Mainstream environmentalists tackling the climate crisis prioritize pricing greenhouse gas emissions over alternative policies to cool our fevered planet. The ACES climate bill that passed the House would weaken renewable rules, add massive offsets, and kill much existing EPA authority to fight climate change. The “simple” Cantwell-Collins cap-and-dividend bill focuses on an auctioned permit system that returns revenues to the public, with a practically undefined CERT fund the only supplement to this price mechanism. As most supporters will freely admit, neither mainstream bill aims at emission reductions anywhere near as large as science tells us we need. The theory is that if we can pass something politically practical, then we can fix problems later. Since these bills claim to be shaped by political practicality, and focus on an emissions price, emissions pricing must be incredibly popular compared to alternative policies. Right?
Wrong. Surveys show that the public support rules and public investments far more strongly and far more consistently than it supports either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. In the U.S., 70 to 80 percent of the population support renewable standards, building efficiency standards, auto efficiency standards, and business efficiency standards. Over 60 percent still support them even when told that auto, consumer product, and energy costs will rise if they are implemented[1]. That is a critical point. When a large majority of the public supports a policy if it personally costs them money, this is strong, solid support.

Surveys comparing carbon taxes to cap-and-trade as a means of putting a price on emissions give mixed results, with both cap-and-trade and carbon tax supporters able to point to favorable results. This discrepancy can be resolved. Both poll poorly, once people realize that either will raise direct and indirect energy prices[2].

I’m sure that cap-and-dividend and tax-and-dividend supporters will argue that if their particular viewpoint is just properly explained they can win just as solid and just as strong public support. And that may be true. But educating the public is a long process, made harder by the fact that a large part of the economy is devoted to un-educating the public. If the public already supports a policy so strongly that it is willing to pay to see it implemented, that is a distinctly non-trivial advantage.

In short, if you want to gain popular support for a climate bill, rather than rely on the back room deal making that has failed so miserably, there is a strong political argument for focusing on public investment, like trains and subsidies for weather sealing and insulation, and on regulations like the CAFE rules. It is not that these have been ignored, but they have been neither  the main political nor main policy focus.

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My next post will explain why an emphasis on public investment and rule-based (as opposed to price-based) regulation is better policy than the reverse. This will be a matter of emphasis, and not opposition to an emissions price.  But that emphasis is important. Both the ACES and Cantwell bill prioritized pricing over other types of policy. That is not the most popular approach, and we will see in the future why it is not the most effective approach.


[1] One of many surveys showing around 80 percent support for renewable energy standards:

Barry Rabe and Christopher Borric, Climate Change and American Public Opinion: The National and State Perspective [PDF], (Charlottesville, Va.: Miller Center of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia, 10-Dec-2008): p14 – Table 19, (accessed 29-Jan-2010).

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In the same study, p17 Table 23 shows 77 percent support for auto efficiency standards. Toward the end of the 2008 Presidential election, surveys showed that over 60 percent of both Obama and McCain supporters favored renewable energy and business efficiency standards even if they raised the prices of energy prices and consumer products.

Knowledge Networks of Menlo Park California, McCain and Obama Supporters Largely Agree on Approaches to Energy, Climate Change [PDF]. WorldPublicOpinion.Org. 23/Sep 2008, (DC: International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 23-Sep-2008): 4-5,(accessed 29-Jan-2010).

71 percent of the U.S. population supports tighter efficiency rules for automobiles, even if that costs them money:

The World Bank and The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, “4.3 Willingness to Support National Steps with Economic Costs,”in World Development Report 2010: Public Attitudes Toward Climate Change: Findings from a Multi-Country Poll, (D.C.: International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 3-Dec-2009):16,(accessed 30-Jan-2010).

Public support for public investment is harder to measure because polls on the subject are conducted less often. However, there have been some polls on rail. Back in 2006 a Harris poll showed that about 70 percent of the U.S. would like to see rail get the larges share of transportation growth compared to car and airplanes, and the 70 percent of the population also thought this should be funded by local, state and the federal government rather than private enterprise:

Harris Interactive, Americans Would Like to See a Larger Share of Passengers and Freight Going By Rail in Future, (Harris Interactive Inc.,8-Feb-2006), (accessed 30-Jan-2010).

In November 2008, rail won a very important poll — actually voter initiatives and bond issues. 70 percent of transit initiatives on the ballot won, for a total of 75 billion in spending:

Christopher Conkey and Paul Glader, “Mass-Transit Projects Fared Well at Polls,” Wall Street Journal, 12-Nov-2008, A6.

[2] An example of a poll that found a carbon tax favored over a cap-and-trade system:

Ben Geman, “Is a Carbon Tax Dead?The Hill, E2Wire – The Hill’s Energy and Environment Blog, (Dow Jones, 1-Dec-2009), (accessed 30-Jan-2010).

An example of a poll that found a cap-and-trade system is favored over a carbon tax:

Paul Steinhauser, CNN Poll: 6 in 10 Back ‘Cap and Trade.’, PoliticalTicker, Cable News Network (CNN), (CNN, 27-Oct-2009), (accessed 30-Jan-2010).

The truth is: the public knows very little about either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. When both are explained, the U.S. public supports neither:

Barry Rabe and Christopher Borric, “The Climate of Belief: American Public Opinion on Climate Change: Market Based Policy Options: Public Attitudes Toward Cap-and-Trade v. Carbon Taxes” [PDF], Issues in Governance Studies, no. 31 (The Brookings Institution, Jan-2010):12,(accessed 30-Jan-2010).

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