America’s Views on Warming

by Nelson Harvey

 Photo credit: LynchburgVirginia

Being a university student and an environmental blogger, it’s easy to operate in a green vaccum much of the time, where it seems that everyone is concerned with the latest global warming legislation, the energy content of biofuels, or some other environmental minutae. Since I spend so much time outside of “the mainstream,” I’m always interested in national polls on environmental issues. After all, no solution to global warming or any other problem will get off the ground in this country if it doesn’t have the support of the American public.

So what are they thinking? Michael Schellenberger alerted me yesterday to a new poll he worked on that examines American’s attitudes on global warming, and it certainly sheds some light on the subject. The poll, which included over 1,500 participants of all ages and political backgrounds, showed that while about 69 percent of people consider global warming to be a serious issue, they rank it well below issues like the Iraq war and dependence on foreign oil in terms of overall importance.

The most revealing findings in the survey concerned ways of dealing with the problem, as participants were asked how they felt about three major legislative proposals: cap-and-trade legislation, a “Sky Trust” program where the government would auction off the right to pollute, and an Apollo-esque blitz on clean energy development that would create thousands of “greeen collar” jobs in the United States. Although a majority of respondents expressed support for both cap and trade and the Apollo proposal, only the Apollo initiative retained majority support after qualifying statements were introduced, such as the fact that a cap-and-trade program could lead to significantly higher gasoline and oil prices.

These results may have important policy implications. It’s no secret that Americans hate high energy prices, but the poll shows that this distaste could mean the demise of important global warming legislation, if that legislation would in fact lead to short term jumps in the price at the pump. The poll also points to something I brought up a few days ago: many Americans identify less with limits and restrictions than with aspirational initiatives-such as the Apollo program-that invoke the guardian angels of growth and prosperity.

In a piece in The New Republic about a week ago, Schellenberger and his co-author Ted Nordhaus argued that environmentalists should capitalize on these preferences and unite behind a massive increase in government spending on clean energy. While I don’t disagree with them, I do think that its important to introduce a more honest economics of energy, so that the pollution associated with dirty energy is actually reflected in the price. This may result in temporary hardships for consumers if clean power sources are not readily available as substitutes, but in this instance, it seems worth the sacrifice.

However we interpret the poll data, it was valuable for me, a crunchy manhattanite,
as a much-needed re-introduction to the body politic.

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