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June 20, 2007

Americans support government-imposed standards on energy and fuel companies to combat global warming, poll reveals

By Lisa Trei

Now that 85 percent of Americans believe global warming is "probably" happening, most favor government-imposed standards on energy and fuel companies to other policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases, according to a new poll released June 20 by Stanford University, New Scientist magazine and Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

In the national survey, 73 percent of respondents said they support government-mandated low-carbon standards on electrical power generators—requiring companies to use alternative energy sources such as wind or solar power—in exchange for supporting a $10 increase in a typical monthly bill. Given the same price increase, only 47 percent of people favor "cap-and-trade" programs, in which the government imposes a limit on companies' greenhouse gas emissions but issues tradeable permits allowing them to emit a certain amount of pollution.

The results, which are being discussed this morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., are important because cap-and-trade programs—which probably would cost less to implement than mandated policies—are featured in some bills presently under congressional consideration.

"This survey helps policymakers anticipate which policies could be sold to the public and which wouldn't," said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science who helped design the poll. "Our findings suggest that Americans are open to policies they think will work and are affordable. Policymakers who want to avoid public resistance to their proposals will find useful guidance in our numbers."

New Scientist details the findings in its cover story this week, "Global Warming: The Buck Stops Here." San Francisco Bureau Chief Peter Aldous, who wrote the article, worked with Krosnick; Matthew DeBell, a researcher at Stanford's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS); and doctoral candidate Brent Bannon to design the survey with Ray Kopp, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future. Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment supported the Stanford team and plans to back future polls on global warming.

"This survey adds to an accumulating body of evidence that the public really supports policies that address global warming," DeBell said. "Before, there was no documentation that people were willing to put their money where their mouths are. This shows that people are willing to support these policies even when costs are incurred."

The shift in public attitude is critical, the researchers said, because the United States produces 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and, consequently, Americans must be involved in addressing global warming.

15-minute online survey

Policies proposed in the nationally representative survey of 1,491 adult Americans conducted in April by the polling firm Knowledge Networks are designed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent by 2020. This reduction is a reasonable goal for policies currently under discussion at the federal level, Krosnick said.

As described in New Scientist, the poll includes three policy options for reducing emissions:

1. The government imposes standards, or mandates, on companies, telling them what they must do to reduce emissions. Oil companies producing gasoline would be required to meet a sales target for low-emission fuels, such as gasoline mixed with ethanol. Power companies would be required to meet a binding target to produce a certain amount of electricity from plants that emit no greenhouse gases.

2. The government imposes a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, giving companies a financial incentive to make cuts. According to the poll, companies would be taxed according to the amount of greenhouse gases they emit while generating electricity, or from the vehicle fuel they sell.

3. The government imposes an overall cut in emissions and issues tradeable permits to companies allowing them to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases. The total allowed by the permits adds up to the cap. Companies that do not use all their permits can sell them to other firms.

The poll gauged support for specific policies based on a gallon of gasoline costing $4, $7 or $15—reasonable estimates in the range of what it would cost to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent. For example, one policy would "Require oil companies to change the way they make fuel for cars and trucks. This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases put out by vehicles, increase the price of fuel, and cause people to use less of it." Respondents were asked how they would vote on such a policy if an election were held today. According to the results, 46 percent of respondents said they would favor the policy if gasoline cost $4 a gallon. Support dropped to 35 percent at $7 a gallon and to 27 percent at $15 per gallon.

Another policy would "Require companies that sell electricity to make more electricity in ways that do not produce greenhouse gases. This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases put out making electricity, increase the price of electricity, and cause people to use less of it." This policy attracted greater public support; almost 75 percent of respondents said they would support it if their utility bill increased to $87 a month. Support dropped slightly to 73 percent at $95 per month and to 50 percent at $155 per month.

Overall, respondents favored government-imposed mandates over cap-and-trade programs, Krosnick said. More people also supported increasing the price of electricity over gasoline because it would cost less to achieve the same 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Krosnick said it is not surprising that the public prefers emissions standards to cap-and-trade programs. "The question is, with a cap-and-trade system, what can you guarantee to people?" Krosnick said. "In fact, nothing, except that the government is going to issue permits and they're going to be traded. Also, the idea of issuing permits to pollute is really distasteful to some people. So, cap-and-trade may be sensible if it works right but you can't guarantee it. Whereas, if the government tells electricity manufacturers that they must make at least 30 percent of their power by methods other than carbon dioxide-emitting methods, that's really easy to understand and it's guaranteed."

More findings

According to DeBell and Bannon, the poll results revealed—as expected—that Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to support government policies that reduce greenhouse gases. People with higher incomes and self-identified environmentalists were also more likely to favor the policies than those with lower incomes or those who did not consider themselves environmentalists. Older respondents were less likely to support the policies, in contrast to parents with young children, the pollsters found. Geographically, residents of the Western United States were more likely to support the policies than people living elsewhere. "People in California are more concerned about climate change," Krosnick said. "We feel vulnerable to the environment, to wildfires, water shortages and earthquakes. We know how affected we are by nature."

Editor Note:

Full survey details will be available at following the press conference.



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Jon Krosnick, Department of Communication: (614) 579-7983,

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