Americans are willing to pay to fight climate change

Just as long as it’s not a lot.

A refinery in Washington that would be taxed under a price on carbon. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN, FILE
A refinery in Washington that would be taxed under a price on carbon. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN, FILE

Turns out that when it comes to fighting climate change, most Americans are willing to pay a little more to get the job done.

According to a poll released Wednesday from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)and the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 71 percent of the 1,096 adults surveyed favor the government taking action on climate change. Of those surveyed, 57 percent said they would be willing to pay an additional fee on their monthly electricity bill to combat climate change.

While that’s good news for proponents of putting a price on carbon, it’s not all good news. Most Americans, while willing to pay, aren’t willing to pay much — 57 percent would pay $1 a month, while only 39 percent would pay $10 a month. Bigger prices were even more contentious: only 24 percent would be willing to pay $30 a month, and only 20 percent are willing to pay $50.

Politically, passing a federal price on carbon has been difficult, but these results show Americans might be beginning to favor policies like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. As Michael Greenstone pointed out at the Upshot, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that failed to make it through Congress in 2010 would have cost consumers an average of $175 per household per year — about $14.50 per month — a price that almost one-in-three Americans are willing to pay in order to combat climate change.

This November, voters in Washington state will get the opportunity to vote for a price on carbon through Initiative 732, which would place an initial $25 per ton tax on carbon throughout the state. The authors of the initiative estimate this would cost households between $100 and $200 per year in increased fossil fuel and energy costs (though they argue that those costs would be offset by tax breaks elsewhere, including a reduction to the state’s sales tax and tax rebates for low-income families), which is well within the margin that many respondents to the survey said they would be willing to pay.

Washington’s potential carbon tax is modeled after the carbon tax in British Columbia, which was implemented in 2008 and has been praised by both businesses and residents.

International businesses have also begun calling for a price on carbon, something that could move the political needle on the issue. In 2015, in advance of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris, six oil and gas companies — including Shell, BP, Total, Statoil, Eni, and the BG Group — wrote a letter to the chief of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change asking that a price on carbon be included as a key component of any potential deal. A price on carbon, they argued, would make it easier for businesses to form long-term plans with regards to environmental regulations.

In the U.S., ExxonMobil has been the most forceful — and seemingly unlikely — fossil fuel company to advocate for a price on carbon. This year, the company has begun ramping up its lobbying efforts for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, potentially as part of a larger effort to ameliorate public relations in the wake of the #ExxonKnew scandal. The Wall Street Journal also suggested that a price on carbon could be good business for Exxon, as it would make natural gas an even more cost-effective alternative to coal (which emits more carbon and therefore would be taxed more heavily).

But while consumers and businesses might be showing a willingness to pay more to fight climate change, the transition to renewable energy could actually end up saving consumers money in the long run. In the Northeast, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has both driven down emissions in the region and saved consumers money — some $460 million in reduced electricity costs, according to a 2015 report from the Analysis Group. A huge part of that has come from investing the money created in the programs carbon permit auction into programs that improve energy efficiency and increase renewable energy.