Public opinion on climate policy

These are some pretty cool and accessible maps documenting public opinion on climate change. They are the result of research conducted by investigators at Utah State, Yale, and George Mason Universities and published last month in Nature Climate Change. Their work has been hailed for the glimpse it provides of how opinions on climate change and climate policy vary across states, counties, and congressional districts. For instance, while raw polling results show that the majority (63%) of the populace believes “global warming is happening”, these researchers’ analysis elucidates significant disparity at the state level: 81% of Washington, D.C. residents believe global warming is happening, but only 54% of West Virginians believe as much.

Though geographic variation in beliefs about climate change has clear policy importance, I actually don’t think it’s the most compelling result of this research. Instead, what I find most fascinating are the starkly different levels of support that Americans have for different climate policies. Peruse the results at the national level, and you’ll see the following:

–        74% of the country supports “regulating CO2 as a pollutant”

–        63% of the country supports “setting strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants”

–        61% of the country supports “requiring utilities to produce 20% electricity from renewable sources”

–        44% of the country supports “a carbon tax if revenues are refunded to every American household”

Look at how many fewer people support the carbon tax option, compared to the regulations targeting coal plants and electric utilities – nearly 20%. Something about the former is undesirable, apparently. It could very well be that word TAX – it sounds like government taking money out of our hard-working hands. Or it could be that the regulations targeting coal plants and electric utilities are appealing because of their potential to affect big industry while leaving consumers unscathed.

Both of these rationales would be understandable but misguided. The tax option may sound extractive, but it is actually the only option of the four that explicitly suggests that households will be reimbursed for their share of the regulatory burden. And the policies targeting coal plants and electric utilities only sound as though they leave consumers unaffected; it is a foregone conclusion that truly strict limits on coal plants and truly binding renewable energy requirements will raise the cost of providing electricity, and that the bill will be footed predominantly by consumers.

More generally, there are two broad criteria for judging these policy options on economic grounds. The first is efficiency: which option will mitigate climate change at the lowest overall cost? The answer to that question is surely the tax option, because the tax does not discriminate among industries; instead it targets all sources of carbon dioxide emissions and allows emissions reductions to happen wherever they are cheapest.

The second criterion is equity: which option is most preferable on the grounds of distributional equality? Again, it appears to be the tax option. As I wrote last month, the costs of environmental policy compliance are usually passed on in large part from suppliers to consumers. We should therefore expect that the costs of retail energy will rise regardless of whether the U.S. implements a carbon tax, a renewable electricity requirement, or a power plant CO2 limit. However, only the carbon tax option makes any effort to counteract this heavy consumer burden, by redistributing tax revenues back to households.

My point here is not to single out and argue for the best policy; rather, it is to illustrate how hard it actually is to identify the best policy from a one-sentence description. Politically charged keywords and superficial language can all-too-easily mask the true function and result of regulation. Even a policy that is known by our “experts” to be best will not be implemented without the public being on board. Communication about the ultimate environmental and economic impacts is absolutely vital.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

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