A new poll from the Brookings Institution has caused some anguish amongst environmentalists, as it shows evidence of an increase in climate scepticism in the US in the wake of the Climategate controversy. In fact, things are not that bad – the proportion who think there is no solid evidence for warming has increased by only 3 percentage points. Despite their depiction in Europe as anti-scientific irrational nuts, a good two-thirds of Americans still do accept the science, according to the survey – surely a comfortable majority.
In contrast with this small movement, the big numbers in the Brookings study are actually about support for climate policies. Despite increased uncertainty about man-made climate change, the poll shows strong support for policies expanding renewable energy (74%) and nuclear power (70%), and mandating fuel-efficiency standards for cars (72%).
By contrast, environmental taxes remain much less popular, especially (not surprisingly) higher taxes on gasoline. This applies equally to cap-and-trade, underlining why the legislation has proved so difficult to steer through Congress. 74% in the survey said they would oppose a carbon tax that would raise energy costs by $50 a month, with 56% strongly opposed. Almost exactly the same proportion – 72% -`were against a cap-and-trade scheme that would lead to a $50 hit, with again, 54% strongly opposed. Seems like carbon pricing is carbon pricing is carbon pricing for most folks….
The Brookings study leads me to two conclusions, both of which also apply to the UK. One is that people can want to see the development of modern, clean forms of energy, even if they aren’t sure about climate change. In a recent ippr survey of over 3,000 people in 157 marginal constituencies in Britain, we found the highest levels of support for expanding renewables (around 80%) when the policy was framed in terms of increasing energy security (which it will), not tackling climate change.
The second conclusion is that while there is strong support for visible investment in low carbon technologies (even at a cost), carbon pricing through taxes or cap-and-trade remains unpopular. The US data on opposition to increases in environmental taxes is similar to the UK data. Even with hypothecation (which does happen in the US but almost certainly wouldn’t here), these are not popular policies.
Attitudes towards climate science are shaped by many complex forces, and will wax and wane somewhat over time. What matters more, and what we should focus on, are the much more consistent views on policies.