Does the American Public Support Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?


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Recent years have seen a number of efforts in Congress to shift American energy generation away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner and renewable energy sources. In June of 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which sought to place nationwide caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The law targeted a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 among other things. However, the Senate did not vote on the Act and it was not adopted into law. Since then, no significant efforts have been made in Congress, and leaders either have chosen not to discuss the issue or have opposed legislative efforts to facilitate development of a new energy economy.

One possible explanation for this is the lack of public support for these policies. According to many observers, reduced use of fossil fuels and adoption of new technologies would be costly for consumers and would shortcut the process of recovery investments made in infrastructure to produce energy from conventional sources. At a time when the nation’s economy is struggling, it is easy to imagine that Americans might not be willing to take such steps, so shifting legislative focus to other arenas might appear to reflect public will. This essay discusses whether or not the public really doesn’t support these measures and whether or not this is tied to prices. The analysis is based on surveys that were completed in collaboration with many news organizations and nonpartisan think tanks.


Figure 1 shows the results of a question asking whether the government should require or encourage various policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These policies were not framed in terms of taxes or costs. From 2006 to 2012, a large majority of Americans supported the idea that the government should require or encourage reducing greenhouse gases that businesses are allowed to emit, building more fuel-efficient cars, building more energy efficient buildings, and building more energy efficient applicants. The policy with the least support was building electric vehicles, but a majority of Americans still support that policy.


Figure 2 shows the results of a question asking whether respondents endorse various policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emission for a different set of policies. These policies were framed in terms of taxes. When asked if they would give tax breaks to produce electricity from water, wind, and solar power, large majorities of Americans supported this policy from 2006 to 2012. A majority also supported giving tax breaks to reduce air pollution from burning coal. However, when it comes to giving tax breaks to build nuclear power plants, increasing taxes on gasoline, and increasing taxes on electricity a large majority of Americans did not support endorse these policies.


In order to test whether or not there was price sensitivity when it came to certain policies, one survey question was conducted by preceding the policies with a statement saying that “each of these changes would increase the amount of money that you pay for things you buy.” This statement had no significant impact on the distribution of responses and large majorities still supported many of these policy issues. When given actual prices, majorities would support raising their household bills by $75 and $150 to enact policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When the price was raised to $250, support dropped to 41%. By doing certain calculations, we calculated that the average willingness to pay across all Americans was $134.


We have seen through these surveys that contrary to expectations, Americans support many of the energy policies that have been discussed over the years and are willing to pay some amount to have them enacted. This runs contrary to the idea that the reason why congress is not enacting these policies is because there is not public support and that the public would be unwilling to pay. It is unfair to blame the public for the lack of policies enacted by the federal government on these issues. Why has legislation action been so limited with regard to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions? Two possibilities include that legislators have decided to ignore their constituents or that they are simply unaware of the public consensus on these issues. We hope that this essay helps US leaders and the American public better understand prevailing opinions on emissions reduction, and thereby to enhance the functioning of representative democracy in this country.