“It’s too expensive.” Republicans have uttered this refrain time and again to reject nearly every proposal aimed at addressing climate change. It’s what drove the U.S. rejection of global climate deals in the 1990s and essentially the only context in which the Trump campaign brings up climate change today.
But few Americans are buying it, a new poll shows. Nearly half of Americans think addressing climate change will help the economy while only 29% believe that climate policy will cause harm, according to a new report by researchers at Stanford University, Resources for the Future (RFF) and ReconMR. “It’s just an argument that doesn’t work,” says report author Jon Krosnick, a Stanford social psychologist professor who studies political behavior of the argument that climate policy hurts jobs. “The argument has never convinced even a majority of Republicans.”
The report—shared exclusively with TIME—relies on a survey of 999 American adults between May and August and shows broad U.S. support for a range of climate policies. Significant majorities support tax incentives, carbon pricing and regulations as means to reduce emissions. More than 80% of Americans believe the U.S. should offer tax incentives for utilities that make power with renewable energy; more than 80% support key U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement; and nearly two-thirds support a requirement for all cars to get at least 55 miles per gallon by 2025. “It’s not like 52-48, or that kind of thing,” says Krosnick. “There are clear leanings.”
The research speaks to a fault line that has come to define rhetoric around climate policy over the past decade. Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 promising a climate policy that would create “millions of new jobs.” Republicans fought his climate measures throughout his presidency, with some denying the science of climate change and others saying it would be too expensive.
That debate hit a fever pitch in recent years as Americans have grown increasingly aware of and concerned about the science of climate change. Republicans have changed their tactics as a result, increasingly arguing that mitigation efforts are too expensive.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., climate change was poised to be a central topic on the campaign trail. And, while COVID-19 may have eclipsed climate change in the headlines, polls have shown that voters remain concerned. Data from RFF, Stanford and ReconMR shows that 81% of Americans believe that Earth’s temperature has increased over the last 100 years—an uptick over recent years.
Former Vice President Biden has sought to campaign on this concern, proposing a suite of policies that he says would eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint by 2050 while creating millions of jobs. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change he thinks: ‘hoax,’” Biden said during a Sept. 14 speech. “I think: ‘jobs.’ Good-paying, union jobs that put Americans to work building a stronger, more climate resilient nation.” Many leading economists and others who study climate policy have called for such measures to boost economic growth and reduce emissions.
Meanwhile, Trump has railed against the proposed Green New Deal and accused Biden of supporting climate policies that the Democratic nominee has not in fact endorsed—like abolishing the U.S. production of fossil fuels. “Millions of jobs will be lost, and energy prices will soar,” he said at the Republican National Convention. However, most climate scientists and economists agree that leaving climate change unchecked will create a wide range of environmental and social harms that will significantly hinder the global economy.
Even though this approach lacks broad appeal, the Trump’s campaign strategy could still activate select voters in influential pockets of the country. Voters in western Pennsylvania who depend on revenue from fracking, for instance, may be concerned about losing their jobs if the oil and gas industry suffers under new climate policy. Some voters—particularly rural Americans who drive long distances and spend a larger share of their income on energy than their urban counterparts—might waiver at the prospect of increased energy costs.
Still, the report finds that U.S. concern on climate is driven less by personal economic concerns and more by broader societal interests. Concern that climate change will significantly harm future generations better predicted support for action on climate change than respondent concern that it would harm them personally. “It’s not about the pocketbook,” says Krosnick.
The report is the third in a series from RFF and Stanford released ahead of the election to look at American behavior and climate change. A previous report showed that the percentage of Americans who care passionately about climate change and personally prioritize it has risen dramatically in recent years, from 13% in 2015 to 25% in 2020. The second report found that three quarters of Americans believe they have seen the effects of climate change and 80% say they support more stringent building codes to adapt to the effects of climate change.
The survey is the latest in a string of polling that shows sustained interest and concerned in climate change in the U.S. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Sept. 19 showed climate change as the top concern for Democratic voters and trailing coronavirus and the economy overall. A June poll from Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans want more aggressive action from the federal government on climate change.
All of this suggests that public opinion will be eager for new climate policy should Democrats win control of the White House and Congress in November. But public opinion is just the start.
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