Lots of polling shows that Americans are good and ready for somebody to do something about climate change. But when it comes to specific policy measures, attitudes aren’t always so clear cut—especially if the policy solution features the word “tax.”

However, several recent surveys give insights into Americans’ current attitudes about carbon taxes. And support seems to be steady—and in some cases, quite high.

Depending on how survey questions are worded, support has been hovering around 50 percent—and nudging up to 60 percent on a good day. But support drops to below half when increases in energy costs are specified, or, surprisingly, when there’s mention of tax rebates or refunds.

But in the context of deficit reduction, American voters become more supportive of carbon taxes, especially when survey questions present them with stark choices between a tax on pollution and cuts to spending on government programs they like.

An either-or choice

A national survey of 1,000 voters was conducted in December 2012 by the Mellman Group and commissioned by Friends of the Earth.

When given an either-or choice, 67 percent of Americans would prefer to see the government “tax carbon dioxide pollution from big polluters such as oil, gas, and other companies” rather than cut spending “on programs like education, Social Security, Medicare and environmental protection” to solve our budget problems.

Compared with taxing carbon pollution, only 15 percent of respondents favored cutting government spending as a way of solving our budget problems. Support for a carbon tax option over cutting spending was high among Democrats (93 percent in favor) and Republicans (66 percent) alike.

Survey respondents remained favorable toward a carbon tax when arguments in support of such a measure were paired with strongly-worded statements against it, including the argument that a carbon tax represents a “new tax on every business and consumer in America” and should not be proposed at a time when the economy remains in trouble.

In fact, two pro-carbon tax statements proved similarly compelling when pitted against the anti-tax message:

  • 67 percent of respondents favored a carbon tax when posed with the rebuttal that the tax would curb greenhouse gases while providing revenue.
  • 64 percent favored the tax when presented with the rebuttal that it would spur clean energy investments and fund efforts to combat the effects of climate change.

Voters’ support for carbon taxes did not differ greatly based on how the revenue would be used: whether to help solve our budget problems (70 percent in favor), or to help solve our budget problems as well as fund climate and clean energy jobs programs (72 percent in favor).

Respondents were split on whether taxing oil and gas companies based on how much carbon pollution they emit to get the deficit under control would “cost American jobs”—28 percent; “not affect American jobs”—28 percent; or “create new American jobs”—25 percent.

Multiple choice

In November 2012, Slate conducted a poll (sponsored by the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund and conducted by YouGov) that measured support for different options to reduce the deficit using an online ranking tool. Calling it “We the People, Fix the Budget,” they asked a representative sample of 1,000 Americans to choose the options that were the “least painful.”

Respondents were given a specific deficit reduction goal: Cut at least $900 billion from the projected deficit in 2022 by choosing among 10 options for raising revenue or cutting spending that correspond to options laid out by the Congressional Budget Office.

They found that, on average, Americans “want higher taxes, cuts in government services, and military downsizing—but want to preserve Medicare and Social Security.” Notably, a carbon tax landed the 5th spot (of 10), receiving the support of more than 56 percent of respondents. As Slate explained it, “Here we see how much context matters. People may hate the idea of a carbon tax in the abstract, but when faced with the alternatives for raising revenue, more than half of them support it.”

Just the tax, Ma’am

When survey respondents are presented with a carbon tax on its own, not paired with trade-offs in spending or cuts, support is lower.

A recent survey, the latest of the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment (NSEE) twice-annual climate surveys—in the field in September and October, 2012found that a “narrow plurality supports establishing a tax applied to multiple fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas levels”—a carbon tax.

The good news here, if any? The researchers note that this finding is contrary to a number of their earlier studies that found solid majority opposition to a carbon tax.

Support for the tax declined when a specific cost was attached to the policy (a 10 percent increase in energy prices). Another silver lining here? This shift is not as extensive as it was for two other, far more popular policies—renewable electricity standards and increases in vehicle fuel efficiency.

When respondents were given 6 distinct options for how to use funds generated by a carbon tax, usage of tax revenues for renewable energy research was clearly the most popular option, followed by repeal of the carbon tax itself, and then usage of funds for deficit reduction.

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  • Other uses of the revenue proved significantly less popular, including a shift from payroll taxes which came in dead last.

    The NSEE surveys are conducted by the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College and the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan.

    In September 2012 the Yale Project on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that more than half of Americans said they would vote for a candidate who supports a revenue neutral carbon tax, especially if it was described as creating “more American jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries” (61 percent would support such a candidate); if it would “decrease pollution by encouraging companies to find less polluting alternatives” (58 percent), or if it was used to “pay down the national debt” (52 percent).

    The numbers dropped to fewer than half for a candidate who supports a carbon tax “used to reduce the federal income tax” (47 percent support); or to give a tax “refund of $180 dollars a year to the average American household” (39 percent support).

    The NSEE and the Yale and George Mason surveys test various options for spending carbon tax revenues, but don’t frame the choice to implement a carbon tax in the first place as an alternative to cutting government spending or raising other taxes.

    The trends are positive here—if just slightly, but if we take these data along with the two other surveys, the lesson may be that we should give more context, framing the carbon tax not only as a solution to our deficit problem and a way to cut pollution and invest in clean energy, but also as a solution that protects us from unwanted cuts as we get our deficit under control.


    Here’s a snapshot of the takeaways:

    • Support for climate action is high and trending up. Across party lines, there is support for taking action to reduce global warming. A large majority of Americans say the US should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs. Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans now think temperatures are rising and that global warming will be a serious problem for the United States if nothing is done about it.
    • Support for a carbon tax is tepid but steady. Support hovers just above 50 percent—sometimes hitting 60 percent or above depending on how survey questions are worded and what context is given.
    • An either-or choice in the context of fixing the deficit increases support for a carbon tax. When faced with stark choices between a carbon tax and cuts to spending on government programs like Social Security and education, support for a carbon tax can rise to nearly 70 percent.
    • Americans support spending carbon tax revenue on renewable energy and efficiency. Americans’ top choice for using revenue from a carbon tax is investment in renewable energy and efficiency (with more support when survey questions emphasize jobs). In a simple ranking (and not as a trade-off for spending cuts, for example) there is less support for using the revenue to help reduce the deficit.
    • Americans are cautious about the costs of a carbon tax. Support tends to drop when specific costs are spelled out (e.g. when costs per family or percentage increases in energy costs are specified).
    • Americans don’t seem to buy into tax rebates or refunds. American voters aren’t necessarily sold on tax rebates or refunds from carbon tax revenue. These options for carbon tax revenue are usually ranked at the lowest in a list of options, even when dollar amounts are specified (e.g. a hypothetical $180 refund per household.)