Support for carbon tax reaches almost 70%

By Evan Lehmann | 04/16/2015 08:20 AM EDT

A large majority of Americans support taxing carbon emissions, according to polling results released yesterday, and favorability rises to two-thirds if the tax is used to send money back to households.

A large majority of Americans support taxing carbon emissions, according to polling results released yesterday, and favorability rises to two-thirds if the tax is used to send money back to households.

The survey by Stanford University and Resources for the Future also found that efforts by environmental organizations to increase urgency around climate change by pointing to extreme weather isn’t working, and neither are efforts to erode people’s belief in global warming by questioning the science.

"There is really no evidence here at all that the disinformation campaign has successfully, dramatically reduced confidence in environmental scientists," said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor who oversaw the poll.


He points to consistent levels of trust in climate scientists since 2006, when the survey first asked the question. In the latest poll, 71 percent of respondents say they trust scientists at least moderately. Nine years ago, the number was 72 percent.

On a carbon tax, the poll found that 61 percent of respondents favor taxing corporations for releasing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s stronger support for a carbon tax that provides rebates to American households; 67 percent agree with that policy.

That roughly equates to a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is being promoted among a small but growing number of Democratic lawmakers and conservative think tanks. The policy is based on the idea that national tax revenue will stay the same with the introduction of a carbon tax, because other taxes, like those on income or corporations, will be reduced.

"We’re tremendously encouraged," Charles Komanoff, director of the Carbon Tax Center, said of the poll’s findings. "We’re not dumbstruck by it, because we’ve been sensing a shift in opinion that the tide is moving our way. But it’s fantastic to get this kind of confirmation."

The Niskanen Center is a new proponent of taxing carbon. The libertarian group recently proposed a plan to swap out U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. One of its key arguments is based on the idea that carbon pricing is a political reality and conservatives could be left on the sidelines if they continue to question the science behind climate change.

Public is willing; Congress is not

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, said the poll shows that "the public is willing to pay a price" to reduce emissions. He said it’s notable that respondents showed strong support for a carbon tax that doesn’t give rebates to the public.

"It speaks to greater public concern about climate change than some people would like to admit, and that people don’t need to be bribed into taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Taylor said.

As for a swap, Komanoff estimates that the Clean Power Plan could be replaced fairly cheaply. He calculates that a $2.15-per-ton carbon tax could result in the same level of emission reductions as the EPA power plant rules, which are expected to be released this summer. The tax would rise by $2.15 every year until 2030, and it would only cover emissions from the electricity sector.

"That speaks not to how great a carbon tax is, but rather how meager the Clean Power Plan target is," Komanoff said.

Most experts suggest that a carbon tax would begin at about $20 a ton and go up annually, potentially resulting in much deeper cuts to carbon emissions than the Clean Power Plan.

Despite the poll’s finding of support for a carbon tax, the policy’s favorability could tumble if it were ever debated in Congress, Taylor said. He noted that Americans generally support higher taxes on corporations, whether it’s related to climate change or not.

In the real world, political opponents of taxing carbon — or taxing anything — would argue that Americans would ultimately pay the increased costs placed on corporations, he said.

"It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Sure, some other guy should be paying a lot of money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,’" Taylor said. "For whatever reason, it’s not always obvious to the public that taxing corporations will likely result in those higher tax bills being passed onto consumers in higher energy prices."

Want GOP votes? Embrace climate change

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, underlines that point. He said in a statement that a carbon tax would fall especially hard on poor and fixed-income Americans, because they use a larger percentage of their income on energy than wealthier households.

"These policies have long been about courting an extremist agenda from environmentalists and expanding government control into every facet of American life," said Inhofe, who rejects the idea that humans are changing the environment.

But Krosnick says that’s not a message that most voters are eager to hear.

Poll findings unveiled in January, prior to yesterday’s wider release, revealed that 66 percent of respondents were more likely to vote for a political candidate who believes that humans are responsible for rising temperatures and wants to address it. Twelve percent said they would be less likely to vote for that candidate, and 21 percent said the candidate’s views had no effect on their decision.

Alternatively, the poll found that 67 percent of respondents would be less likely to vote for someone who calls climate change a hoax. Thirteen percent would be more likely to support that candidate. Finally, 44 percent said they would be less likely to support someone who says, "I am not a scientist," when asked about global warming, while 27 percent would be more likely.

The attitudes of partisans are more telling. For example, twice as many Republicans said they would vote for a green candidate than those who said they wouldn’t. Forty-eight percent of Republicans support candidates who believe in man-made global warming, compared with 24 percent who don’t.

"If a Democrat wants to win by recruiting some Republican votes, this is a good way to do it," Krosnick said. "They will win more than they lose."

In a finding that’s perhaps more relevant, the poll found that 64 percent of independents were more likely to vote for a green candidate, compared with 13 percent who were less likely to give their support.

The survey also suggests that efforts to raise awareness about climate change by pointing to extreme weather isn’t working.

The poll found that attitudes about droughts, storms and unstable weather have stayed steady since 2012, despite the occurrence of record heat in the West and record cold in the East.

Fifty-four percent of respondents say global warming has caused more drought, while 55 percent say it’s resulted in more storms. Those numbers are unchanged from previous surveys, Krosnick said, suggesting that strategies stressing weather risks have been unpersuasive.