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Caring About Climate—Close to Home
U.S. climate change legislation remains stalled, even as global greenhouse gas emissions reach new highs, the extent of summer arctic sea ice plumbs new lows, and nations around the world are reportedly drawing up plans for some 1,200 new coal-fired power plants.
These developments may drive environmentalists to despair, but recent public opinion surveys show there’s hope for those seeking a way forward on climate change, summed up in an old adage attributed to former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill: all politics is local.
While popular attention remains focused on making a living and making ends meet, once citizens tear their eyes from pocketbook issues, their responses to questions about energy and the environment demonstrate concern for global environmental issues such as climate change.
Americans favor cleaner energy sources—particularly if a power plant is close to home—and would pay higher energy bills to make progress toward a cleaner future. They also support unilateral national action on climate change over the tit-for-tat rhetoric that has marked U.S. participation in international climate discussions.
“The big issues for the American public are always the economy, jobs, sometimes prices —when inflation is high—and war,” says Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government at Harvard and an associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE). “What we’re trying to figure out is, given [the] energy choices the U.S. faces—we have to build power plants to replace old plants coming offline and to meet growing demand—then what sort of power plants? What characteristics of those plants are most desirable? What we’ve found is that people weigh environmental concerns and local health concerns in new power plant choices more than they weigh economic concerns like prices and jobs.”
Ansolabehere has been surveying public attitudes toward energy sources, the environment, prices and power plant safety since 2002. MIT/Harvard Energy surveys conducted in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010, have shown that some 75 percent of respondents want to increase solar and wind power in the U.S. energy portfolio, and a majority want to reduce coal and oil. Those trends hold, with a slight decline in numbers, Ansolabehere says, when the higher prices of alternative energy sources are cited in the question phrasing.
Though environmental concerns weigh heavily on Americans’ electricity generating preferences, Ansolabehere says that isn’t due to climate change. In fact, the 2002 survey showed that concern about global warming was “statistically indistinguishable from zero” for most power choices. Climate change concern has risen in the intervening years, but still lags other factors in determining energy supply preferences, according to a 2012 paper in the journal Daedalus by Ansolabehere and David Konisky, an assistant professor in the public policy institute at Georgetown University.
“People’s concern about global warming is uncorrelated to their preference for any particular power source. That has been constant throughout [the polling],” Ansolabehere says. “There’s a real disconnect between what the public is willing to do and what these elite discussions about global warming and the energy sector have focused on in the last decade.”
The major factors driving the public’s power plant choices are not global issues like climate change, but rather local concerns about pollution and health effects.
“People are much more willing to accept a wind facility than a coal or nuclear facility, with natural gas [falling somewhere] in between. Even with all the objections, big blades turning in the background and…[increased mortality of] birds, it’s much more acceptable than a traditional power plant of any sort,” Ansolabehere said. “People want an expansion of solar and wind, and want a contraction of coal, oil and nuclear power. Natural gas, they want to keep the same or expand somewhat.”
The local focus illustrated in Ansolabehere’s results was also reflected in a recent survey by assistant professor of government Dustin Tingley, an HUCE associate. Tingley recently looked at people’s beliefs about how far-reaching the effects of their energy choices are. People believe their impacts are local.
“When you drive the car and consume fossil fuels, those fuels contribute to global climate change,” Tingley points out. “[But] we find across all groups a big drop off in the impact people think they’re having on a person in a land far away versus an individual in their own town or the state next to you. They get the local pollution. They get the local impacts. What they don’t understand as well is the global impacts.”
The lesson, Tingley says, is that when framing the issue of climate change, it will resonate with the public more if one talks about local impacts, like the devastation caused in New York and New Jersey by Hurricane Sandy, though he cautions that it remains to be seen how long the public’s memory will be for that event.
“You need to talk about the local circumstances. It seems the grizzly bears on the Arctic sheet or starving children in India, that’s not the sort of native or natural way people think about it…. [Talking about local effects] is a more natural fit. It’s in their face, something a marketing campaign would direct your attention to. If we’re in the camp of trying to effect change, maybe pictures of the New Jersey coastline are what are really going to resonate with people.”
Though their motivation is purely local, Ansolabehere says that the premium people are willing to pay for cleaner power close to home goes a long way toward meeting the cost of changes necessary to meet global environmental needs.
“If people are willing to pay higher prices for electricity locally to offset costs of asthma and lung disease, missed days from work because of particulates and other air pollution, you [account for] two-thirds of the [price] you’d need to [pay to] pursue alternate fuels, wind and solar power, more aggressively,” Ansolabehere says. “And I think that’s the real opening going forward. How much would [the public] support more regulations or increased prices to avoid all the effects that come from burning coal … in terms of pollution? People really don’t want a coal plant near them and really don’t want a nuclear plant near them.”
In a separate survey, Joseph Aldy, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a HUCE associate faculty member, worked with colleagues from Yale University seeking to quantify just how much people would pay for cleaner energy. The survey, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in May 2012, indicated that in a national referendum on the issue, a new clean energy standard would pass.
“If you had a national referendum for a clean energy standard, you could get a pretty aggressive standard, based on the results of our survey,” says Aldy, who worked on clean energy issues for nearly two years in the Obama administration. “People are willing to act, to give up
some real money.”
The survey, which was conducted in 2011 and included 1,010 respondents, showed that the average American is willing to pay $162 a year more for electricity from clean sources, an amount that would raise their annual bill an average 13 percent.
The survey showed that each $10 increase in the cost of clean power decreased the probability a respondent would support it by 1 percent. It also showed that between 24 percent and 30 percent of respondents would oppose a national clean energy standard even if it didn’t cost anything. Willingness to pay for clean energy rose if the definition included only renewable sources, to $199, versus $142 for a mix of renewables and natural gas, and $147 for renewables coupled with nuclear power.
Aldy and his coauthors, Yale associate professor of environmental economics and policy Matthew Kotchen and Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, took their analysis a step further, extrapolating those results to Congress in order to determine whether a clean energy standard could pass there. They used a measure of the “median voter” in each Congressional and Senatorial district and found that the environmental standard that could pass Congress is a lot weaker than that which the average American voter would hope for.
In the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, a clean-energy standard could raise electricity bills by no more than 5 percent, or about $48 annually, or risk failing to pass. In the Democratically-controlled Senate, a majority would support standards similar to those acceptable to the survey’s average American. Given that a 60-vote majority is needed to block a filibuster, however, only a weaker measure, one that would raise the average energy bill by no more than $59, could reach the floor for a vote and go on to pass.
Think globally, act locally
With public attention focused closer to home and Congress focused on the public, the best way to get climate change legislation passed may be with an indirect approach, Ansolabehere and Aldy agree.
“Whether a carbon tax [could pass] and what people will pay to alleviate climate issues are critical questions,” Ansolabehere says. “Our answer is you’re not going to get there directly. You can’t just stand up [in Congress] and say, ‘We’re going to have an energy tax to get rid of climate change.’ You can stand up and say, ‘We’re going to have an energy tax or cap on environmental pollutants to try and make everyone’s health better.’ If the president wants to take on this issue, he will need to do it in a very politically palatable way.”
When he has conducted surveys that ask about the issue of a carbon tax directly, Ansolabehere says, he’s found the public is willing to support either a revenue-neutral proposal or one that improves local health.
“I don’t think Congress is going to go any place where public opinion is not behind it, especially on an issue that’s not front and center,” Ansolabehere says.
The extreme partisanship that characterizes Congressional attitudes toward environmental issues is particularly troubling, says Aldy, because it means that politics—more than economics or environmental effectiveness—dictates which plans have a chance of passing. For example, though a cap-and-trade scheme might be the most effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, that approach became associated with President Obama during his unsuccessful foray into climate change legislation in his first term, and Republicans will therefore have no part of it.
“Cap-and-trade has been demonized by the right,” Aldy says, even though it is “a market-friendly approach to tackling environmental problems that is cost effective and more efficient than traditional regulatory command-and-control approaches. It’s frustrating to see how partisan this has become. It’s not clear how one breaks that down.”
Negotiations on broader national issues may provide opportunities for climate change legislation, Aldy says. Though a debate on stand-alone climate legislation is unlikely to be successful, it is possible that a discussion of climate change issues could be part of a larger debate on tax and spending issues where the revenue raised [through measures such as a carbon tax] could forestall cuts to prized programs.
“The important question is how they [a carbon tax or other climate-related scheme] poll relative to getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction or the business tax benefit for providing health insurance for employees, or how it compares relative to not cutting marginal rates on income,” Aldy says. “Some feel that if cap-and-trade couldn’t pass…a carbon tax certainly can’t pass…. [but] if the reference point is cutting Medicare, cutting the Pentagon’s budget, or cutting the mortgage interest deduction, then I think the politics are a little different.”
A little different may still not be enough while the economy is struggling, Aldy acknowledges. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if meaningful reform for both the budget and the climate were put off until the economy improves.
“It may be that the politics are such that you don’t get a big fiscal package, you just kick the can down the road,” Aldy says. “That’s possible, if you realize all the ways of raising revenue are lousy now and would be easier with a better economy.”
The glaring absence of the environment as an issue in the recent presidential campaign, Aldy says, was a reflection of the difficult politics surrounding environmental policy. With the environment seen as a second- or third-tier issue and the election turning on narrow percentages in key states, it’s not surprising that when climate change was brought up at all, it was phrased in terms of economics, as a step toward “energy independence,” or as the driver in the creation of new technology that could be sold overseas and that would create jobs at home.
“All of those have a positive impact on carbon dioxide emissions, but there’s been very little discussion of climate change,” Aldy continues. “In the context of this economy, and in the context of high fuel prices, climate change is not what people want to hear”—certainly not the “five to ten percent who [were] in play in any given state.”
Just as sticky as developing domestic standards for regulating greenhouse gas emissions has been the nation’s participation in international climate agreements. A common theme sounded by some national leaders is that U.S. participation in international climate agreements is contingent on the participation of other nations, particularly large emitters of carbon dioxide in the developing world such as China and India. Tingley’s work in a forthcoming paper in the journal Comparative Political Studies, co-written with Stanford University professor of political science Mike Tomz, looked at the American public’s attitude toward international climate agreements in order to probe how big a factor the actions of other nations should be in our own climate moves.
“If others cooperate,” Tingley asks, “should we cooperate? And, if others defect—fail to make progressive policy changes—should we also defect?” Such questions “build on the idea that people are willing to cooperate, but only conditionally. I’m willing to do the right thing, but only if you do the right thing. We asked a basic question about whether we should be conditional or whether we should be unilateral.”
The paper analyzed data from two previous surveys, one conducted in 2009 by the German Marshall Fund and another carried out that same year by the World Bank. It also examined U.S. public attitudes in more depth through an online survey of 708 adults.
Their analysis showed that people want their country to make concrete strides toward a sustainable future, regardless of what other nations are doing. But they also indicate that while people don’t think their own nation’s actions should be tied to those of other countries, they believe that nations that cheat on climate change emissions should be punished, either by means of trade sanctions or through public humiliation in international arenas like the United Nations.
“We find, interestingly, in contrast to a lot of elite rhetoric, many people across the world—on the order of 70 to 90 percent—are unilateral cooperators” Tingley says. “That to me is interesting because it suggests [that the government positions]…in international climate conferences [to the effect that] ‘the Chinese aren’t willing to go far enough so we won’t—that just doesn’t seem to be a theme that resonates around the world.”
This article originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, the newsletter of the Center for the Environment, in Volume 5, Issue 1. Read the entire issue here.