Conventional political wisdom holds that a carbon tax could never pass Congress, largely thanks to the “tax” part.
But over the last few years, a remarkable number of economists, politicians, and business leaders have stepped up to support a carbon tax as the most job-friendly way to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Now thanks to a new poll, we can confidently add “majorities of American voters” to that list of supporters as well. A July survey run out of the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found that when certain uses are specified for the revenue — specifically investment in renewable energy or rebate checks back to taxpayers — 56 to 60 percent of voters support a carbon tax.
The survey started out by asking respondents if they would support “a policy to reduce greenhouse gases by taxing carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas at the federal level,” with no use for the revenue specified. Not surprisingly, 61 percent opposed the idea. When the survey repeated the question and also pointed out the tax would lower GHG emissions while increasing energy costs, support dropped even further.
But then the survey changed course, and asked about “a carbon fuels tax that is ‘revenue-neutral,’ meaning that every dollar collected by the federal government would be returned to the public as a rebate check.” Overall voter support shot up to a 56 percent majority, with the biggest support amongst Democrats. Even Independents were in favor of the idea, albeit by a lesser margin:
The policy of returning all revenue from a carbon tax by giving a check of the same amount to every American is called “fee-and-dividend.” Many economists argue it would eliminate most or even all of the economic drag from the tax. In fact, computer models of the idea for both California and the country as a whole show modest increases in employment — and reductions in inequality — from a carbon tax combined with a fee-and-dividend approach. And a carbon tax in the Canadian province of British Columbia — which returns the revenue through other tax reduction rather than rebate checks — has already been in operation since 2008, and appears to be cutting fossil fuel use while showing no signs of harming the economy.
But it doesn’t end there. Next, the survey asked respondents how they’d feel if “revenues from the tax were used to fund research and development for renewable energy programs.” Not only did this version garner even more support than the rebate checks, it got a slight majority of support from Republicans:
The poll also gave voters a separate question where they could pick their own revenue use — choosing from rebate checks, renewable energy investment, deficit reduction, and “not sure.” Renewable energy and rebate checks won again, by 36 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
Now, polling can be tricky: Americans tend to support abstract statements in support of less government spending, for example. But then oppose any of the cuts to concrete programs that would be necessary to get there. But this poll certainly implies Americans would support a carbon tax under certain conditions, especially if they knew their tax payments were going to support society’s collective effort to get off fossil fuels.
One use of carbon tax revenue that survey respondents didn’t support was deficit reduction. The specific question that asked about support for the tax with that approach was opposed by 56 percent, suggesting voters have caught on that deficit reduction in a depressed economy is a very bad idea.
The survey used 739 phone interviews — 425 on land lines and 373 on cell phones — carried out from March 24 to April 9, 2014. The overall voter responses carry a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval.