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What The Hell Does The Public Want, Anyway?

Trying to tease out What Americans Think about climate change is incredibly frustrating. One will show people hand-wring over rising temperatures. But the next poll will suggest it's a low priority compared with other issues. Then a third poll will find that people are willing to trade some economic growth to protect the environment. Yet  another poll will show that people don't want to pay more for, say, gas—even if it'd reduce oil use. Obviously, responses are sensitive to the wording of the questions—a tweak here or there can lead to vastly different sentiments. But the overall mishmash makes you wonder if people have the dimmest idea what they're talking about.

That said, this extensive new survey from a Yale and George Mason University research team, which interviewed some 2,164 Americans in late 2008, puts together a fairly coherent picture of public opinion on climate issues, and jibes with many previous findings. Some 72 percent of respondents think global warming is important. But it's a backburner issue compared with our economic woes—and ranks just tenth out of eleven national issues. Scientists may be pleading that we're fast approaching a point-of-no-return, as temperatures soar and various "tipping points" lurk around the bend, but people are distracted. Still, there's ample support for certain policies:

- 92 percent supported more funding for research on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power;
- 85 percent supported tax rebates for people buying energy efficient vehicles or solar panels;
- 80 percent said the government should regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant;
- 69 percent of Americans said the United States should sign an international treaty that requires the U.S. to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90% by the year 2050.

Tally it up, and the public basically endorses Obama's energy agenda—plus supporting more offshore drilling and more nuclear plants. What's more, 67 percent of Americans say we should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions even if China, India, and Brazil haven't already acted—they're perfectly ready for the United States to show some sort of global leadership. But what if these measures are costly? Surprisingly, support remains quite sturdy:

- 79 percent supported a 45 mpg fuel efficiency standard for cars, trucks, and SUVs, even if that meant a new vehicle cost up to $1,000 more to buy;
- 72 percent supported a requirement that electric utilities produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year;
- 72 percent supported a government subsidy to replace old water heaters, air conditioners, light bulbs, and insulation, even if it cost the average household $5 a month in higher taxes;
- 63 percent supported a special fund to make buildings more energy efficient and teach Americans how to reduce their energy use, even if this cost the average household $2.50 a month in higher electric bills.

True, that last question is murky—on what blue planet would energy-efficient buildings lead to higher electric bills? But these results are striking, not least because this survey was taken last fall, when gas prices were soaring past $3.25 per gallon, and everyone was griping about energy costs. Although Gas, by the way, seems to have some bizarre mystical fence around it—only 33 percent of Americans support even a paltry 25-cent gas tax hike, even if the revenues are fully rebated via income tax cuts. Higher electric bills? Fine. Higher pump prices? Oh hell no. This seems irrational, but maybe the fact that people can follow the price of gas so avidly, watching it undulate on every billboard in town, gives it some weird untouchable status. I have no idea.

Now, there's one catch. Only 53 percent of Americans support a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, and even that support is relatively soft: Just 11 percent "strongly support" it, while 23 percent "strongly oppose" it. That leads to another puzzling result—Americans support steep emission cuts, even at fairly high costs to themselves, but don't like cap and trade, which is the most viable means of getting there (the pollsters didn't ask about a carbon tax). That means Obama has his work cut out for him if he wants to sell this idea—though it does seem genuinely possible to sell it.

This is partly why I do think Congress should pass some of the more popular parts of its energy agenda now—like renewable-energy mandates and efficiency standards—but wait until later this year or even next year to push for a cap-and-trade regime, when (cross your fingers) they've got the banking crisis under control and the White House can turn its full attention to the looming climate crisis. It just seems doubtful Congress can squeak cap and trade through this summer, without a sustained push from the top.

--Bradford Plumer