02/23/2011 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By the Numbers: Politicians Risk Backlash if They Back Efforts to Undermine EPA

Emboldened by their new majority, Republicans in Congress, led by new House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, are aggressively pushing efforts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its ability to regulate various forms of air pollution, including carbon dioxide.

After the demise of legislation to enact comprehensive global warming solutions last year, Upton and his Republican allies must feel that they have momentum and the public won't notice. Some Democrats in Congress seem ready to join their bandwagon. They ignore public opinion at their own peril.

In the last two months we have conducted two surveys on the issue that reveal Americans want scientists at the EPA, not politicians in Congress, to set air pollution standards. In both surveys, overwhelming majorities opposed Congressional action to block the EPA from updating and implementing standards on carbon dioxide emissions, even after they heard strong arguments on both sides of the debate - including language taken directly from recent statements by Upton and his allies.

While on some issues voters have recently become less enamored with government action, protecting air quality is one area where the public strongly believes that government should continue an active role and hold polluters accountable. And on this issue, independents look far more like Democrats than they do Republicans.

In a bipartisan national survey we conducted for the American Lung Association along with the Republican polling firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates, 69 percent of likely voters favored the EPA setting stricter limits on air pollution, with more than-three quarters supporting tougher standards on Mercury, smog and carbon dioxide emissions.

Support for tougher standards was strong across the political spectrum. In fact, the only demographic groups in our survey that opposed stricter standards are the overlapping groups of conservative Republicans, Republican men and voters that identify as strong supporters of the Tea Party. Moderate Republicans, Republican women and even weaker supporters of the Tea Party join Democrats and independents in backing tougher standards by large margins.

Most relevant to the current debate, we asked voters if they would support Congressional efforts to stop the EPA from implementing stricter standards on air pollution in general and on carbon dioxide specifically. To simulate the current debate in Washington we read voters arguments from both sides, including language taken directly from Upton and other anti-EPA Congressmen that these standards were a "back-door energy tax" that would lead to higher gas and electricity prices and cause business to ship American jobs to China and India. Meanwhile, the pro-EPA argument focused on the need for Congress to hold polluters accountable and let the EPA do its job, not let polluters off the hook (the full wording is available on our website). By a 60 to 35 percent margin, voters said Congress should NOT stop the EPA regulation of carbon dioxide, with independents supporting the EPA by more than two-to-one. Support for the EPA was even higher in the broader debate about air pollution in general.

Voters support the EPA on every facet of this debate. By 20 points, they believe that the EPA standards will encourage innovation and create more jobs rather than increase costs and hurt jobs. And by an incredible 48-point margin they agree that "scientists at the EPA should set pollution standards, not politicians in Congress," rather than "our elected representative in Congress should set pollution standards, not unelected bureaucrats at the EPA," an argument made repeatedly by anti-EPA forces.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was little regional variation in these results as strong majorities opposed Congressional action in every region of the country, including the Midwest. This result was underscored by a separate recent survey we recently conducted for the Energy Foundation in Michigan (Congressman Upton's home state).

In this survey we conducted a similar exercise, asking Michigan voters if they supported allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and simulating a debate over the issue with arguments similar to those outlined above. The results here were even more strongly in favor of the EPA, as a bipartisan consensus of voters rejected the Upton approach by a 68 to 26 percent margin. Here, independent voters supported the EPA by a 38-point spread and they were even joined by a majority of Republicans.

Congress may be deep in debate on this issue right now, but for the American public this debate is clearly settled. They believe that the EPA should be allowed to do its job and protect Americans from air pollution, INCLUDING carbon dioxide pollution. Members of Congress who ignore this overwhelming consensus risk a significant political backlash.

Al Quinlan is president, Michael Bocian is a partner and Andrew Baumann is a senior associate at the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Any opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and not of the American Lung Association, the Energy Foundation or Ayres, McHenry & Associates.