by Richard T. Stuebi
I’ve written before that I’m very skeptical of polls. It seems to me that poll respondents give themselves far too much credit for being well-informed or magnanimous, relative to what they actually know or what will they will do when making real decisions that really affect them. Accordingly, I’m always bothered when pundits use poll results as a basis for what policy ought to be.
However, this past summer, a poll conducted and reported by New Scientist magazine did seem to shed some useful insights that policy-makers ought to consider.
The reported highlights of the survey were that there was substantial public support in the U.S. for carbon limitations, that the public preferred outright standards to cap-and-trade or (egads!) carbon taxes, and that the desired focus of carbon reductions should be on the electric power sector than on vehicles (don’t tread on SUV!).
In my view, the most illuminating finding was the weakness of support for carbon limitations if they induced any significant economic pain. In other words, respondents were fine with climate legislation — as long as it really didn’t cost much. On the other hand, when asked if they would support carbon emission requirements that would increase energy prices significantly — which is likely to be the case to achieve the magnitudes of emission reductions that are widely viewed necessary to have meaningful impact in protecting the planet — support evaporated.
This is one of the few instances where I actually believe what the poll results say, without any bias. I take from this finding that — to avoid catastrophic climate change during the balance of this century — either we need to quickly develop a zero/low baseload carbon energy source that costs essentially no more than conventional coal generation, or that we quickly need to substantially increase U.S. political will and courage to endure economic sacrifice. Either will be tremendously challenging. Failing on both counts could doom the planet.