Amid the United States’ fraught debate over climate change, one policy solution stands out as uniquely popular. It has support from environmentalists, economists, Republicans and even Exxon Mobil Corp., the historic bankroller of the movement to seed doubt over global warming.
It’s the same approach taken to alcohol, tobacco, sugar and other things deemed too dangerous to leave unchecked but too widely used to ban ― namely, put a tax on carbon emissions.
Now, a new poll shows that a majority of registered voters support taxing fossil fuel to help reduce global warming. Even more strikingly, the average American is willing to pay nearly 15 percent more for energy each year to help support a carbon tax, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
“Americans, they’re not in love with coal and natural gas, and they tend to think of them as very dirty and very polluting,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a co-author of the study, told HuffPost. “But they’re not naive. They don’t think ― and pardon the pun ― that it’s like flipping a light switch and we’re all on solar power.”
The survey participants ― a group of 1,226 American adults, ages 18 and older, surveyed last year between Nov. 18 and Dec. 1 ― were asked: “If a tax on fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) to help reduce global warming were to cost your household $X more each year in higher energy bills, would you support or oppose it?” Participants were then given a choice of different amounts of money.
The average American said they would be willing to spend $177 per year, which comes out to about 14.4 percent more on energy when compared to current electricity rates in each state, the researchers found. That alone would raise about $22.3 billion, not including a carbon tax added to other goods and services in the economy.
The White House has repeatedly said it would not pursue a carbon tax as part of the broad tax overhaul proposed earlier this year. President Donald Trump has expressed skepticism that climate change is a serious problem. He has also claimed, without evidence, that the overwhelming majority of scientists who say greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and industrialized farming are to blame for climate change are, in fact, perpetuating a “hoax.” Trump’s administration has aggressively rolled back policies to curb emissions.
On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed repealing the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping set of rules to limit emissions from power plants and incentivize investment in renewable energy. He billed the announcement as an end to the “war on coal” ― that is, environmental policies Republicans have long blamed for hurting the coal industry, even though coal’s decline has been primarily driven by competition with natural gas.
But roughly 66 percent of registered voters support a revenue-neutral carbon tax. That includes 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans. Among those GOP voters, 67 percent who identified as moderate Republicans backed the hypothetical proposal, but only 39 percent of conservative Republicans agreed.
The survey asked responders to select how they want the money generated from a carbon tax to be spent. The most popular choice from the list of 10 options was investing in solar and wind energy, for which nearly 80 percent indicated support. That was closely followed by more than 77 percent support for spending on infrastructure such as roads and bridges. In third place was 71.9 percent support for assisting workers in the coal industry who may lose their jobs as a result of the tax.
“People are behind this idea of a transition,” Leiserowitz said. “But what you’re seeing here is Americans have a lot of sympathy for workers who are left behind by the transition.”