Cap Not Trade: Study Shows Support For Carbon Tax

Cap Not Trade: Study Shows Support For Carbon Tax

As a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, I have been interested to see how the adoption of a carbon tax in British Columbia in 2008 has not lead to political suicide. Findings released this week on U.S. public opinion show that such a policy could potentially fly with Americans, despite long-held notions to the contrary.

According to Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies in November 2011, produced by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, there is strong majority public support (65%) in the United States for revenue-neural carbon taxes, particularly when these taxes “help create jobs and decrease pollution.” As with most climate-related issues, support is higher with Democrats; however, even a majority of Republications (51%) can get behind revenue-neutral taxes.

Climate advocates have been wary of pushing tax-based policies but I’m actually not that surprised by this recent indication of support. I, like many others, was closely tracking the polling trends as efforts mounted to pass federal climate policy in the form of the cap-and-trade bill.  Long-term trends show that while there was clearly majority concern about and support for taking action to address global warming, the American public was not so keen about the cap-and-trade solution because of the reliance on market mechanisms to function.

While the “cap” portion may have sounded okay to the public (i.e. “if global warming is a such a big problem, I can understand the need to limit how much carbon can be emitted”), the public does not trust that corporations are going to do the right thing and that they will find ways to avoid environmental and economic accountability.  The new Yale and George Mason report helps illustrate this point as well, finding that 69% of Americans oppose federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. This opposition is split more evenly across the parties with the issue of fossil fuel subsidies being as relevant to Republicans (67%) as to Democrats (68%). Not surprisingly, Independents are most unhappy about subsides with 80% being in opposition.

I expect we will continue to hear arguments that we cannot afford to act to protect the environment, to create clean energy sources, and address global warming in other ways. My sense is that is that communicators need to focus on solutions that will provide the best results and not necessarily assume a compromise position is needed to build support.

As for a carbon tax, while it may be true that Canadians have a difference sense of the role for government in society it doesn’t mean that they like paying taxes better than their neighbors to the south.  It’s just that the BC carbon tax, despite any imperfections, is focused on keeping carbon emitters accountable and is bringing economic gains to the province.  As we have said many times at TRIG’s Social Capital Project, the public gets that there is a threat we face because of global warming– but they want solutions that are transparent with clear measures of accountability. And, they want to know, even if there is a cost, that taking action will not only reduce harm but also create benefits for everyone.

A final related note from the Yale/George Mason research is that over the past two years, there has been virtually no change in the percentage of Americans who believe that protecting the environment should be the priority when there is a conflict between environmental protection and economic growth (between 63% and 65%).  In addition, very few Americans during this time (15% – 18%) believed that environmental protection would reduce economic growth and cost jobs. Interesting findings when economic concerns still dominate the agenda for most and a good reminder that people are more than their pocketbooks.

I’ll be talking about these trends and more takeaways from 2011 in a Climate Access online round table on December 13th (2:00-3:30 EST) with Dr. Tony Leiserowitz from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and other leading experts and practitioners. Details to follow…

Photo used under Creative Commons from eutrophication&hypoxia.