Resources for the Future released some interesting global warming polling data last week that should be required reading for energy and environmental policy wonks nationwide.
Not surprisingly, the data, collected in January in partnership with Stanford University and the New York Times, shows strong public support for tackling the issue. Not surprising because, to be honest, if the results didn’t show such support they likely never would have been released. But also, for anyone that has been paying attention, the latest results are not surprising because the public has backed action on climate change in poll after poll for years.
What is far more interesting are some of the details and trends apparent in the latest data. But before we delve into those details, a note or two about polls: They are, to be sure, a fascinating means of getting a snapshot view on a given issue, but the results should never be taken as the Gospel truth. Indeed, just like the energy forecasts I caution about (see here for more on that), they should be interpreted cautiously.
Still, it is worth taking a closer look at a couple of the results from the latest RFF polling.
One notable finding is the continued belief of most of those polled that taking action to address global warming would not send the U.S. economy off the cliff. Specifically, 42 percent said they thought tackling climate change actually would help the economy, while another 24 percent said they didn’t think it would affect the economy one way or the other. Only 30 percent said they thought such action would harm the economy, despite the six-plus years of carping along these lines by President Obama’s Republican and Tea Party opponents.
While Washington’s doom and gloomers haven’t been able to win many converts to their point of view, they have been able to stymie any congressional action on climate change since President Obama took office despite overwhelming public concern about the issue. This concern is real, with roughly 80 percent saying global warming is a somewhat or very serious problem for the U.S., and has held steady at that level for the past decade. The lack of congressional action speaks volumes about the vitriolic legislative stalemate that has prevailed in Washington since 2009 because Congress is generally quite sensitive to the winds of public opinion—on virtually any other issue if 80 percent of the public saw a problem, congressmen would be lining up to solve it.
Another interesting trend that shows up clearly in the latest RFF polling is the growing libertarian/anti-government streak in the U.S. electorate. In 2006 when the question was first asked, 15 percent of those polled said the government should “stay out of entirely’’ efforts to build cars that use less gasoline; by 2015 this percentage had shot up to 27 percent. Similarly, on a question about building appliances and other equipment that use less electricity, the percentage saying the government should stay out of this effort entirely also rose significantly, climbing from 17 percent in 2006 to 28 percent today.
What’s baffling about these views is that they run smack into the reality that government intervention can work, and in these two examples has worked extremely well. On the appliance issue, as I pointed out in a previous column, government regulations have resulted in significant cuts in electricity use. For example, a report last year from DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that there were now 70 million more refrigerator-freezers in use nationally than in 1985 and yet their total energy consumption had fallen by one-third.
Similarly, the Energy Information Administration recently projected (see my post here for a more in-depth discussion) that the higher automotive fuel economy standards that take effect over the next 20+ years will cut national gasoline consumption by 1.8 million barrels per day by 2040—despite an expected increase in vehicle miles traveled.
Dealing with this anti-government streak will be difficult, but it can’t simply be ignored.
Interestingly, even some of these apparent libertarians think government tax credits are a good idea to encourage the development of less polluting energy resources such as wind, solar and hydro. While down from the 87 percent that supported such credits in 2006, these breaks still are backed by 80 percent of the electorate. Is anyone listening out there in Republican-ville?
Finally, two tidbits to come full circle to my earlier point about taking polls with a healthy dose of skepticism. First, and by far the best, is the assertion by 11 percent of those polled that global warming is either extremely or very important to Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Where exactly are those Republicans? Led by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), congressional Republicans have spent the last six years first denying climate change is occurring and now avoiding the issue entirely by saying that they aren’t qualified to discuss it because they aren’t scientists. The only thing that has been extremely or very important on the Republican side of the aisle is stopping any proposals from the White House.
The chart below shows the total responses, and I think it would be fair to take issue with the assertion that 25 percent of congressional Republicans are even moderately concerned about global warming, but that will have to wait for another post.
Finally, what’s with the discrepancy in voter participation. According to the data presented by RFF, 63 percent of those polled said they voted in the 2014 elections and 72 percent said they voted in the 2012 elections. The problem is, the turnout of eligible voters in 2014 midterms was under 40 percent and it was only about 58 percent in the 2012 presidential election. So one of two things must be going on: Either folks are lying through their teeth because they feel like the right answer is to say they voted when they really didn’t, or RFF interviewed a non-representative sample of the population. Either way, it’s not a good sign.
The surveys, conducted between January 7-22, involved 1,006 respondents nationwide with a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, according to RFF. The survey and additional background data is available here.