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What do Americans Think about Climate Change Legislation? Polls Differ

Posted by: John Carey on August 11, 2009

In an landmark vote on June 26, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would tackle climate change by imposing mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. Now, just about every industry is trying to either get a better deal, or kill the bill entirely. Coal-heavy utilities like Duke Energy, for instance, want to weaken down the targets and timetables in the House bill. Biofuels and bioplastics companies want to get credit for the carbon reductions they create when they make bio-based products.

But what does the American public think? Or more precisely, what do polls say that the American public thinks?

In late June, Rasmussen Reports surveyed 1000 adults. The poll showed that only 12% of respondents were strongly in favor, while 25% were strongly opposed. And 42% said that the measure would hurt the economy, while only 19% said it would help.

Now comes a competing poll from Zogby, which presents a far different picture. In this poll, a stunning 45% of the 1005 respondents were strongly in favor of the climate bill. Only 19% strongly opposed it.

Why the difference? Often with polling, it’s possible to get very different answers depending how the questions are asked. “How you word the question would be very important,” explains Scott Rasmussen, founder and president of Rasmussen Reports. If you ask people if they favor a measure that will help save the environment, for instance, they will probably say yes. If you ask if they favor a measure that may destroy jobs, they will say no.

What makes the wording even more important is that other polls show that the public really doesn’t know much about the climate legislation. If you ask them about cap and trade (the basic idea in the climate bill), only a minority knows this is about an environmental issue, rather than, say, a financial issue.

So how did these polls differ?

In the Zogby poll, which was done for the National Wildlife Federation, respondents were first read the following paragraph:

“The House of Representatives recently passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would require electric power companies to generate 20 percent of their power from clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by the year 2020. Also included is a global warming plan which would reduce greenhouse gases from sources like power plants and factories by 17 percent, and an energy efficiency plan which includes new appliance standards and building codes to conserve energy.”

In contrast, the Rasmussen pollsters merely asked respondents if they’d been following the news reports about the climate change bill, before asking if they support it or not. “We used as neutral language as we could,” says Rasmussen.

You can see why the Zogby poll got a more favorable result. After all, people tend to be in favor of clean renewable power, reducing greenhouse gases, and using energy more efficiently. If the paragraph had said, as opponents charge, that the bill will make they pay more for energy and threaten their jobs, the results would have been very different.

But even the more neutral Rasmussen poll isn’t truly representative of what the public thinks either. That’s because the public really doesn’t yet know what to think. Rasmussen conducted his first poll right after the House vote or order to get baseline data, rather than trying to come to any firm conclusions about public opinion. We won’t know what the public thinks until the issue has been out there longer, he suggests. “Until it’s debated more in the public, we will stay away from it,” he says.

As usual, it seems, many polls are themselves part of the campaign to win hearts and minds.



BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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