Public backs Obama on strong carbon controls
When President Barack Obama announces his new climate change plan Tuesday, he will be addressing a voting public that, despite conventional wisdom, is ready to embrace his key proposal: Environmental Protection Agency regulation of carbon emissions from existing power plants.
Since the failure to pass cap-and-trade in 2009, Washington conventional wisdom has held that any effort to curb the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming will be met by a skeptical electorate. But this misunderstands the public’s nuanced view.
Most polls show that the percentage of Americans who think that climate change is happening and being driven by human activity is at its highest levels since 2007. In fact, 65 percent of voters support “the president taking significant steps to address climate change now,” according to a recent poll by the Benenson Strategy Group
But the devil is in the details, as a February Duke University study shows. Though public support for cap-and-trade or a carbon tax are tepid (30 to 35 percent support, with about the same percentage opposing), Americans overwhelmingly support “regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories” (65 percent support versus 14 percent oppose).
This echoes the results we have seen in our bipartisan polling for the American Lung Association over the last three years. Working with various Republican polling firms, we have found the public broadly supports EPA regulation of all sorts of air pollution, including carbon emissions.
Tea Party Republicans continue to paint the EPA as a political boogieman — but they have only isolated themselves from the broad mainstream. The EPA had a robust 45 favorable to 28 percent unfavorable rating in our latest national survey for the ALA in January, conducted with Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies.
Voters also supported the EPA “updating standards with stricter limits on air pollution” by a 69 to 26 percent margin. In fact, stricter air pollution standards had at least 60 percent support from Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans, with only conservative Republicans in opposition.
When we narrow the scope specifically to carbon emissions, results are similar. More than 70 percent of voters support the EPA setting stricter limits on carbon emissions from power plants, according to a bipartisan March 2012 survey we conducted with the Republican firm Perception Insight, even though we made clear that these standards were “separate from standards on mercury, lead or other pollutants.”
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found similar results in February, when they explicitly tested “stricter emissions limits on power plants to address climate change” (62 percent support).
Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), are predictably attacking these new rules as something that will “increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs.” But this assumes voters will look at this debate as a choice between the environment and the economy. This is something voters fundamentally reject.
An astounding 73 to 21 percent majority in our March 2012 survey rejected the notion that American has to choose between the environment and economy because more environmental regulations “will increase costs, hurt our economic recovery and destroy jobs.”
More important, a two-to-one majority (60 to 31 percent) agreed that stronger air pollution regulations will create, rather than destroy jobs, because they will encourage innovation and investment in new technologies.
When we asked about new carbon emissions standards specifically, a 44 percent plurality said the regulations would have a positive impact on the economy and jobs. Just 23 percent said they would have a negative impact.
Support for new EPA carbon emission standards held up even after poll respondents were presented with a simulated debate that included opposition arguments, similar to Boehner’s, asserting that new regulations would lead to higher energy prices and kill tens of thousands of American jobs. (The pro-EPA arguments centered on the positive impacts new carbon emissions standards would have on public health and the economy).
After the simulated debate, support for the new carbon emissions standards still held at a nearly two-to-one margin (63 to 33 percent). The entire survey, including the arguments from both sides, can be found here.
Obama’s new push on climate change is an important moment for his administration — as well as the nation and the planet. He will, no doubt, face withering opposition from Republicans and the big energy companies.
This will not be an easy political battle. But on the centerpiece of his plan, Obama starts out in a remarkably strong position with the public.
PHOTO (Insert A): The American Electric Power Company’s cooling tower at their Mountaineer plant is shown in New Haven, West Virginia Oct. 27, 2009. REUTERS/Ayesha Rasco
PHOTO (Insert B): The full moon sets behind a wind farm in the Mojave Desert in California, Jan. 8, 2004. REUTERS/Toby Melville