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Environmental Protection & Preservation

How do Americans Want to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Most Americans now believe that global warming is happening, and they want the federal government to take action to limit its effects. But what form should that action take" And does support for action hold firm if people understand how much it may cost them financially"

To find out, New Scientist, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, an independent think tank, commissioned the survey research firm Knowledge Networks to query a representative sample of American adults.

We investigated three main ways of reducing greenhouse pollution.

1)"Standards" or "mandates": The government tells companies exactly how they must generate electricity or manufacture vehicle fuel to achieve a cut in emissions.

2) Emissions Tax: The government taxes companies for their greenhouse gas emissions.

3) Cap-and-Trade: The government imposes a cap on companies' greenhouse gas emissions, but allows companies to trade permits - which represent the right to emit a certain amount of pollution.

The aim of our poll was to test the relative attractiveness of these three options. We told 1,491 adults how each option could work in each of two sectors: vehicle fuel and electricity. We chose these sectors because they are each responsible for a substantial proportion of US greenhouse emissions, and because any costs of making cuts will likely be passed onto consumers. That gave a total of six possible policies, each of which we told respondents would reduce total projected US greenhouse emissions in 2020 by five percent.

Highlights from the results:
  • Specific policies to combat global warming can command majority public support in the US, as long as they don't hit people's pockets too hard.
  • Given the probable costs, the US public has a clear preference for action in the electricity sector rather than vehicle fuel. At the lower end of the costs we quoted, all the electricity policies won majority support. In contrast, none of the vehicle fuel policies gained majority backing, even at the lowest costs quoted.
  • Americans prefer standards, in which companies are told exactly what to do to curb emissions, over the other policies we investigated. A low-carbon standard for electricity generation was backed by 73 percent of respondents who were told it would cause a typical monthly bill to rise by $10. By contrast, a cap-and-trade scheme for power companies was backed by only 47 percent at this price point. This gives pause for thought, as cap-and-trade schemes feature in some bills currently being considered by the US Congress.
  • Residents of the western US are more likely to favour policies to limit global warming than those in other regions of the country. Parents and people with higher incomes are also more likely to support action.
"For politicians who want to find voter-friendly ways to fight global warming, our poll provides some comfort," says Peter Aldhous, New Scientist's San Francisco Bureau Chief. But there are also significant challenges ahead, not least that the "standards" preferred by the public are predicted by environmental economists to be more expensive than other policies that command less public support.

"Our findings suggest that Americans are open to policies they think will work and that are affordable. Policy-makers who want to avoid public resistance to their proposals will find useful guidance in our numbers," says Stanford Professor Jon Krosnick, who jointly designed the survey.

The poll results provide a springboard for the debate about how best to tackle global warming. Policies that hit the US public's wallets hard will be a tough sell, and those that may prove cheapest seem inherently unpopular. "If we are to turn from the path to climate chaos, it seems that environmentalists, economists and politicians have some explaining to do," says Aldhous.

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