Navigant Research Blog

The Climate Change Gap Narrows on Policy

Richard Martin — March 3, 2014

That Americans are polarized on issues around energy, the environment, and climate change is not news.  What’s interesting is the degree to which the gap between those views narrows when it comes to actual policy and funding decisions – in other words, to what should be done.

Former The Wall Street Journal Washington, D.C. bureau chief Alan Murray, now president of the Pew Research Center, kicked off the Vail Global Energy Forum with a discussion of the center’s recent polling data on energy and the environment.  The decline over the last 2 decades in the percentage of Americans who support stricter environmental laws and regulation, who view the environment as a top priority for the nation, and who see global warming as a major threat to the country’s security and prosperity has been striking.  In 1992, 90% of Americans favored stricter environmental regulations; by 2012, that number had fallen to 74%.  Much of this change has happened in the last decade.  In 2006, 79% believed global warming is a serious problem.  That percentage fell to 65% in 2013.  Today, the economy and jobs are the highest priority for most Americans; climate change ranks at or near the bottom of the list of problems demanding attention and resources.  Most of these declines have occurred among Republicans, Murray said; Democratic responses on these questions have stayed remarkably consistent.

Untapped Opportunity

In general, these findings correlate with those of Navigant Research’s Energy & Environment Consumer Survey, which has tracked a small but noticeable drop in favorable attitudes toward clean and renewable energy concepts in the 3 years the survey has been conducted.  (That decline, however, reversed in 2013,  as favorability ratings for a number of these concepts, particularly solar energy, wind energy, hybrid vehicles, and electric cars, rebounded significantly from their 2012 levels.)

Also not surprising is the Pew data comparing attitudes in other countries to those in the United States.  In Western Europe, 54% of those surveyed ranked global warming highest on their list of major threats in the 21st century.  It’s at the bottom of Americans’ lists.

More noteworthy was the data Murray presented on policy questions.  By wide majorities, Americans support more federal funding for wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy; better fuel efficiency for all classes of vehicles; and more funding for public transit.  Somewhat surprisingly, that’s true on the Republican side of the aisle.  While the majorities are smaller, most respondents identifying themselves as Republicans support each of those policies – a result seldom reflected in media coverage of news related to these policies.

Theories about the causes of this split between relatively low and falling concern over climate change on the one hand and support for clean energy, fuel efficiency, and public transit on the other amount to speculation.  As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in his opening remarks at the forum, “In the modern world, we don’t all have the same facts.”  But the degree of agreement that government should do more to bolster the development of clean energy and energy efficiency technologies suggests a political opportunity that, for the moment, remains largely unexploited.

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