Americans' Support for Climate Action Still Overwhelming

05/25/2011 02:50 pm ET

New poll finds voters want a simpler fee-based approach

President Obama has breathed new life into the battle to save the climate. His Copenhagen gambit opens the door to a general, political agreement that could have much broader support than the stalled treaty negotiations.

Now, a new poll shows that the President's efforts still enjoy strong bipartisan support, contradicting recent assertions by some pundits. In fact, an overwhelming three out of four Americans favor legislation to significantly cut carbon emissions, according to a survey by Hart Research, a influential pollster carefully watched by lawmakers. Voters from both parties in every part of the country express strong support for climate policy.

Voters also have clear views about what that policy should look like: by a two-to-one margin, they favor the government setting a fixed price on carbon, rather than a "cap-and-trade" policy like the one now being considered by the Senate.

There are two ways to set such a price: a carbon tax shift or a carbon "feebate." Under a carbon tax shift, we'd apply a tax to fuels based on their carbon content and use the revenues to cut payroll or other taxes. Under a "feebate" system, a fee is applied to carbon, and the revenues are rebated directly to consumers.

Either way, the result is revenue-neutral, which economists and most voters like. The law achieves its desired effect by making high-carbon fuels like coal more expensive, lowering the relative cost of renewables, and rewarding energy efficiency.

By setting the fee to achieve the emission reductions called for by the President, the tax-based approach achieves its results with much more certainty than cap-and-trade, which produces more volatile energy prices and can be easily gamed by various industries. Consider this contrast. Sweden enacted a carbon tax in 1990, and over the next 18 years reduced its carbon emissions by 8 percent while its economy grew by 44 percent in real terms. The European Union adopted the cap and trade system of the Kyoto Protocols, and its carbon emissions keep on rising.

The survey was commissioned by our organization, the Future 500, and the U.S. Climate Task Force (CTF), a climate policy research group chaired by former US Commerce Undersecretary Robert Shapiro and co-chaired by Harvard Professor Elaine Kamarck, Al Gore's former domestic policy chief.

Only one in four Americans know what cap-and-trade is, and just 13% favor it. Support increases to 46% when the approach is explained to them - but opposition to it also increases, from 29% to 46%.

By comparison, 57% support a straightforward tax on carbon, while only 37% oppose it. When the two are matched up against one another, Americans prefer a carbon tax shift by more than two-to-one, 58% to 27%.

We all want the most effective climate policy that Congress will agree to enact. I have great respect for the coalition behind Boxer-Kerry, and the years of work it took to build it. It is also clear that a simple price on carbon has a better chance both of passing and of succeeding once it is passed.