Public Opinion

Your first stop for comprehensive data on U.S. public opinion on climate change should be the superb fact sheet, Polling the American Public on Climate Change (April 2013), by the Environmental & Energy Study Institute. It deftly graphs the ups-and-downs of public opinion since 2006 as registered in half-a-dozen leading surveys, and summarizes (with links) 20 different climate polls from 2012 and 2013 — all in just four pages.

More recently, polling by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, published in Nov. 2013 in Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies, found that:

  • 83% of Americans say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • 65% say that corporations and industry, 61% say that citizens themselves, and 52% say the U.S. Congress should be doing more to address global warming.
  • 71% say global warming should be a “very high”, “high”, or “medium” priority for the president and Congress.
  • 67% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans support eliminating all subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry.

In December 2012, Slate conducted an on-line ranking of deficit-reducing tax hikes and spending cuts. From among ten measures with a combined $2.1 trillion a year of deficit-cutting potential, poll respondents were asked to select their preferred combination that would close future deficits by $900 billion a year. Eight of the ten gained at least 50% approval, suggesting that respondents may have been wonkier than average Americans. Nevertheless, “charge a carbon tax” came in fifth, with 56% approval, ahead of eliminating the mortgage interest deduction (53%) and imposing a national sales tax (50%). Details on the carbon-tax question may be found here, and press coverage at The Hill blog is here. Interestingly, the Hill post featured the carbon tax’s majority favorability in its headline: Poll: 56 percent back carbon tax to help slash deficit.

Earlier that month, Mother Jones magazine provided a timely summary of recent poll data indicating that Americans are more than ready for governmental leadership on climate change:

In a 2011 Stanford University study, 77 percent said they’d support a candidate who said climate change is real, humans are the cause, and cleaner energy is needed. In a Yale/George Mason University poll last March, independent voters were almost as likely as Democrats to say climate change was a key issue in determining their vote (58 percent and 63 percent, respectively)—and even 43 percent of Republicans felt that way. And just before Election Day, 68 percent of likely voters told pollsters that climate change was a “serious” or “very serious” issue. In exit polls, 41 percent said Obama’s response to Sandy was an “important” or “very important” factor in their vote. Coincidence? Perhaps not: 60 percent of voters told pollsters that climate change “made Sandy worse.” [From Public Opinion Has Moved on Climate Change; Will Obama Follow, or Fiddle?]

Still, although two-thirds of Americans take human-caused global warming seriously or very seriously, it’s troubling that so much doubt remains, given the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that Earth’s climate is being dangerously disrupted and that the primary cause is carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. That a third of Americans don’t subscribe to this view isn’t terribly surprising, given that for the past decade we’ve been barraged by an aggressive, well-financed campaign to disparage the integrity of climate science and even discredit climate scientists personally. And of course, climate scientists generally can’t hire PR firms to make sure their message is heard and clearly understood.

In the context of doubt about the diagnosis, prescribing strong medicine like a carbon tax may seem quixotic. Nevertheless, when the policy options are clearly explained, a surprising number of voters express support for a carbon tax with revenue return.

While economists have been pointing to a carbon tax to as a way to fill budget gaps, simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions, we have yet to see a survey asking the public about preferred revenue sources to fill budget gaps. If a carbon tax were compared to a value added tax (or national sales tax), which has no climate benefits, we believe the public might prefer a carbon tax with its enormous climate benefits.

Following are excerpts from several major polls on climate and carbon pricing:

♦ “Climate Change in the American Mind: Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies” (March 2012)

Polling of 1,008 adults by Yale and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (March 2012) found that:

1) 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. (direct quote from p. 4)

2) By a margin of 3 to 1, Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports a “revenue neutral” tax shift. This shift would increase taxes on coal, oil and natural gas, and reduce the federal income tax by an equal amount, while creating jobs and decreasing pollution. 61 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports such a tax shift, while 20 percent say they would be less likely. Among registered voters, Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports such a tax shift by a 2 to 1 margin. (direct quote from p. 4)

“Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes” (May 2011)

Polling of 1,010 adults by Yale and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication (May 2011) found that:

1) Two thirds of Americans think global warming is happening, but nearly one out of ten is sure that global warming is not real:

- 64% think that global warming is happening. (Global warming was defined as “increases in the world’s average temperature” that “may change climate.”)

- Among that group, 81% are somewhat sure, very sure or extremely sure about it.

- 18% of those polled said they didn’t know enough to say one way or the other.

- The remaining 18% say that global warming is NOT happening. Of those, 52% ─ that is, almost 10% of all respondents ─ are “very sure” or “extremely sure” that global warming is not happening.

- Just 39% agreed that “most climate scientists think global warming is happening.”

- 40% agreed with the statement that, “[t]here is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.”

- Just 32% think that more than 60% of climate scientists think that global warming is happening,

- 31% say they don’t know enough to say what percentage of climate scientists think global warming is happening.

2) Fewer than half think that humans are the main cause of global warming:

- 47% think global warming is “caused mostly by human activities” (a decline from a similar poll in2010, when the figure was 50%).

- 35% think global warming is “caused mostly by natural changes in the environment.”

- Just 33% think that more than 60% of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.

3) Concern about future damage from global warming is declining:

- 34% think global warming will do a “great deal” or a “moderate amount” of harm to people in their community. The figure was 39% in November 2008.

- 59% think global warming will harm future generations of people “a great deal” or a “moderate amount.” The figure was 61% in November 2008.

- 41% think it’s unclear whether humans will do anything to reduce global warming. The figure declined from 51% in November 2008, suggesting increased confidence that effective action will be taken. But 18% say humans can’t reduce global warming, up from 16% in November 2008.

4) Trust in scientists is declining:

- 76% trust or strongly trust scientists as a source of information about global warming, down from 81% in November 2008.

5) Nearly half believe that new technology will “solve” global warming:

- 47% agree or strongly agree that “new technologies can solve global warming without individuals having to make big changes.” This figure was 30% in November 2008.

6) Yale – George Mason also surveyed opinion on policy responses, including carbon pricing:

- Policies that don’t appear to cost anything, for example those involving mandates on industry and utilities, are widely supported.

- Additional funding into research on renewable energy, including wind and solar, is supported by 84%.

- Requiring utilities to buy 20% renewable energy even if it costs an extra $100 a year per household is strongly supported by 23% and somewhat supported by an additional 43%.

- A 25 cent a gallon gasoline tax with all revenue used to reduce income taxes, is strongly supported by only 9%; 24% somewhat supported. A whopping 67% opposed this modest, revenue-neutral tax.

National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (April, 2011)

The National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (Brookings, April 2011) surveyed and compared the perceptions and preferences of 916 residents of the United States with those of 1214 Canadians. Like the Yale – George Mason survey, Brookings found that confidence about the certainty of climate science and willingness to support substantial action has declined in recent years.

Notably, Brookings found that 80% of Canadians believe global warming is happening, compared to 59% in the U.S. And they found Canadians much more willing to take aggressive action on climate and to incur additional costs to produce renewable energy. Both the Yale – George Mason poll and the Brookings survey found that belief in climate science and support for measures to address it differ strongly across partisan lines. Brookings found that 69% of Democrats believe global warming is happening while only 41% of Republicans do. In Canada, belief that human-induced global warming is real was reported for 91% of Liberals and 84% of New Democrats, but only 64% of Conservatives.

Brookings found that 56% of Americans support national cap-and-trade while 46% support higher fossil fuel taxes. In Canada, the figures are 63% for cap-and-trade and 58% for fossil fuel taxes, respectively.

Hart – U.S. Climate Task Force Survey (December 2009)

In December 2009, Hart Associates conducted a national survey of 1,002 adults on behalf of the U.S. Climate Task Force. They found that of those who support action to address global warming, 58% support a tax on carbon emissions to create incentives to reduce emissions and increase efficiency, and that provides tax refunds to individuals and households to offset the overall impact of the carbon tax. This compared to 27% who preferred a cap-and-trade option setting an overall limit on emissions, allowing companies to buy and sell permits.

The difference between these results and those of the Brookings and Yale surveys may be explained at least in part by the more detailed explanations of the policies offered in the Hart poll. This suggests that clear articulation of the benefits of a carbon tax (and the options for revenue return) could result in majority support, at least among those who are willing to support action to mitigate global warming. Achieving such articulation in America’s constrained political culture remains a difficult challenge, however.

Last updated: February 12, 2014