Public opinion on climate change: Is the glass half-full or half-empty for policymakers?

In all the discussion about the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) new climate change rule and power plants, there has not been much thought given to the poll numbers. Since policymakers are presumably in office to represent the public, let's take a look at the numbers from a variety of polls and see what they say.

First, provided below is a graphic that provides a long-term perspective on climate change from a number of polls. It indicates that the majority of Americans have believed, for an extended period of time, that global warming is happening. Of course, the naysayers might well look at this data and say, that at some points in time, according to the Gallup Poll, half do not believe global warming is happening. So is the glass half-full or half-empty when it comes to public support for EPA's proposed power plant rule?

(Note: The vertical bars give the polling error indicated by the survey authors.)

Let's now look at some of the focused polls that have been conducted in the past month. Here are some key quotes from the reporting of those polls (in date order): 

  • "Seven in 10 Americans see global warming as a serious problem facing the country, enough to fuel broad support for federal efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions — even if it raises their own energy costs." (ABC News reporting on a poll conducted by Langer Research on behalf of a ABC/Washington Post poll, June 2, 2014)
  • "More than six in 10 Americans favor putting mandatory controls on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions." (International Business Times reporting on a poll conducted by Gallup, June 4, 2014.)
  • "Voters in the swing states of Pennsylvania (72%) and Virginia (67%) have shifted strongly in support of federal regulations that limit power plant emissions contributing to climate change." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting on a poll conducted by Hart research on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters, June 5, 2014.)
  • "Most United States residents [62 percent] are willing to pay more for energy if it meant reducing emissions of carbon dioxide." (The Hill, reporting on a poll conducted by Bloomberg News, June 11, 2014)
  • "Most voters [55.2 percent] in eight coal-heavy states would oppose a Senate candidate who supports the Environmental Protection Agency's latest carbon pollution rules for power plants." (The Hill, reporting on a poll conducted by Magellan on behalf of the National Mining Association in eight "coal-heavy" states: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina, June 12, 2014).
  • "Nearly 90 percent of Americans favor government action to address climate change, and only 27 percent believe such action will harm the [U.S.] economy. Government-imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants remain favored by about 50 percent of the country [with more supporting renewable energy subsidies]." (Resources for the Future/Stanford University poll conducted by SSRS, June 13, 2014].
  • "Two-thirds of United States residents support [37 percent strongly; 30 percent somewhat] the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to reduce power plants' carbon dioxide emissions." (The Hill, reporting on a poll conducted by Hart Research for NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2014)
  • "Registered voters are three times more likely to vote against a candidate who opposes government action to mitigate climate change." (The Hill, reporting on a poll conducted by Yale University, June 30, 2014.) 

My conclusions from this overview of poll data are the following:

  • Most Americans believe climate change will occur at some point in time, and favor action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
  • When considering the impact on votes a member of Congress might receive due to their actions on climate change policy, the vast majority of members do not need to worry if they support, or at least take no action to oppose, the power plant rules. They might actually need to worry more if they oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Even in states pre-selected for their reliance on coal, only a small majority would oppose Senate candidates who supported the EPA regulations, according to a coal industry-backed poll. And, those poll results did not include other coal-reliant states, specifically Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that are high in coal production based on data that the same association provides on its own website. In those states, a poll sponsored by a local newspaper found that the majority favored actions to limit power plant emissions. This result was the case for the rest of the country as well, based on other polls. 

So, what do you think? If you were a policymaker, is the glass half-full or half-empty when it comes to public opinion on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions?

Stine is associate director for policy outreach at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and professor of Practice, Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.