What climate policies would Americans support?

At the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, President Biden has been presenting the world with the ambitious steps the United States plans to take to reach its Paris agreement goals. His administration has been trying to move climate provisions through the Build Back Better package as part of this effort. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has been pushing back against these climate provisions, citing the consequences to his coal-producing state, while Republicans are united in opposing the package.

Where does the American public stand on the bill’s proposed climate policies?

Our research finds broad bipartisan support for clean energy tax incentives and for further regulating power companies. But a carbon tax and rebate, while it has majority support, is only supported by one-third of Republicans.

How we assess public opinion on climate proposals:

Over the last five years, the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) at the University of Maryland has conducted numerous surveys on various legislative proposals being considered in the bill, including those related to climate.

PPC’s in-depth survey methodology provides a representative sample of more than 2,400 respondents with briefings on policy proposals and pro and con arguments before asking them whether they recommend the proposed policy.

Experts on both sides of the proposals — either in Congress, think tanks or advocacy groups — review these briefings in advance to ensure that the arguments are accurate, balanced and as strong as possible.

We conducted the surveys using the nationally representative Nielsen Scarborough panel, recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of U.S. households.

Most Americans support clean energy tax credits

Among our respondents, the Build Back Better package’s tax incentives to promote clean energy are the most popular approach to countering climate change.

Tax incentives may be the low-hanging fruit with broad bipartisan support. A 2020 PPC survey found bipartisan majorities favor tax credits to cover the cost of equipment that produces clean energy, such as solar panels or wind turbines, or that stores clean energy, such as batteries; nationally, 75 percent favored this, including 91 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans. Similar percentages also supported offering utility companies tax credits for producing electricity with clean energy sources: favored nationally by 76 percent of respondents, with 89 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans.

Large bipartisan majorities also supported tax credits for companies and individuals making energy-efficiency improvements, including:

  • building new energy-efficient residential buildings, favored by 79 percent overall, 88 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans;
  • making energy-saving improvements to homes, favored by 78 percent overall, 87 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans;
  • installing new energy-efficient heating or air conditioning systems, favored by 84 percent overall, 93 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans
  • building new energy-efficient commercial buildings, favored by 72 percent overall, 83 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans;
  • and making energy-saving improvements to commercial buildings, favored by 66 percent overall, 78 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans.

Bipartisan majorities also favored a tax credit for electric buses, with 69 percent overall, 84 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans. That wasn’t true, however, for tax credits for buying a new electric car; while a total of 63 percent were in favor, that broke down to 80 percent of Democrats and only 43 percent of Republicans.

Our findings on clean energy tax incentives align with survey results from Stanford University and Yale and George Mason University’s Programs on Climate Change Communication.

Bipartisan majorities want to regulate power companies’ emissions

Manchin particularly opposes a central plank of Biden’s climate plan: the Clean Energy Payment Program (CEPP), which both requires energy companies to use more renewable energy sources and offers incentives to do so. Manchin says regulations are not necessary.

In an earlier PPC survey, a broad bipartisan majority (74 percent overall, with 89 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans) supported requiring electric companies to use at least a minimum proportion of renewable sources — even though our briefing told respondents that this would increase their personal energy costs.

Republicans’ support for reducing carbon emissions seems to come primarily from concerns about air pollution’s health drawbacks more than concerns about climate change. In the 2020 survey, only 45 percent of Republicans said that reducing greenhouse gases should be a high priority, while 54 percent said that it should be a high priority to reduce air pollution from energy production that hurts human health. When we offered an argument for regulating energy production to reduce air pollution, 66 percent of Republicans found it convincing.

Americans are split along party lines over carbon tax plans

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is pushing for a carbon tax on electric companies. While this would increase consumers’ energy bills, the plan would redistribute the tax revenue directly to all households through monthly checks. Our 2020 survey found 62 percent of voters favored the plan, but while 87 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents, only 32 percent of Republicans concurred.

However, we did find more Republican support — 14 percentage points more — if at least some of that revenue helps fund a transition to a clean energy economy, including investments in infrastructure, clean energy research and development, and in coal-mining communities that would lose jobs. That still comes out to less than half of Republicans, or only 45 percent. However, it’s favored by majorities within several Republican demographic groups, including households with income less than $30,000 (57 percent), women (56 percent), people ages 18-44 (62 percent) and non-Whites (57 percent).

After a recent meeting with Biden, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said the president stated “many world leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese President Xi Jinping] are questioning the capability of American democracy to deliver, so we need to show them that we can govern.”

As they finalize negotiations on climate provisions, the president and congressional leaders would benefit from knowing what the American people — both Republicans and Democrats — support, potentially helping them find common ground.

By Steven Kull, President & Founder, director of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland and founder and president of Voice of the People.

Published in the November 4, 2021 issue of the Washington Post.

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