For those of us worried about climate change and the Administration’s environmental policies, there is a disheartening poll this month about the disconnect between environmental aspirations and the willingness to sacrifice to achieve the needed progress. An AP-NORC survey found that 68% of Americans wouldn’t be willing to pay even $10 more a month in higher electric bills to combat climate change. It reflects the calculus of President Donald Trump that voters still prioritize jobs and financial concerns over countervailing environmental values.
There are a host of polls showing both Democratic and Republican voters alike want action on climate change. Indeed, many climate change skeptics in Congress now support action. A recent poll showed the number of people alarmed over climate change has doubled in the last five years.
However, the political profile changes when these abstract goals are placed against even a small concrete sacrifice.
The result may be the framing of the question as a direct payment. The same voters are likely to support a large revenue commitment by the government or changes in policies on fossil fuels. That should not be the case of course but the framing of such questions is critical to the results. The fact is that proposals like the Green New Deal would necessarily cause rising costs since about 80% of all the energy in the United States comes from fossil fuels. However, the request for $120 more a year in utility bills is obviously a conversation stopper for many voters. There is also the added element of asking people to give more money to the utilities, which are generally viewed with some suspicion, if not open hostility.
The “Yellow Vest” protests in France are indicative of this problem. The effort to add a fuel tax to combat climate change sent Paris into a virtual shutdown. Green taxes are an obvious way to impact consumption while raising revenue. However, Western European countries are seeing a backlash even though their populations are viewed as the most educated and motivated on the issue.
When I speak on college campuses, I see this phenomenon first hand and use it to illustrate the problem with advocating for civil liberties. I ask students how many would sell me their free speech rights for $200,000. I used to say $2 million but that tended itself to be a bit too abstract. A sum of $200,000 is easy for students to put into real perspective. It is their student loans plus a downpayment on a house or car. Often the majority will raise their hands because free speech is largely an abstraction while $200,000 is not. They simply cannot remember when they really used their free speech rights. It is not that they do not value free speech. Yet, it remains an abstraction placed against a real value.
The same may be true in this poll, or at least I hope so.