Cheap and Clean: Attitudes to Energy in a USA Concerned with Climate Change

By Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky

In light of the recent agreement between the US and China to cut greenhouse gas emissions, US climate policy has been the focus of much scrutiny. But how do the American public think about climate change? Is it high on their agenda and what energy policies do they most value? Below Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky answer these questions, and others, and demonstrate America’s biggest fears about energy.


President Obama has refocused US environmental and energy policy to address climate change‭. ‬This issue has been high on the administration’s agenda since President Obama came to office in 2009‭. ‬Most recently the Environmental Protection Agency‭ (‬EPA‭) ‬has announced new‭ ‬rules concerning greenhouse gas emissions‭, ‬and‭, ‬in November President Obama announced an agreement with China’s President Xi Jinping in which he pledged that the United States would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26‭ ‬percent from‭ ‬2005‭ ‬levels by 2025‭. ‬These are bold efforts to move US climate policy forward‭. ‬Will the American public get behind the President’s initiatives‭? ‬We think they will‭, ‬with appropriate leadership on the matter‭, ‬but public support is not guaranteed‭. ‬The path for‭ ‬the Administration is to understand what the public wants to change about the US energy sector‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬the nation’s main source of greenhouse gas emissions‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬and why they want change‭.‬

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There is, of course, reason for some pessimism. During the preceding decade, national-level policy sputtered, and in its place emerged a patchwork of state-level policies. California, for example, enacted its Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, which aimed for substantial, economy-wide reductions in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ten northeastern states created a carbon market for the electric power sector, and over 30 states enacted renewable energy mandates for their electricity sectors. The approach long favoured by the environmental advocacy community, as well as most climate policy proponents in the US Congress, was cap-and-trade. The previous success of a cap-and-trade programme to address acid rain made it seem almost inevitable as the foundation for national legislation to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. Such an approach was almost put in place in 2009 when the US House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The legislation ultimately failed, however, as the US Senate was unable to advance the bill. Conventional wisdom is that President Obama prioritised health care reform, but the bill was also negotiated amidst the slow economic recovery, which stoked concerns about raising the nation’s energy costs.

The failure of the cap and trade bill, however, was the beginning, not the end, of national climate change policy efforts. The Obama Administration’s EPA has pursued an aggressive regulatory agenda, using existing authority granted to it by US Congress under laws such as the Clean Air Act. In recent years, the EPA has announced new regulations mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles and new power plants, and earlier this year, existing power plants as part of its Clean Power Plan. These climate-related mandates join a number of other recent EPA regulations to address problems such as emissions of toxic chemicals like mercury and emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that cross state borders.

The EPA’s regulations have been controversial, sparking outcry from Republicans and many in the business community. The usual complaint is that regulations are too costly, and that they will unnecessarily harm the country’s economic competitiveness and energy independence. Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming leader of the US Senate, often characterises EPA regulations as part of the Obama Administration’s “War on Coal”, one particularly harmful to his home—and coal-rich—state of Kentucky. Despite Republicans’ insistence that Americans are opposed to these regulations, extensive public opinion polling shows that President Obama’s approach enjoys a high level of support among the American public. In fact, EPA regulations engender much higher levels of support than do other polices such as a cap and trade programme or a carbon tax. This presents a bit of puzzle. Why do Americans prefer traditional regulations to these more economically efficient market-based approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? The answer to this question begins with an understanding of what Americans want when it comes to energy.


Americans Attitudes toward Energy

What do Americans actually believe about energy? Over the past decade, we have sought to answer that question. In a series of surveys conducted as part of the MIT Energy Initiative and the Harvard University Center on the Environment, we undertook the most comprehensive and prolonged assessment of American public opinion about energy. We compared many different forms of energy—from traditional fuels such as coal and oil to less widely used energy sources such as solar and wind power—to determine what Americans believe, what they know, and what they want. The results of this research are published in our recent book, Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2014).

Our research reveals that Americans want a starkly different energy portfolio than what is in place today. Americans want the United States to move away from most fossil fuels — particularly oil and coal — and to rely more on renewable technologies — especially wind and solar power. And, Americans want to keep the use of natural gas and nuclear power at about the same levels as today. In sum, the US public desires a move toward a cleaner energy future.

The deeper question is why Americans want such a change, especially given the relative abundance of energy resources in the United States. Our work provides an explanation. We find that Americans’ energy preferences are driven mainly by their perceptions about the characteristics of the energy sources themselves. Partisanship and regional ties, factors that divide elected officials on most matters related to energy, do not divide Americans in the same way. Perceptions of two characteristics matter the most: economic costs and environmental harm. Our research shows that Americans view wind and solar power as inexpensive, coal, natural gas, and hydro as moderately priced, and oil and nuclear power as expensive. In terms of environmental harms, Americans think that coal, oil, and nuclear power have the most significant environmental impacts, natural gas is only slightly harmful to the environment, and renewable sources are not harmful at all. Americans also place more weight on clean energy than inexpensive energy.

Our analysis of Americans’ energy choices shows that perceptions of environmental harms are a much stronger determinant of energy choices than perceptions of economic costs.

Our analysis of Americans’ energy choices shows that perceptions of environmental harms are a much stronger determinant of energy choices than perceptions of economic costs. Furthermore, when we dig deeper into the types of environmental harms that people worry about the most, we find that it is the local impacts of energy use, not the global impacts. People want to see the use of coal and oil curtailed because burning these fuels releases particulate pollution, smog-causing pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and toxic chemicals like mercury. The resulting air and water pollution is associated with adverse health effects, ranging from asthma and heart disease to birth defects and cancer. Renewable sources such wind and solar are not associated with these types of health impacts.

Although strong majorities of Americans express worry about climate change, this concern is not an important factor in their energy choices. That is, once we account for perceptions of the local environmental harms and economic costs of the energy source themselves, people’s concern about climate change is not, for example, strongly related to their desires to see the US rely less heavily on coal or more greatly on solar and wind power. In the case of nuclear power, the people most concerned about global warming in fact want to see the United States move further away from nuclear power, even though it is a significant source of carbon-free electricity.

This is not to say, however, that people’s beliefs about energy are unrelated to their preferred policies to address climate change. Our research shows that concern about climate change indeed drives public support for climate policies, such as a cap-and-trade regime, but concern about the climate is not the only driver, and it is not necessarily the most important one. Rather, it is concern about local environmental harms and economic costs associated with energy production that leads Americans to embrace a regulatory approach that caps carbon emissions, along the lines recently announced by the EPA.


Energy Preferences and EPA Regulation

Extensive polling conducted by us and many other research teams and national polling organisations provides a clear picture of Americans’ policy preferences when it comes to dealing with the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. People like environmental regulation, they dislike carbon taxes, and they are divided and uncertain about cap and trade programmes. Although the precise degree of support for each type of policy instrument somewhat varies, polling generally finds strong majorities of Americans supporting regulatory caps on carbon emissions, and this support often reaches about two-thirds of the US public. Comparatively, carbon taxes and cap and trade programmes rarely gain the support of a majority of Americans, and in some polls fails to exceed a third of Americans.

What accounts for the relative popularity of a regulatory carbon cap? This is an important question to answer given that most experts believe it is inferior to market-based options, or at least economically less efficient. The answer rests with an analysis of the factors that are correlated with climate policy preferences. Of course, it is no surprise that concern about climate change itself is important. Our analysis shows that such concern is strongly related to support for regulation, cap-and-trade approach, and a carbon tax. When we also consider how support for each policy relates to other factors—namely, perceived environmental harms and costs of traditional and alternative fuels—the reason for Americans’ strong preference for regulation becomes clear. We find that the favourability of regulatory solutions relative to either cap and trade or a carbon tax owes to the links that people see between environmental harms and costs of various energy sources and regulation. People closely associate the environmental and economic aspects of energy with regulation. The reason, we believe, is that Americans see a stronger connection between regulation of carbon emissions and other environmental benefits, particularly reductions in local air and water pollution from reductions in fossil fuel use and increases in renewables. By contrast, Americans do not make these connections as strongly with either cap and trade or a carbon tax.

Americans, therefore, view regulation differently. They see a regulatory approach to climate change not just as a climate policy, but also more generally as an energy and environmental policy. This brings us back to the Obama Administration’s regulatory approach to dealing with climate change. Despite the vociferous and hostile criticism from Republicans in Congress, many in the business community, and even some Democratic officials representing states with rich fossil fuel resources, the EPA’s actions to reduce carbon emissions through regulation garner strong national support from the American public. Our analysis and understanding of people’s energy and climate change opinions shows that the reason is that people believe regulating fossil fuels, particularly old, dirty coal-fired power plants, will reduce both greenhouse gas emissions as well as emissions of conventional and toxic pollutants such as particulates and mercury. As a result, EPA regulation for many Americans represents not just a partial policy response to climate change, but it offers the opportunity to improve air and water quality more broadly.

The incoming Republican majority in Congress will work hard to undermine if not undo the EPA’s regulatory approach. These efforts, however, are likely to meet stiff resistance from an American public that strongly supports the EPA’s regulatory initiatives. For their part, the Obama Administration can best advocate for their policies by focusing not just on the climate benefits, but also on the other environmental benefits that will come from transitioning the United States to a cleaner energy future.

About the Authors

Stephen Ansolabehere is Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is an expert in public opinion and elections, and has published extensively on elections, mass media, and representation, political economy, and public opinion, especially concerning energy and the environment. He is the author of five books, most recently Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming, with David Konisky.

David Konisky is an Associate Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. His research focuses on American politics and public policy, with particular emphasis on regulation, environmental politics and policy, state politics, and public opinion. He is the author of two books, most recently Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming, with Stephen Ansolabehere.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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