Talking Like Grownups About Climate Change

Why are Americans unwilling to incur any cost to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions?

America's champions of climate change.

Photographer: Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

Are Americans worried about climate change? Do they want their government to regulate greenhouse gases? A recent survey -- from Stanford University, the New York Times and Resources for the Future -- found that strong majorities say “yes” to both questions.

But there’s a big catch, which isn't getting the attention it deserves: A strong majority also say that they oppose increasing taxes on either gasoline or electricity in order to reduce climate change. That’s important, because any serious effort to lower emissions is going to raise prices (certainly in the short run).
Climate Change

The pattern of responses here is essentially the same as it was in the late 1990s, when the U.S. was debating whether to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In one poll at the time, 59 percent of Americans favored ratification. Indeed, a strong majority agreed with this extraordinary statement: “Protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.”

At the same time, a majority said they would oppose the Kyoto Protocol if it would cost them personally $50 per month. When that hypothetical monthly cost was raised to $100, almost 90 percent said they would oppose it.

How can most Americans be unwilling to pay to reduce a problem that they believe (as they indicated in the recent poll) will damage them personally?

One answer is that many people believe companies can reduce emissions on their own, and without imposing costs on consumers. (Unfortunately, that’s highly unrealistic.) Another is that, in surveys, most people express an immediate and strong aversion to higher taxes as the solution to climate change (or almost any other problem).

If the second answer is the right one, then there may be an opening for an adult conversation about the topic. If we are worried about climate change, surely we would be willing to pay something -- at least if it isn't a lot -- to reduce the risk. According to some estimates, the U.S. could do a lot to reduce greenhouse gases if the average American paid a monthly energy tax, targeted to such emissions, of $10, along with an equivalent gasoline tax.

It would be interesting to ask people whether they would be willing to pay such amounts -- or just how much they might be willing to pay.

The recent survey does provide a clear lesson for national political campaigns: Candidates will have trouble if they decline to acknowledge climate change or say that they don't want to address it. At the same time, they have to be wary of favoring initiatives that would impose significant costs on American consumers.

It’s much more effective to stress the potential benefits of new forms of clean, American-made energy -- and to celebrate the money-saving advantages of energy-efficient appliances and fuel-efficient cars. But effective campaigning is one thing; adult conversations are another, and they cannot avoid the question of cost.

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