Poll Says America Ready for Hard Choice on Fossil Fuels, Climate

Poll finds across-the-board recognition that climate change must be addressed.

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A majority of Americans from both political parties are ready for the "grand bargain"--an increase in taxes on old energy sources (oil, coal, and natural gas) in return for a reduction in income tax rates across the board. In short, they're ready for a new national climate and energy policy to emerge.

They're also ready to support new, cutting edge energy technologies. And they recognize that climate change is starting to affect extreme weather events--in fact, 82 percent said they were personally affected by a climate-related extreme weather event of one kind or another last year--and are ready to do something about it.

 Those are some of the key findings in a new poll just released by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities in a project called "Climate Change in the American Mind." The survey looks at what Americans believe about new energy technologies as well as new or emerging climate policies.

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 The researchers asked a new question in their latest national survey--the "grand bargain" question. Would Americans be willing to support taxes on old energy sources in return for a cut in federal income tax rates?

 It's an important question. Potential national climate and energy policies are already beginning to dominate early advertising spending in a handful of key presidential and political fights in 2012.

 "The key finding is that a majority of Americans support action on climate change," said one of the lead researchers, Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale. "They want more action by their elected officials, by companies, and even themselves. They also support a variety of policies to move the country toward a clean energy future."

 Leiserowitz said he was surprised, though, about the answer to the new "grand bargain" question added to the national survey this spring.

 "Perhaps most surprising to us was the majority support--across party lines--for the principle of a 'tax swap' that reduced the federal income tax while increasing the tax on fossil fuels by an equal amount--an idea that has been promoted by both liberal and conservative politicians," Leiserowitz said.

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 By a margin of 3 to 1, the national survey found, Americans favor political candidates who would support increasing taxes on coal, oil, and natural gas, and reducing the federal income tax Americans pay by the same amount: 61 percent said they would be more likely to favor candidates who supported such a tax shift, while only 20 percent said they would be less likely.

 The question was framed as a "revenue-neutral" tax shift. The total amount of taxes collected by the government would stay the same--a reduction in the federal income tax rate for Americans and an increase in taxes on the oil, coal, and gas industries--while creating jobs and decreasing carbon pollution.

 Republicans would vote for candidates who supported such a revenue-neutral tax shift by 2 to 1 margins in the survey--51 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported such a revenue-neutral tax shift, while just 25 percent said they would be less likely.

 Independents or those with no party preference would also be more likely to support such a revenue-neutral tax shift by a wide margin, with up to 60 percent supporting it. The split for Democrats was 71 percent more likely, 13 percent less likely.

 In another new question in the ongoing survey added this year, the Yale-GMU researchers also found that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that the continued dependency on older sources of energy (coal, oil, and natural gas) are responsible for "hidden costs" to clean up air and water, military costs to maintain U.S. access to foreign oil, and the environmental costs of spills and accidents.

 Some of the other findings from the Yale-GMU poll are surprising as well:

 --70 percent believe that corporations and industries should be doing more to combat global warming, which is now back to levels from the fall of 2008.

 --Two thirds still believe the U.S. should act on its own to cut greenhouse gases, regardless of what other nations do. Likewise, two thirds still believe that the U.S. should make either a large-scale or medium-scale effort to reduce global warming.

 --76 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas pollutant.

 --Support for new, clean energy research is high overall in both parties (74 percent for the GOP, and 91 percent for Democrats). However, likely due to news about Solyndra, a green-energy company that declared bankruptcy despite loan guarantees from the government, those who "strongly support" more research into renewables has fallen from 53 percent in the fall of 2008 to 36 percent in March 2012.

 --Meanwhile, support for requiring utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources even if household costs increase by $100 a year fell from 31 percent who "strongly support" it in 2008 to just 20 percent now. Overall, though, 73 percent still support this.

 --Possibly as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, those who "strongly support" expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast has fallen from 37 percent in 2008 to 24 percent. Overall, though, 62 percent still support offshore drilling. The difference between the two parties on offshore drilling is stark: 89 percent of Republicans support it, while just 53 percent of Democrats do.

 --Also possibly as a result of the ongoing coverage of Fukushima, support for building more nuclear power plants has fallen dramatically--from 61 percent who support it overall in 2008 to just 42 percent now.

 All of this comes in a new era of American politics, in the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that essentially opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending designed to influence federal elections.

 If the first quarter of 2012 is any indication, we're in for quite a ride. Analyses by groups that track independent sadvertising spending by so-called super PACS found that nearly 80 percent of them to date this year were related to energy.

Independent super PAC spending could approach $2 billion in 2012--much of it seeking to influence energy issues. That's uncharted territory for the American political system. The question, when the dust settles, is what that might actually translate into for the nation's capital and American politics.

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