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Global Warming

Readiness to Accept Increases in Energy Costs

Americans show a readiness to accept a moderate increase in their energy costs to deal with the problem of global warming and to comply with the Kyoto Treaty. At the same time Americans show an optimism that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved without a harmful economic impact and that technological innovations will be effective.

In general, Americans show a readiness to accept some increased costs to deal with environmental problems. In August 2005, Harris Interactive found almost three-quarters (74%) of Americans agreeing that “protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.” This is up substantially from when it was previously asked in March 2001, January 2002 and November 2002 by CBS/New York Times, though in all cases clear majorities agreed ranging from 56% to 61%. [1]

More specifically Americans also show a readiness to accept increases in energy costs to support the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed above, two-thirds said they favored the McCain-Lieberman legislation (Climate Stewardship Act) even if it costs $15 a month for an average household. [1a] (See Appendix A for MIT study used to calculate costs)
Support for accepting costs to abide by the Kyoto Protocol was fairly strong even before President Bush’s decision to withdraw. Shortly before the 1992 Rio conference—at the time the Rio Treaty was under consideration—58% said then-President Bush should "sign the treaty if it harms our economy now, but helps the environment in the long run" (26% opposed; USA Today). [2] The same number expressed support even if it "would increase the cost of gasoline and electricity" (33% opposed). [3]

In a March 2002 poll (that did not specifically mention global warming) an overwhelming majority showed a readiness to accept the economic hardships that would come from requiring older power plants to meet current pollution standards, though offered the argument that these plants would be "forced to close down, which would reduce our energy supplies at a time when we desperately need and would put people out of work." Imposing the requirements was favored by 78%; only 13% were opposed. [3a]

Various organizations have attempted to estimate how compliance with the Kyoto Treaty would impact the costs of energy for the average American household. Estimates vary, primarily according to assumptions about how much the US would be able to fulfill some of the requirements through making reductions in other countries (Appendix B).

Time/CNN asked in March 2001 whether respondents would support "tough government actions to help reduce global warming even if...your utility bills went up?" In the absence of a dollar figure that respondents could evaluate, and only the word "tough" to characterize the amount, the question got a divided response, with 47% saying yes and 49% saying no.

In a previous study, a strong majority expressed a willingness to accept increases in energy costs of $25 per month per household, but a plurality would not accept $50 a month. Unlike the more recent study, In October 1998 PIPA asked respondents about the costs of comply with the Kyoto accords. For this reason, respondents were asked how they would feel "if in fact it appears that it would cost an extra $50 a month for an average American household" (This amount was chosen as representing a middle point among estimates at the time--see Appendix B). A plurality of 52% said it would oppose signing the treaty at this presumed cost level, with 36% saying it would be acceptable. Those who said they were opposed or were unsure were asked how they would feel about $25, and then $10. Those who were ready to accept $50 were asked about $75, and then $100. As shown in the box below, strong majorities were ready to accept costs of $10 or $25 while only small minorities were ready to accept costs of $75 or $100. [4]

Other polls also have found a significant willingness to incur costs toward reducing global warming even when the cost is quantified in concrete terms. In a September 1998 Mellman Group poll, majorities were willing to pay an extra $5 (73%), $10 (75%) or $20 (64%) monthly "to buy environmentally clean energy such as solar and wind power from your electric utility company in order to cut down on emissions of carbon dioxide and reduce the threat of global warming." [5] Similarly, a September 1997 Ohio State University National Survey found 68% said they were willing to pay more for energy to reduce pollution, with 51% volunteering an amount of $10 or more per month. [6]

A September 1998 Wirthlin poll even found that a strong majority did not back away from a possible increase in costs of $1,000 a year per household. Presented a description of the attitudes of two hypothetical individuals, only 39% said they were more like the one described as "worried" that compliance with the Kyoto Treaty "would add up to more than $1,000 a year for the average American household." Sixty percent said they were, instead, more like an individual who "believes that some increases in the cost of gas, energy and consumer products are expected and worth the price if it can reduce the threat of global warming." [7]

In recent years Americans have shown a willingness to pay more for the price of gasoline, provided that it is not presented as a tax increase. A November 1997 Pew poll found 73% willing to "pay 5 cents more per gallon of gasoline if it would significantly reduce global warming." Sixty percent said they would be willing to pay 25 cents more. [8] However, in the August 1997 Mellman poll, only 48% favored "increas[ing] the tax on gasoline by 10 cents per "gallon". [9]

A more recent poll found more moderate support. In March 2001 Time/CNN asked respondents whether they were willing to "pay an extra 25 cents per gallon of gas to reduce pollution and global warming," with 48% saying yes and 49% saying no. This lower level of support may have been due to the fact that at the time of that poll the US population was absorbing a 25-to-30-cent gas price increase, while economic growth was slowing. [10]

A majority has supported higher fuel efficiency requirements for cars, even when respondents are reminded that this might drive up car prices. In a January 2005 PIPA-KN poll, very large majorities also supported major efforts to reduce automobile emissions. When asked to assume “that it would cost more to buy or lease a car,” 77% percent nonetheless favored “the government requiring car manufacturers to meet higher fuel efficiency standards than they do now.” In a previous 2004 study, PIPA asked this question differently. Eighty-two percent favored “the government requiring car manufacturers to meet higher fuel efficiency standards than they do now,” up from 76% when CBS asked this question in September 2003. More significantly, when asked in a follow-on question “What if that meant it would cost more to own or lease a car?” 63% still said they would favor higher fuel efficiency standards. [10a]

In April 2001 an overwhelming 73% supported "government action to require improved gas mileage for SUVs [sports utility vehicles]," though they were warned in the question that "the auto industry says that doing so would raise the price of new cars," as well as hearing that "environmental groups say the government should require [this] to help the country meet its energy needs" (21% opposed; Los Angeles Times). Time/CNN offered only a "con" argument when it asked: "Should the federal government require improvements in fuel efficiency for cars and trucks even if this means higher prices and smaller vehicles, or don't you think it should do so?" Nonetheless 55% supported federal requirements, with 40% opposed (March 2001). [11]

On a more abstract level Americans show a readiness to accept the costs of greater inflation but not increased unemployment as part of an intensive effort to reduce global warming. A March 2001 Time/CNN poll asked respondents if they would support "tough government actions to help reduce global warming" even if this meant "a mild increase in inflation" 54% said that they would, while 39% said they would not. Asked if they would support "tough government actions" even if "unemployment increased" only 38% said they would, while 55% said they would not. [12] The question made no effort to explain why either of these consequences might be a necessary result of a "tough" government program, and it is not clear how many who found them unacceptable were not expressing their lack of conviction that these were necessary consequences As is discussed below most Americans do not believe that it is necessary to accept severe economic costs to address the problem of global warming.

Optimism About Economic Impact

On the surface, it may seem inconsistent that the majority of the public believes global warming is a serious problem and only a minority is willing to take steps that are costly. However, this is not really a contradiction if the majority assumes that the problem can be dealt with at a moderate cost and without real harm to the economy. And, indeed, this does appear to be the case.

This optimism has been demonstrated in various polls. In fact, in a number of polls, the majority has supported the view that making the necessary changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will even help the economy. In June 2005, PIPA asked respondents to choose between to two arguments, which contrasted economic efficiency with costs to the environment. A strong majority of 71% chose the argument that the “US economy will become more competitive because these efforts will result in more efficient energy use, saving money in the long run,” slightly higher than in PIPA’s June 2004 poll when 67% agreed. Only 23% chose the argument that “efforts in the United States to reduce the release of greenhouse gases will cost too much money and hurt the US economy,” down slightly from the 29% who agreed in June 2004. [12a]

Similar results were obtained in a November 1997 New York Times poll, when those who had heard something about global warming (85% of the sample) were asked to choose between these two arguments. Just 20% thought "reduc[ing] greenhouse gases will cost too much money and hurt the US economy," while 67% thought "the US economy will become more competitive". [13]

Similarly, in the August 1997 Mellman Group poll, only 18% agreed "stricter regulations on the emissions of carbon dioxide from the use of oil, coal and gasoline would go too far, and hurt the economy and cost jobs," while 60% preferred the statement "stricter regulations will help stop global warming, protect our health and safety, create new jobs through new technologies, and are worth the cost" (22% were not sure). [14] In the September 1998 Mellman poll, only 21% thought compliance with the Kyoto Treaty will " hurt the economy and cost jobs," while 38% said it will " help the economy by creating new jobs through new technologies," and 24% said it would have no effect. [15]

In the June 2004 and June 2005 PIPA polls discussed above, since concerns about the cost of complying with the Climate Stewardship Act drove debate in Congress, PIPA told people that according to an “estimate done by MIT, cutting greenhouse gas emissions as much as this draft of the new bill would require will increase various costs to the average American household by about $15 a month.” In June 2005, asked whether they thought the estimate was accurate, 66% said they thought the estimate was either approximately correct (38%) or “on the high side” (28%), which was slightly higher than in June 2004 when 63% said “approximately correct” (34%) or “on the high side” (29%). Only 27% said “on the low side” as did 31% in June 2004. [15a]

In the October 1998 PIPA poll, discussed above, before respondents were asked if they would accept a certain level of costs, they were asked: "Do you tend to feel that this estimate [$50 a month] is on the high side, on the low side, or approximately correct?" A strong majority of 59% said they thought it was on the high side, while only 9% said it was on the low side and 20% said that it was approximately correct. [16]

This optimism is part of a broader confidence that addressing environmental problems need not be taxing on the economy. In an October 1999 Wirthlin poll, 68% took the position that economic growth does not have to be sacrificed for environmental quality (September 1998:75%). [17]

This optimism appears to be rooted in the belief that technological innovations will be highly effective and that the best approach is for the government to promote them through mandates or incentives.