Americans Would Prefer Gov't Regulation to CO2 Tax or Trading, Poll Finds

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Democratic leaders in Congress continue to pursue carbon taxes and cap-and trade proposals to address climate change even though a majority of Americans would prefer that the government simply mandate steps for the energy industry to reduce carbon emissions, according a poll released Wednesday.

The lengthy nationwide survey commissioned by New Scientist Magazine, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, found that 75 percent of Americans would support federal standards if that meant a $2 per month increase in home electricity bills.

Assuming the same increase in costs, 60 percent said they would support a tax on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and 53 percent said they would support a cap-and-trade system, which would set limits to emissions and allow emitters to buy and sell "credits."

Respondents favored federal regulation even if it ended up costing them more - in higher electricity bills - than they would end up having to pay under a carbon tax or cap-and-trade proposal.

Nearly half of respondents - 49.68 percent - would support federal regulations even if it meant paying $155 per month for electricity, nearly double the current average bill of $85. Fewer respondents said they would be willing to pay a total of $95 per month under a carbon tax (49.55 percent) or a cap-and-trade program (46.92 percent).

The survey also presented the same three proposals aimed at gasoline companies, but none gained a majority of support, leading the pollsters to suggest that Congress explore options related to electricity rather than fuel.

"[T]he US public has a clear preference for action in the electricity sector rather than vehicle fuel," New Scientist said in a release. The magazine also noted that "specific policies to combat global warming can command majority public support in the U.S., as long as they don't hit people's pockets too hard."

Even so, more respondents favored government standards, which New Scientist San Francisco bureau chief Peter Aldhous called "less cost-effective" than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.

"Americans seem rather suspicious of policies that use market forces," he said, explaining that they are "more likely to support prescriptive regulations - often known as standards or mandates - which tell companies exactly how to achieve a reduction in emissions."

The poll results suggest that average Americans differ from politicians and policy analysts on how to address the CO2 issue. As Cybercast News Service previously reported, a June 5 panel on tax-based approaches to carbon emissions agreed that direct federal regulations would be "inefficient" and improbable.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) supported cap-and-trade proposals during an April debate with former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He compared proposed carbon caps to caps on sulfur emissions enacted in the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Those caps had helped reduce sulfur emissions by 4.5 million tons by 2000 at a significantly lower cost than expected, according to Clean the Air, a group that urges action to address global warming.

The three leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination - Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - as well as Republican hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have publicly supported cap-and-trade proposals.

Clinton and Obama have both signed on as co-sponsors of a Senate bill that would create a cap-and-trade program for electricity plants and set emission standards for automobiles.

Aldhous said elected officials must explain to the American people why carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems are preferable if they hope to win public support. They "have some explaining to do," he said, without naming congressional leaders who have supported such policies.

Jon Krosnick, a social sciences professor at Stanford who worked on analyzing the polling data, defended the questions used in the survey but acknowledged that further research might produce different results.

"Describing the programs in different ways could very well have produced different results," he said. "We told people about a carbon tax. We did not tell people what would happen with the revenue raised by government through that tax."

Krosnick said he could envision "people being more positive about carbon taxes if they saw the results of the tax collection being something that they viewed as positive."

Regarding cap-and-trade, he said, "It may be the case that people are skeptical that programs like cap-and-trade actually work in a marketplace and so providing evidence to them that it actually would work might make them less skeptical about it."

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