Jan 28 2019

Climate Change Survey

Climate change has certainly been a hot topic over the last year, so where do we stand in terms of public perception? Well – “The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and The AP-NORC Center conducted a national survey of 1,202 adults in November 2018 to explore Americans’ views on climate change, carbon tax and fuel efficiency standards.” Overall the survey suggests the public is inching toward greater acceptance of man-made climate change, but let’s delve into the numbers.

First, the majority of Americans, 71%, think that global warming is happening. Of those that think it is happening, 60% say it is mostly due to human activity, 12% that it is mostly natural, and 28% that it is evenly mixed. So that means that 62% (88% of 71%) of Americans accept anthropogenic climate change to some degree. That is a solid majority, but not as solid as the science or the consensus of scientists.

Predictably, these numbers vary dramatically according to political affiliation. For Democrats, the percent that believe global warming is happening and think that it is mostly or partly human-caused is 86/82. For independents the numbers are 70/64, and for Republicans its 52/37. So it seems that part of the problem is a knowledge deficit, for even among Democrats the rate of acceptance is lower than for the scientific community. But a larger part of this resistance is ideological.

For those who have recently changed their minds into accepting the reality of climate change (regardless of cause) 76% say it is because of recent extreme weather events, and 57% because of personal observations of local weather. Meanwhile, 63% say it is because of arguments in favor of climate change (they did not ask specifically about scientists or the scientific consensus). So essentially recent converts are relying more on anecdote than the science.

Things get more interesting when we get to questions about possible solutions to climate change. Previous research found that people who deny anthropogenic climate change were motivated primarily by “solution aversion” – they deny the problem because they don’t like the proposed solutions. This fits with much far right rhetoric, that climate change is a conspiracy by which liberals seek to expand the government and take control of the energy industry.

The new survey overall supports this narrative. Of those who accept that global warming is happening (regardless of cause), the percentage who think the government should be doing something about it are – Democrats – 96%, Independents – 81%, and Republicans 76%. So that’s 40% of Republicans who think the government should take action to mitigate the effects of climate change, slightly higher than the percentage who think it is at least partly man-made. I suppose that makes sense – even if climate change is entirely natural, we still may need to take steps to mitigate any negative effects.

But the numbers are similar (37% vs 40%) so if we assume these are the same subset of Republicans (which may not be the case, and I did not see a breakdown in the numbers) that could mean that those willing to accept a role for government are also willing to accept the reality of climate change. On the flip side, those that deny anthropogenic climate change also are against government involvement – perhaps because they are against government involvement.

However, the numbers are perhaps most pessimistic when it comes to the question that has captured most of the mainstream headlines on this survey – would you be willing to pay a fee on your monthly electricity bill to combat climate change? Here are the numbers willing to pay various dollar amounts per month: $1 – 57%, $10 – 28%, $20 – 30%, $40 – 23%, $75 – 15%, $100 – 16%.

So only slightly more than half of Americans would be willing to pay $1 per month on their electricity bill to combat climate change, and this number plummets to 28% at only $10 per month (and this is down from 39% in 2016 and 2017). Willingness to pay correlated highly with political affiliation, and also increased for those with annual household income > $100,000, but did not vary by education level or region.

Finally the survey asked about a carbon tax, which has the support of only about half of the public. However, this varied depending on what the money would be used for. Support increased to 67% if the money raised by the tax was to be used to restore forests and wetlands, and 59% if used to support research into renewable energy. The numbers were lower if the money is to be used to reduce the deficit, give a tax refund, or reduce regulations.

So overall the biggest signal in this data is that party affiliation is strongly predictive of your views on climate change and whether we should do anything about it. Still, there is strong overall support for taking government action to mitigate climate change, including 40% of Republicans. The most disappointing result of the survey is that people are generally unwilling to personally pay even small amounts to help mitigate climate change. We saw this also in France, when this past summer people literally rioted over paying the cost of a carbon tax. There has been resistance in other countries as well.

The politics of this are complex, and have to do with more than climate change, but these are the politics we have to deal with if we are going to take sufficient action to have results. I don’t have the magic solution, but this and other data suggests two general types of approach that may work. First – we should focus on the win-wins, solutions that do not involve personal sacrifice.  Whenever you ask people to pay, that brings with it a lot of social and political baggage, as France learned first hand recently. That dredges up the politics of fairness, who should pay, class divisions, and populism. Even if people want to do something about climate change, they don’t want to feel like poor people are paying so that the elites can have their yachts and personal jets.

If, however, we focus on improving efficiency then everybody wins. For example, using LED lightbulbs instead of incandescent saves a lot of energy, and it also saves the user money and inconvenience (changing light-bulbs – I know, not a huge deal, but it’s nice). Don’t tell them to use LED bulbs to save the planet, tell them to use them to save themselves money. The same is true for making one’s home energy efficient – this saves money in the long run. Governments can give incentives to reduce the upfront cost, or maybe find creative market solutions. What if the cost of a home energy audit and upgrade were spread out, added to the energy bill that would presumably be offset by reduced energy cost. If handled properly it may be a wash – costing no extra money and then money savings once the audit itself was paid for.

Similar options can be used to install solar panels.

The second general strategy, apart from focusing on the win-wins, is to think carefully about framing and messaging. I know this sound like manipulation, but actually every message is framed somehow, and that framing will have a psychological effect one way or the other. For example, if a doctor says a needed procedure has a 10% death rate, this is identical to saying it has a 90% survival rate, but patients respond very differently to these two framings.

What this and other data suggest is that  climate change interventions should perhaps be framed as anti-pollution and pro-clean environment. In fact, climate change does not have to be mentioned at all. A carbon tax is really a pollution tax. People want a clean environment, and we can also emphasize the health effect of cleaner air. We could save $100 billion  a year in reduced healthcare costs by reducing pollution.

In the long run efforts to mitigate climate change will save lots of money, will improve the environment, reduce health care costs and reduce death from respiratory illness. These are all good investments. They can be framed as money-saving investments that improve health and the environment – without the need to explicitly even mention climate change. Climate scientists are coming around to this view also. Avoid the nasty politics with all of its baggage, and focus on solutions with multiple benefits.

This is the downside to hyperpartisan politics – people focus on symbols and tribalism, and can’t even agree on things about which they actually agree. Most people want to do something about climate change, so let’s just do it.

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