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Americans warm up (a little) to price tag on carbon

Power plant
Courtesy of Duke Energy
The W.C. Beckjord Station along the Ohio River near Cincinnati. Duke Energy says it plans to close the coal burning power plant in 2015 because updating the plant to meet new environmental regulations would be too costly.

A lot of economists like the idea of putting a price on the use of fossil fuels, as a way to tackle climate change.

But it’s been a hard sell politically.

A new reporton this topic is out from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment. It looks at Americans’ opinions on policies like carbon taxes and cap and trade over the last 10 years.

Barry Rabe is a professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He also directs the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.

“We’ve found over time that the public is really divided on a carbon price. We’ve noticed an uptick in the last two years, 2016 and 2017, so that a slightly larger number of Americans support a national carbon tax than oppose,” he says.

He says recently, more states are looking at taking steps to combat climate change.

“And I think we’ll know a lot more after this coming election, certainly in Michigan and in other states. Is it good politics, can you talk about climate change? Can you talk about a carbon price and survive politically?” says Rabe.

Rabe says after the Trump administration announced it planned to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, more state officials have started considering ways to combat climate change, and that includes carbon taxes or cap and trade programs.

Here's an except from the report:

Despite the long-standing base of support among economists, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade have struggled in past decades to win and sustain political support. These findings confirm a divided public response to the idea of carbon pricing in the United States, serving to explain why political support for either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade has been so difficult to sustain at the federal level and in most states. Neither policy has the broad base of public support that is usually thought necessary to assure a strong chance of adoption. Furthermore, while carbon taxes generally appear less supported than cap-and-trade, this is likely a function of Americans’ comparative unfamiliarity with cap-and-trade. Once a common price tag is attached to both policies, these differences disappear, with a solid majority opposed to both. The NSEE has found, however, that policy design can shape and possibly increase public support for carbon pricing. In particular, revenue use targeted toward clean energy investments or commensurate reduction of other taxes can significantly elevate support for both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. Nonetheless, the American public remains quite divided on the issue of carbon pricing, with particularly notable and seemingly enduring partisan divides making any further consensus that crosses party lines elusive.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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