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    Most Americans Want Clean Energy, But Just As Many Don't Care About Climate Change

    Written by

    Mat McDermott


    Photo: Peter Rood/Flickr

    The latest edition of the long-running Yale Project on Climate Change Communication is out, and a "large majority" of people in the United States think combating climate change and promoting clean energy should be significant national priorities. But people may not be as gung-ho on climate action as it first appears.

    According to the April 2013 Public Support for Climate and Energy Policy report, 58 percent of people in the US believe that Congress and the president should make clean energy support a very high or high priority. Just 12 percent of people think clean energy is a low priority. That's a drop of 5 percent since the fall 2012 edition of the report.

    When it comes to addressing climate change, 42 percent (down 7 percent since fall 2012) of the American public thinks doing so should be a very high (16 percent) or high (26 percent) priority for government, with 28 percent thinking it should be a low priority.

    At first it seems that there's a serious disconnect between public opinion and government action. But reverse the perspective and you get what I think is a more clear picture of what both national and state policy is based upon.

    All graphs from the Yale report

    40 percent of Americans think developing clean energy is either not worth caring about or think it's not a top priority. Climate change gets an even bigger meh from the people: 57 percent of people think there are plenty of things of higher importance for government. A majority of people think dealing with climate can take a back seat to plenty of other issues.

    The disconnect is with the people who think climate change and clean energy action is of "medium" priority, a wishy-washy viewpoint that doesn't really advocate for change. Though the Yale presentation of the data adds them in to the high priority people to make attractive talking points in support of greater action of clean energy and climate change—which I wholeheartedly support, placing myself in the very high category of concern for both—I think taking placing the medium-concerned folks together with those people of low concern is more informative.

    It reveals why there's been such lackluster action from the Obama administration on climate change, as well as the Obama energy strategy is presented as an "all of the above" approach, when more than anything it's been an expansion of fossil fuel development. 

    Think about it: anything of your life that you might call a medium concern (if you had to phrase it that way) probably gets perpetually moved down on your to-do list. You may think or know you ought to get it done, but it never has to be done today. It only gets done after everything else on the list is taken care of—which seldom happens.

    Nothing changes until it is at minimum of high priority in life; it only changes quickly if it's a very high priority. And this is for things far less complicated or difficult to do than slow global climate change or replace an established, dirty, polluting energy infrastructure (whose backers don't want it replaced and actively fight against you) with a clean one. 

    There is good news, however. When you dig down into the reported opinions of the American people on these issues, it seems that support for specific policy solutions is higher than for clean energy or climate change as a broad concept.

    Roughly 70 percent of people think purchases of energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels should get tax breaks, that more funding for renewable energy research should be made available, and that CO2 should be a regulated pollutant. 

    Just about 60 percent of people think that a carbon tax should be paid by fossil fuel companies (with the money used to pay down the national debt), that all subsidies for the fossil fuel industry should be eliminated, and that offshore oil drilling should expand.  

    There's some semblance of ideological coherency in there, if you assume that subsidies are a market distortion and that a carbon tax addresses a market failure; and that if you did both of those would either make offshore drilling too expensive or at least eliminate the apparently cavalier attitude companies like Shell and BP take to it. But my gut says it's just public confusion mixed with human nature, based on the responses to the following question.

    When asked if they supported a "revenue neutral tax swap that would reduce the annual taxes paid by all Americans while increasing the amount they pay annually for energy (such as gasoline and electricity) by the same total amount," less than half the people surveyed thought it was a good idea. 

    These are the same 61 percent of people who thought that fossil fuel companies paying a carbon tax and paying down the national debt was a good idea. But when asked if they wanted to have more money in their pockets via various tax reductions and rebates but pay more for energy, so that everything ultimately balances out financially, only about 44 percent of people supported it. Even though taxes would be reduced, people didn't want to pay more for energy.

    It appears there's a common thread that ties together the response to this last question and the underwhelming support for greater immediate climate action. You pay for energy as you use it, whether immediately in the case of gasoline or monthly in the case of electricity. It's a running expense.

    Taxes, though, are taken out in every paycheck if you're an employee or paid quarterly (supposedly) if you're a contractor, with any rebate presumably coming once a year. All of these are mostly out of sight. Other than a line on the pay stub, you never had the taxes taken out of your actual bank account. As much as we gripe about taxes, we'd rather not pay less of a cost we don't really think about in trade for paying more for costs that we face every day.

    Climate change is forever a problem in the future. It's slow moving from the perspective of day to day life, even if historical and prehistorical records show current climate change is happening amazingly quickly.

    Climate change manifests itself in ways that are much easier to not think about now, in the way that paying for energy has to be thought about in the moment. Even in the case of natural disasters that are ultimately attributable to it, in the moment these could just be bad weather. You can't make that determination until much later, if ever. 

    It's a recurrent problem. Humans are very capable and adaptable and intelligent when it comes to dealing with immediate problems, but are far less capable of dealing with abstract problems, and I think these responses reflect that. 

    By the way, one final stat that's disturbing from the standpoint of both developing more clean energy and slowing climate change: Of the 50 percent of Americans who have even heard of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, 63 percent support its construction.