offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast (although “strong support” has declined since the BP oil spill in the Gulf and the typical partisan difference exist here, especially when it comes to “strong” opposition or support). Support for building more nuclear power plants fell dramatically—from 61 percent who supported it in 2008 to just 42 percent now.

    Finally, I think it’s worth noting that the survey indicates Americans still aren’t buying the false choice between economic strength and environmental health:

    • 83 percent of Americans think that protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs (58%) or has no effect on economic growth or jobs (25%). Only 17 percent think it reduces economic growth and costs jobs. When there is a conflict between the two, however, 62 percent of Americans say it is more important to protect the environment, even if it reduces economic growth, while 38 percent say economic growth is more important, even if it leads to problems.
    • Among registered voters, 91 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Independents, and 70 percent of Republicans think that overall, protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs, or has no effect on economic growth or jobs.
    • When there is a conflict between the two, however, 72 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents, and 45 percent of Republicans say it is more important to protect the environment than economic growth.

    Yale / George Mason University, Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies: March 2012.