Major survey finds overwhelming public support for action on global warming and clean energy


Yale and George Mason Universities surveyed 2,164 Americans last fall about their “climate change beliefs, attitudes, policy preferences, and actions.” Details will be posted at midnight Tuesday here. Here is a first look:

  • 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.

Americans say they are prepared to incure significant costs, as the figure above shows. In fact, they “support policies that would personally cost them more,” specifically (emphasis in original):

  • 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 Renewable Portfolio Standard that required electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources, even if it cost 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 establishment of 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.

Interestingly, the study also finds that most Americans support unilateral action:


These results may appear at odds with recent polls — see “Gallup poll shows failure of media, conservatives still easily duped by deniers” and “Deniers are still mostly duping only GOP voters” and “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP.”

But I think the results are not so inconsistent. Americans want to reduce pollution and strongly believe in clean energy — even most of the (large) minority that tells pollsters “News about about global warming is exaggerated” today. Indeed, most Americans are smart enough to figure out that the threat from global warming is not its (relatively) small impact on climate today, but the huge danger it poses in future decades if we continue on the business as usual path of unrestricted emissions.

I will expand on this point with another look at this poll later. I am also hoping to get somebody who was involved in the research to comment on it.

22 Responses to Major survey finds overwhelming public support for action on global warming and clean energy

  1. John Hollenberg says:


    I would be interested in your comments on this article:

    which claims that we need all kinds of technological breakthroughs in order to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. It paints a pretty bleak (but perhaps not accurate) picture. Doesn’t seem to square with what you have been writing on Climate Progress.

  2. Hugh McLean says:

    Union of Concerned Scientists engineers have updated their work on using a combination of technologies – currently in production – to reduce automobile global warming emissions by over 40%, at costs (depending on the type of vehicle) ranging from $180 to $670 and payback times (via reduced operating costs) of from 1.6 to 5 years – see for full details.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Put people to work planting trees.

    Lots of trees.

  4. Bill Woods says:

    “[S]ignificant costs” sounds good but I’m underwhelmed by the dollar figures. How much can you really get for
    “a new vehicle cost up to $1,000 more to buy;”
    renewable energy which “cost the average household an extra $100 a year;”
    “cost the average household $5 a month in higher taxes;”
    “cost the average household $2.50 a month in higher electric bills.”
    If there’s ~100 million households, those annual figures are ~$10 billion; ~$6 billion; and ~$3 billion.

    If CO2 emissions cost $10/t, that’d be ~$60 billion/year.

  5. Gail says:

    Hey David B. Benson,

    I love the blogs esp. here

    but it is true, the threads are lost, here’s my comment on an earlier post, to you

    David B. Benson Says:
    March 17th, 2009 at 8:44 pm
    Gail — Instead think of it as character-builing.

    But it is reality.

    Gail Says:
    March 17th, 2009 at 9:35 pm
    David B.B. –

    I appreciate the sentiment. And I strive to emulate it. But sriusly? Character building is finding out you will never achieve what you wished, or, you face a crushing disease or injury, or he’s just not that into you.

    The prospect of the end of human civilization? Art, music, literature, nature in all it’s beauteous and miraculous diversity?

    THAT’s soul-crushing.

    Unless you’re Sarah Moose-Slayer, then it’s vindication.

    And as far as this particular current post,
    I am somewhat befuddled, because here’s the thing:

    the trees aren’t going to grow.

    the Amazon, the American West and East, have turned from carbon sinks into carbon producers.

    In other words, the trees aren’t just not growing, they are shrinking, as in dying.

    This is as huge a feedback effect as ice caps melting.

    And, it’s largely being ignored by foresters and conservationists because, as I said, to acknowledge that particular reality is soul-crushing.

    I am still possibly and in vain, hopeful for a save. Possibly, soon, a radical cap on emissions followed by some as-yet-undiscovered CO2 removal technological fix.

    Failing that, what did I call it? The end of human civilization? Then the question becomes, how to do it as painlessly and humanely as possible.

  6. Steve H says:

    I’m becoming more confident in my assertions that if you give people more information, they’ll be more likely to adopt behavioral changes which are most import immediately. For instance, your utility bill should give you several numbers they don’t. 1) Your usage one year prior 2) The average consumption for homes in your neighborhood and 3) the average consumption in the city, county, or other geographical/political unit.

    Next, every community and utility should be working together to fund full-blown energy audits for every single home (prioritizing older homes sooner than later) within five or ten years along with low-interest loans and grants to make efficiency improvements that will give the homeowner the best bang for buck, as shown in the energy audit. Many people probably want to spend money on upgrades, but are afraid to because they are unsure of the benefit and return.

    Essentially, my argument is that we need to break things down into those that will take less than five years to implement, those that will take ten, and those that will take longer. Throw most of the money at the first group, steadily increasing funds for the second and third.

  7. paulm says:

    John Hollenberg it looks like were snookered.

    Our fate is left to Gaia.

  8. Harrier says:

    I’m going to say off the top of my head that Newsweek articles shouldn’t be immediately trusted at first blush. I mean, they did run a cover story suggesting that Obama should look to Dick Cheney’s example for advice on national security.

  9. jorleh says:

    This Newsweek woman was saying about forget ppm 450, we are going well over ppm 1000, let`s continue business as usual.

    What is the idea to write such nonsense? Ignorance and stupidity.

  10. MarkB says:

    I think the slight increase in “News about about global warming is exaggerated” is a product of the constant “liberal media” nonsense put forth by various commentators, a product of today’s dire economic times (understandably more concerned about immediate situation than future generations), and some cold winter weather in a few populated locations (upper midwest / northeast).

    This poll is good news. What I see developing is an understanding that helping to solve the climate crisis will help our economy – in the short-run creating jobs and in the long-run leaving a better legacy for future generations and getting us off of oil. Of course, any mention of a “carbon tax” is an instant turn-off for some people.

  11. MarkB says:

    I’m a bit skeptical of some of the results, such as:

    “80 percent said the government should regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant;”

    That seems a bit high, woudn’t you say?

    I do like the fact that the poll was conducted in the fall, as opposed to mid-winter (like some recent polls) or mid-summer, which would probably skew the numbers a bit.

  12. Thank you for your insightful blog. This may not be the right place to think about the right kind of conditions under which the USA should support CDM, but on the other hand the survey is powerful evidence that USA citizens believe something must be done no matter what others do.

    In this case why not only do the right thing one’s self but also
    a) try and find a way of helping others do what is right too and
    b) do the right thing under the existing Climate Convention to which the USA is a signatory.

    The best form of CDM will be for developed countries and other Annex 1 countries to commit to say 200% cuts by 2050 and do the extra 100% in developing countries through CDM.

    Phoney non-additional reductions can be avoided by financing all projects upfront. In this way the buyer knows that the project would not have occurred without their financing; and it is also very much more likely then that projects will be by and for the poor who would not have been able to fund their projects without CDM.

    In other words, CDM is only questionable because developed countries and other Annex 1 countries are not making enough effort to support the right kind of emission reductions in developing countries. Let’s do what Hazel Henderson talked about in the IPS, Deccan Herald, Karnataka, India article today and see money as information.

    I do hope you contribute to finding a form of CDM which the USA can support, as developing countries need the technology transfers that come with it.

    The second most important help the USA can give is to share some of their “pot of gold” (656 billion from 2012 to 2019) with developing countries.

    This is part of a larger argument about historical responsibility and again is an underlying principle of the Convention, viz. that developed countries pay for developing countries to join in to meet the Convention objectives on the basis of common and differentiated responsibility.

    Income from pollution that harms everyone does not belong to the country in which the polluter happens to be located. “Polluter pays” in the context of the Convention means that polluters pay to help others meet their obligations under the convention, and also pays for adaptation.

    This is the basis of the Climate Convention and in fact of all international environmental law, however hard it is to enforce.

    Now that US citizens and their government are in the forefront of the fight against climate change, they must take on board the equity implications of climate change politics.

    And thus we come to the final point. As you know, developing countries are not going to budge from their insistence on a convergence of per person emissions world wide. For this reason alone rapid technology transfers as agreed under the Convention and not yet put into practice in ANY FORM, are critical.

    G77 plus China has long proposed that a democratic financing fund, which today is the Adaptation Fund – the only democratically controlled financing mechanism for climate change adaptation and mitigation today – can receive funds from developed countries and other Annex 1 countries and buy licences for critical technologies and then make them available in the public domain.

    G77 and China countries could also contribute to such a fund. This again is absolutely imperative if we want at least have a more than 50% change of avoiding 6oC warming within less than 100 years.

    I do hope you address these equity issues strongly in your otherwise excellent blog.

  13. Robert T says:

    Steve H

    “For instance, your utility bill should give you several numbers they don’t. 1) Your usage one year prior 2) The average consumption for homes in your neighborhood and 3) the average consumption in the city, county, or other geographical/political unit.”

    You’re assuming people care. The ones I live with don’t give a damn. I have made massive efforts in our house to cut gas and electricity and have monitored the meters on a daily basis for some 3 years, plotting the trends on Excel. The problem is that my wife and 2 children just think I’m being mean and take great delight in ridiculing the CFLs, using electric fan heaters and tumble driers as often as possible and generally undermining the whole thing.

    They point out that gas and electricity are relatively cheap and that it would be a more productive use of my time earning more not spending less.

    I NEED a hefty price on carbon or some form of mandatory regulation, otherwise I can’t make it stick

  14. Elan C says:

    Were the American who support a treaty to reduce CO2 emissions by 90% by 2050 told what it means?

    With an expected population growth of 20%, it means that all fossil fuel use would have to be eliminated completely because our breathing and the food we eat generate much more than 10% of the current emissions. It means that ALL coal and natural gas power stations would have to be shut down. It means no more internal combustion engines for cars, trucks, buses, trains, and ships. It means replacing all existing fuel oil and natural gas home heating systems. It means replacing all aircraft engines with some as yet non-existent technology. It means no more use of concrete for construction. It means that unless China and other exporting countries reduce emissions at the same rate we must stop importing industrial goods, because by importing them we are exporting our emissions.

    It means that the 90% goal is pie in the sky, and the people who responded to the poll are ignorant of the facts.

  15. Steve H says:

    Robert T:

    As I tell my children, if you waste food or electricity, that just means there’s less money to spend on candy or other treats. I’m not saying it works. Bribery is slightly more effective.

    My point is more along the lines of we should not be so reliant upon the big things, like carbon taxes. Who knows how long we’ll be waiting for that to happen? My suggestions won’t be the most effective, but they’ll have short term benefits and in the long term will serve as a primer for people to become more aware of their consumption. They might not care now, but if we can do something simple to help them save money when fuel and electricity is cheap, imagine how effective the same programs could be when paying bills is much more of a burden.

    I do have a general question, though. What happens if China and India are making greater strides towards reducing the emissions, but we’re not? At what point does the rest of the world decide they’d be better off without us?

  16. Robert T says:

    Steve H:

    Joe might not believe in it, but “The tragedy of the commons” works at all levels, starting from right within the family. If I have an ultra-quick shower someone else will have a good long soak until the entire hot water tank is used up. If I save money on fuel someone else will decide we can afford to jet off for a couple of weeks in the Maldives.

    p.s. I don’t think my kids are going to be taken in that easily. One has just got a 2:1 in law and the other is making a killing selling chocolate and crisps in the playground!

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Gail — Plant trees where the trees will grow.

    Actually, acacias and sand willow require very little water. The Chinese are planting many, many sand willows on the east edge of the Gobi desert, where they prosper.

  18. Bob Wallace says:

    David – I think Gail’s point is more that the local vegetation where she lives seems to be suffering from climate change effects.

    I suppose we can replace the huge crops of vegetables now grown in the interior valleys of California with cactus when water supplies disappear. But are you willing to exchange your salad greens and tomatoes with tuna?

    (And not tuna, the fish. Google it.)

  19. Jim Eager says:

    Elan C said: “our breathing and the food we eat generate much more than 10% of the current emissions.”

    CO2 from respiration is part of the normal active carbon cycle and is never included in calculations of additions to that cycle from burning fossil carbon fuels, cement manufacture or land use changes.

    Talk about ignorant of the facts.

  20. Karlin says:

    That newsweek article simply skirts around the most obvious of answers to the issue of “energy production without emissions” – wind and solar.

    “Nope, we can’t do it”, and thats going to be good enough for most people…. just give up and let the oil be our only source of energy. That negative nellie attitude is just easier than doing something – several Euro nations now produce half their energy from renewables [and not nuclear either!!]. Wind and Solar CAN do the job.

    If we had started in ernest 10 years ago, we could have had FIVE of those 14 terrawatts from renewables by now, and 10 years from now we can have FIVE terrawatts – but we have to start at some point.

  21. If the United States doesn’t do something major to slow down the co2 emissions, the rest of the world is going to look at us as irresponsible and stop providing us with things like oil and maybe other things that make life here fun and fairly easy. We have got to get on the “World Wide Web ” of cooperation with the rest of the planet or we are going to LOSE in a big way!

  22. Alanna says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.