Voters conflicted on price vs. climate action

The American people are convinced that global warming is real, but are reluctant to take meaningful steps to deal with the problem, according to a report by the firm American Environics.

The company analyzed the polling done on climate change “to benefit policy makers attempting to craft a comprehensive solution to climate change.”

The report says Americans overwhelmingly believe that global warming is occurring. They also think the government should do something about it. But exactly what it should do is harder to pin down.The report says:

The debate about the validity of the science predicting global warming is over, and there is consensus that the government should take action to solve the problem.  Recent polling found 82 percent believing that global warming exists, 70 percent believing that global warming is causing problems now, and 70 percent believing the government should do more to solve the problem.

But when Americans put on their voter identities, they don’t rally to the cause. Despite the attention the issue has gotten, voter concern about the issue ranks down there with dog licensing and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Citing a January poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the report finds:

Although Americans view global warming as a problem that is already occurring, they rank the war, energy costs, health care, and a host of other issues as higher priorities. In fact, Pew recently found that “dealing with global warming” ranked 20th out of 23 policy priorities tested.

An important issue is that Americans simply don’t want to pay more for the energy they use. If human-generate carbon dioxide emissions — the chief cause of the recent warming — are not curtailed, then no solution is likely. The vast majority of these emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels for energy. One of the time-tested ways to reduce this impact is to raise the price of energy. But:

Americans are extremely sensitive to the cost of energy, and they are very willing to express their anger over high energy costs to members of Congress.  Allowing the issue to be framed as one that increases energy costs will create political difficulty for the tenuous majorities in both the House and Senate.

The poll assessment may point to a politically achievable strategy. Voters are very supportive of large investments in renewable energy to achieve energy independence. The Gallop Poll …

… found investment to be the most popular of a set of policy responses to global warming.  As a political message, when investment is framed as creating energy independence and fighting global warming it proves to be tremendously powerful.”

The trouble is that most economic analyses of investment renewables find that they don’t do very much to cut emissions. A study by the Electric Power Research Institute, for instance, found that California’s renewables initiative, which requires that 20 percent of the state’s energy be generated by renewables by 2020, would only result in a slightly lower level of carbon emissions by 2050 compared with the current pace. California will emit about 440 million tons of CO2 in 2010. Under the baseline case, that will grow to about 720 million tons by 2050. But with the renewables investment, the level would be about 660 million tons.

But a program of investment in renewables does have the advantage of being politically palatable. “Voters say they would pay more for energy in the abstract,” the American Environics report says, “but vote against it in the concrete.”

The best test of opinion research is the real world of politics, and in November 2006 California voters rejected a ballot initiative, Proposition 87, that would have taxed oil production in the state to fund research, development, and deployment of clean energy alternatives. Support for the initiative declined from July to November 2006 as voters turned against paying more for gasoline.