Majority of Americans now accept climate change, support carbon tax

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Published on Medill Reports

Remember this tweet from President Donald Trump as the Midwest shivered through record low temperatures?

Despite the nation’s chief executive still denying climate change, America’s public sentiment on climate science is shifting to acceptance and a call for action.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released the results of a poll in January surveying Americans’ stance on climate and energy issues, showing that seven in 10 Americans now believe climate change is a reality.

More than 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is a reality. (Courtesy of EPIC/AP-NORC)

While partisan difference persists – 86 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans believe climate change is real – it has become a majority opinion across party lines, said Lindsay Iversen, deputy director at EPIC.

The poll results showed not only increasing support for the science of climate change but also a general willingness to take action on it. Forty-four percent of participants said they support the implementation of a tax on carbon-based fuels.

“The fact that people are willing to support a carbon tax on all of their income and across a number of different realms, not just in the narrow application with their electricity bill, I think that’s suggesting an openness to a bigger picture policy,” Iversen said.

Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act

In fact, the poll suggests that right now might be the prime time to roll out climate change policies.

As many as 83 percent of Americans who believe in climate change said the federal government should take actions to address it, with 96 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans, the poll shows.

Members of both parties have realized the importance of mitigating climate change by limiting carbon emissions. Last November, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan bill to “put a price on carbon in a decade,” according to The Hill.

The basic idea of the EICDA is to place a fee on fossil fuel and distribute the revenue as dividends to American households. Behind the bill, a not-for-profit environmental organization, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, is rounding up Congressional support with thousands of volunteers reaching out to their representatives.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Steven Valk, communications director at CCL. “We get the emissions reductions that we need, but at the same time we protect people from any economic hardship by returning the revenue from that fee to the households.”

The bill, if passed, will bring an initial $15 price tag on every ton of fossil fuel sold at the source, such as a coal mine. The price goes up by $10 a ton each year, Valk said. The revenue generated from the carbon fee will be divided among all legal residents in the U.S., with every adult getting one full share and every child getting half a share.

Although everyone gets an equal amount of dividend regardless of income, Valk said it’s a fair distribution because those with higher incomes end up paying a lot more than lower-income households due to their bigger carbon footprints. The bill assumes that distributors paying the fee at the source will pass it on to consumers in higher energy and utility bills.

“There’s a problem out there and the more you contribute to that problem, the more you should pay,” Valk said. “What we’re trying to do is to send a signal to the marketplace for businesses and people to make better decisions regarding carbon efficiency.”

Courtesy of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby

Carbon Tax v. Carbon Trading

The tax is not the only policy solution to combat climate change by reducing carbon dependency. “Cap-and-trade” is another solution that has been gaining traction, but the EICDA approach provides a more straightforward answer that’s easier to understand for the public, Valk said.

Many people have a hard time telling the difference between the two carbon pricing schemes, which actually work inversely to each other. Simply put, a carbon tax, such as the one proposed by the EICDA, determines the price on carbon emissions first and let the market decide how much to reduce, while cap-and-trade mandates the quantity of reductions and let the market decide the price of trading permits, according to Brookings Institution.

“A straight fee on carbon is very simple, very predictable,” Valk said. “It allows businesses to look to the future and make decisions knowing what the price on carbon is going to be in the future.”

A market-based solution like cap-and-trade has little price predictability, Valk said. The European Union’s emission trading scheme has seen prices stagnate or even go down, he said, while the EICDA is set to increase the price on carbon to over $100 per metric ton within a decade, which most definitely will have an impact on emission reductions.

“Predictability is very important in terms of influencing decisions that the businesses and consumers are going to make,” Valk said.

Global Warming and Extreme Weathers

Nearly half of Americans are more convinced about the science of climate change than they were five years ago, Iversen said, mainly due to extreme weather events, the leading cause of people’s changing views.

Extreme weather events are the leading reason that convince people of climate change. (Courtesy of EPIC/AP-NORC)

In fact, the very polar vortex that brought extreme cold days to the Midwest and alarmed the president was influenced by global warming.

The frigid Arctic air usually hangs close to the Arctic circle, Valk explained. But since the Arctic temperatures have risen faster than anywhere else on the planet in recent years, the temperature difference between the extreme Northern latitudes and the middle latitudes has diminished. This weakened the jet stream that holds the cold air up, allowing extreme cold air to dip down into the country.

The diminishing temperature difference also caused the jet stream to move more slowly, which means when storms hit the U.S., it hangs around for days, like Hurricane Harvey and Florence did, Valk said.

“You start seeing these weather pattern being blocked and staying in one place for a while,” Valk said. “So there’s a lot of ways that global warming is affecting the weather besides temperature.”

If the science is clear, why is the president still refusing to see the connection between global warming and extreme weather patterns?

Political scientist James Druckman, a Northwestern University professor who studies public opinion on climate change closely, said Trump was using an easy rhetoric tool to conflated climate and weather, appealing to those who do not want to invest in climate change policies.

“Trump is likely playing to a base that fears the economic consequences of climate mitigation policies,” Druckman said. “The increasing number of Republicans who are not following Trump suggests that citizens do rely on information beyond elite cues.”

Policy Outlook

A closer look at the EPIC poll will yield more insight on climate policies going forward.

People’s support for a carbon tax goes up significantly if they know where the money is being used. Sixty-seven percent would support the tax when the revenue is used for environmental restoration while 59 percent support research and development funding for renewable energy programs.

People’s support for carbon tax goes up when they know that the money is going toward environmental causes. (Courtesy of EPIC/AP-NORC)

“People want transparency. They want to know where is this price being applied and where is the money going,” Valk said. “The more people are able to understand and see these things, I think the more support you’re going to see.”

Iversen believes the political climate in the nation is changing as more Republicans line up to address global warming, such as the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus spearheaded by former Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo.

And thanks to a flood of “energetic, young freshmen” in the new Congress pushing forward the Green New Deal, climate-central policies are gaining a lot of early support across the nation, she said.

“I don’t think that it’s any secret that the cause of climate politics are really difficult in Congress and certainly in the White House at the moment,” Iversen said. “But I do think that as people become more aware of the realities of climate change and see it starting to affect them at home, we could start to see some of that changing.”

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