Bill Gates

The margin was narrow — 4 percentage points. And 5 percent of those polled didn’t choose sides. But a CBS News/NY Times poll released Sunday just might signal the moment when Americans began to grasp the intertwined realities of climate, energy and national security.

The poll [PDF] found that 49 percent of Americans think suspending the gasoline tax this summer is a bad idea, while 45 percent approve of the plan (see Question 49).

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If memory serves, this is the first time in at least a generation that the American public expressed a willingness to be taxed more rather than less for energy.

This isn’t just economists talking, like the 150 dismal scientists who over the weekend issued a statement calling suspension of the federal tax on gasoline this summer "a bad idea" because, among other reasons, it "would generate major profits for oil companies rather than significantly lowering prices for consumers [and] would encourage people to keep buying costly imported oil and do nothing to encourage conservation." No, this is good old, hard-pressed, subprime-scared Americans.

A week ago, when I posted to Grist about Obama, McCain, Clinton and the gas-tax holiday, I didn’t imagine that a plurality of my fellow citizens might be ready to embrace my conclusion: that this century’s defining energy policy issue is energy prices that tell the truth.

OK, it’s just one poll, and a carbon tax isn’t necessarily around the next corner. But for someone who has toiled for decades for measures to internalize the external costs of everything from nukes and jet skis to driving and carbon, this poll is sweet indeed.

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And this too: that more Americans than not want to hold on to the gas tax in the face of $4 pump prices is due in no small measure to Barack Obama’s hammering against the tax holiday. We’ll be in a better position to see on Wednesday morning, but it could be that Sen. Obama’s appeal to principle and the greater good is standing him in good stead with voters in North Carolina and Indiana.

If that proves true, then it might not be beyond possibility that the campaign’s final six months could see serious discussion of a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a climate solution.

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