On Climate, John Dingell's Framing of the Public

The Sunday Washington Post leads with a story that greenhouse gas mitigation proposals in Congress are likely to stall, in part because several key lawmakers believe (or at least claim) that the public will not support the economic impacts associated with the proposals.

Michigan Democrat John Dingell is the leading skeptic when it comes to public support and his selective framing of where the public stands on the matter is in line with his close auto industry ties. As the Post reports:

"I sincerely doubt that the American people are willing to pay what this is really going to cost them," John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a recent C-SPAN interview, adding that he intended to introduce legislation that would impose a carbon tax "just to sort of see how people really feel about this." He said his proposal would boost the gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon and establish a "double-digit" tax on each ton of all carbon-dioxide emissions.

Yet multiple recent polling trends contradict Dingell's framing of public opinion (see bottom of fold). In fact, for at least a decade, the historical record shows that the public has been willing to support mitigation efforts even in light of economic impacts. There are some variations depending on how the specific policy is defined in the context of the poll question, but again, this just signals how important effective communication remains. If described accurately and clearly, the public supports taking action on climate change even if it means additional economic costs.

Moreover, the public's support across several mitigation options comes in the absence of a sense of collective urgency about the global warming problem generally. In other words, if the public were to begin to rate global warming as one of the top 5--or even among the top 10 political priorities facing the nation--then public support for mitigation efforts would grow even stronger.

Today, public support appears strongest for regulations that require emission limits on industry and automobiles and that would mandate the production of hybrid cars. The public also favors tax incentive policies that encourage industry to increase energy efficiency but opposes increased taxes on gasoline or electricity that are intended to alter the behavior of consumers. Americans strongly favor increased investment in solar and wind energy but are split on expanding nuclear energy.

Realizing that the public supports increased costs for industry but not at the gas pump, Dingell's strategy to float a bill that would increase gasoline taxes by 50 cents while also raising taxes on industry seems designed to alarm and confuse the public and to make reality his preferred interpretation of public opinion.

On the trade off between costs and emission limits, after systematically reviewing the historical polling record, here's an excerpt from what I report in a study appearing in the forthcoming issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. Email me for a copy of the full paper:

Weighing the Costs of Action in Dealing with Global Warming

At the center of the public policy debate over global warming has been the perceived trade-offs between immediate action and the likely costs to citizens and the economy. Cambridge Research International were the first to gauge the public's view on this matter with a series of poll questions that began in 1986. According to these surveys, in the late 1980s the public expressed a preference for immediate action rather than simply more research. Yet during the early 1990s, as many advocates and political figures pushed the need for more research while exaggerating the possible negative economic impacts, public preference for immediate policy action sharply declined. This shift, however, should be interpreted cautiously given the slight changes in question wording across these surveys (Table 23).

However, by the end of the decade, bolstered by a historically strong economy, public support for immediate action rebounded. In 1998, according to a PIPA survey, 39% felt that global warming was a serious enough problem that action should be taken even it if it involved significant costs, while 44% preferred steps that would be lower in cost, and only 15% took the position that no steps with economic costs should be taken. Still, by 2004, faced with a weaker economy and the competing priorities of war and terrorism, 23% now favored the "no costs" position, and this response remained the preferred choice among 21% of Americans in 2005 (Table 24).

CBS and PIPA survey questions administered in 1997, 2004, and 2005 reveal that the public's evaluation of policy options varies by the response categories that are offered. In these examples, respondents are forced to indicate which of two statements about action versus costs are closer to their opinion. The statements dichotomize policy choices into either helping or hurting the economy. Given these response options, more than two thirds of the public across these three years indicated that they believed efforts to curb greenhouse gases would make the economy more competitive, compared to the less than a third of Americans who believed such efforts would cost too much money and hurt the economy (Table 25).

Acceptance of Specific Economic Impacts, Taxes, and Regulatory Programs

Several surveys have asked Americans about support for policy action that might generate specific kinds of economic impacts, or that might create certain incentives for cutting emissions. Public support appears strongest for regulations that require emission limits on industry and automobiles and that would mandate the production of hybrid cars. The public favors tax incentive policies that encourage industry to increase energy efficiency but opposes increased taxes on gasoline or electricity that are intended to alter the behavior of consumers. Americans strongly favor increased investment in solar and wind energy but are split on expanding nuclear energy.

A series of poll items taken in 1990, 1992, and 1997 asked respondents whether the U.S. should take actions to prevent the greenhouse effect even if it resulted in increased unemployment. With this economic impact in mind, in 1990 and 1992, 45% and 42% of respondents favored taking action, while in 1997, 34% favored action. However, notice the differences in question wording. In contrast to 1990 and 1997, respondents in 1992 are asked not if they would still favor action if it simply "increased unemployment," but if "unemployment went up a great deal." Relative to other economic impacts, in 2001, Harris asked whether the public would prefer "tough government actions" even if they resulted in inflation (54% supported, 39% opposed), or if utility bills went up (47% supported, 49% opposed) (Table 26).

A second series of polls by Cambridge queried the public specifically about taxing gasoline, oil, and natural gas as an incentive to shift away from the use of fossil fuels. Across the questions asked in 1989, 1990, and 1991, public support for such taxes was measured at 47%, 65%, and 62% respectively. In the survey items asked over the next three years, 1992 to 1994, there was a slight change in question wording. For these years, public support for gasoline, oil, and natural gas taxes was 56%, 52%, and 43% respectively (Table 27). ABC News polls taken in 2006 and 2007 provide more recent data relative to support for gas and energy taxes. As a way for the Federal government to reduce future global warming, only 19% and 20% of Americans across the two years support increased taxes on electricity and only 32% and 31% support increased taxes on gasoline (Table 28).

Other recent surveys have asked about emissions standards for automobiles and industry, mandatory limits on CO2 emissions from industry, and investment in alternative energy sources. In these Gallup polls taken across years since 2001, more than 70% of Americans have consistently favored setting higher auto emission standards and roughly 80% have consistently favored higher standards for industry. More than 75% of Americans say they support mandatory limits on CO2 emissions and a similar proportion support spending more government money on solar and wind energy. In 2006 and 2007, 55% and 50% of Americans support expanding the use of nuclear energy, a slight increase over the 41% support registered in 2001 (Table 29).

Turning to the choice between financial incentives versus government requirements as a way to curb emissions and increase energy efficiency, according to PIPA polls from 2004 and 2005, more than 70% of the public across these two years favored tax incentives for utilities to sell solar and wind power to consumers, tax credits and rebates for households that upgrade to energy efficient appliances, tax credits for purchasing a hybrid car, and mandates requiring manufacturers to produce hybrids as half of all new cars by 2010 (Table 30).

In 2006 and 2007, ABC News asked directly about the choice between tax breaks and government requirements. Across both years, specific to increasing the energy efficiency of cars and appliances, the public is roughly split in its preference between incentives and mandates. Relative to the energy efficiency of homes and offices, 51% support tax breaks compared to 33% and 30% who support government requirements. However, when it comes to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from industry, the public has a clear preference, with 61% and 62% across the two years supporting government requirements (Table 31).

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