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A Majority Of Americans Want The Government To Tell Businesses What To Do On Climate Change

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"A Majority Of Americans Want The Government To Tell Businesses What To Do On Climate Change"

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Bill McKibben, Fiona McRaith, Leah Qusba, Maayan Cohen

CREDIT: (AP Photo / Manuel Balce Ceneta)

According to a new poll, the American public is not only deeply concerned about climate change; they want the government intervening in the economy to combat it.

It was carried out jointly by USA Today, Stanford University, and the research group Resources for the Future, and surveyed 801 U.S. adults. Its findings are in line with a slew of previous polling on the subject of climate change, clean energy, and regulation of carbon emissions. The USA Today poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Fifty-two percent of the poll’s respondents viewed global warming as a “very serious” problem for the United States, and another 29 percent classified it as “somewhat serious.” Roughly three out of four said global warming has been occurring over the last 100 years, and will continue over the next 100 if nothing is done. Thirty-eight percent of them felt global warming would hurt them personally “a little” or “not at all,” versus just 32 percent who felt it would hurt them a “great deal” or “a lot.” But the number who think global warming will hurt future generations a “great deal” or “a lot” shot up to 67 percent.

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CREDIT: USA Today / Stanford University / Resources for the Future poll

When asked whether they’ve seen the effects of global warming — either first-hand, on the news, or on the Internet — 71 percent said yes. That’s down from 82 percent in 2010.

What might be even more relevant to the current shape and rhetoric of the debate is what Americans think of a government response to global warming. Forty-four percent said actions to reduce global warming would help the economy — a rebuke to the standard talking point that efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions always damage the economy. Only 30 percent agreed it would hurt.

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CREDIT: USA Today / Stanford University / Resources for the Future poll

Across the board, majorities felt government, businesses, and individuals should do a “great deal” or “quite a lot” to deal with global warming. Three-fourths of Americans said the U.S. should act even if other nations don’t, and everyone agreed every aspect of American society is doing a little to nothing to currently combat the problem.

Americans also have interesting opinions on how the government should tackle climate change. Most opposed continuing tax breaks for the oil industry. And while they supported keeping them for natural gas, it was only by 55 to 42 percent. But by a massive margin of 73 to 26 percent, Americans supported continuing tax breaks for solar, wind, and hydropower companies.

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CREDIT: USA Today / Stanford University / Resources for the Future poll

Those breaks include things like the production tax credit (PTC) for wind, which looks likely to expire at the end of this year thanks to Congressional gridlock. Conservatives have denounced the program a “welfare.”

The poll also looked at several other changes that could help combat climate change, like producing more low-carbon vehicles. Then it asked respondents to differentiate whether they thought the government should require such moves by law, encourage them through tax breaks, or simply stay out of the way. Forty-five percent wanted the government to encourage more fuel-efficient cars. Only 27 percent a piece wanted it to require them and to stay out of the way. Support for encouraging completely electric vehicles jumped to 50 percent, though “stay out of the way” wasn’t too far behind at 40 percent.

The implication is public is skittish about outright regulatory requirements, and prefers economic incentives that individuals and businesses can choose to respond to or not. Tax incentives like the PTC and other tax incentives for solar, energy efficiency, and electric cars are obviously well-suited to that role — though it’s worth saying that a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would be even better.

Crucially, one place where the public flipped to supporting out-and-out requirements — by 54 percent — is cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. (Though that’s down from 61 percent in 2006.) Only 25 percent wanted the government to encourage those reductions, and 21 percent wanted it to stay out of the way. That suggest a solid level of public support for President Obama’s plan to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory power to go after carbon emissions from the country’s power plants.

There are multiple approaches government could take here. But the overall point is the poll found broad public sympathy for active government intervention in the American economy to combat climate change. On this matter, voters want the government picking winners and losers.

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