U.S. and Global Public Willing to Sacrifice to Address Global Warming

This weekend the Center for American Progress Action Fund will host a presidential forum in Los Angeles on energy and climate change. One of the questions that’s sure to be debated is whether the public is, in fact, willing to make some sacrifices to address global warming.

Recently released data from a BBC World Service poll conducted by GlobeScan/Program on International Policy Attitudes sheds some light on this question with information from respondents in 21 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, and the United States.

The poll first asked whether individuals need to “make changes in their life style and behavior in order to reduce the amount of climate changing gases they produce.” Across all 21 countries, an average of 83 percent said it will definitely (46 percent) or probably (37 percent) be necessary for individuals to do this, compared with 13 percent who thought it would probably (9 percent) or definitely (4 percent) not be necessary. The American public was in line with this average response with 79 percent saying it will definitely or probably be necessary for individuals to take such steps, compared with just 19 percent who thought it would definitely or probably not be necessary.

Global and U.S. publics also believe that it will be necessary “[t]o increase the cost of the types of energy that most cause climate change, such as coal and oil/petrol, in order to encourage individuals and industry to use less.” Across the 21 countries in the BBC survey, an average of 61 percent said it will definitely (27 percent) or probably (34 percent) be necessary for these costs to be increased, compared with 33 percent who thought it would probably (20 percent) or definitely (14 percent) not be necessary. The American public was actually a little over that average, with 65 percent saying it will definitely or probably be necessary for these energy costs to increase to encourage conservation, compared with 32 percent who thought it would definitely or probably not be necessary.

The BBC poll also asked respondents whether they would “favor or oppose raising taxes on the types of energy, such as coal and oil/petrol, that most cause climate change in order to encourage individuals and businesses to use less of these?” Not surprisingly, this general query about raising taxes generated less enthusiasm. The 21-country average was only slightly in favor with 50 percent for and 44 percent against, and the U.S. response was slightly against with 46 percent for and 51 percent against.

Yet when those opposed were asked “what if the revenues of this energy tax were devoted only to increasing energy efficiency and developing energy sources that do not produce climate change?” most of those opposed said they would then support the energy tax. This produced a 21-country average of 77 percent who either favored the energy tax outright (50 percent) or would support the tax if the revenues were dedicated to alternative energy and increased energy efficiency (27 percent). The corresponding figures in the United States were 74 percent either favoring the energy tax to begin with (46 percent) or favoring it if the revenues were used to promote alternative energy (28 percent).

These data indicate that the public is more open to serious action to combat global warming, including action that might affect their self-interest, than many have presumed. Policymakers should take note.