Majority of Poll Respondents Say U.S. Should Limit Greenhouse Gases

The Washington Post's Steven Mufson weighs in on the latest efforts by Democrats to steer a House vote on cap and trade legislation. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim/The Washington Post
By Steven Mufson and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 25, 2009

Three-quarters of Americans think the federal government should regulate the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, with substantial majority support from Democrats, Republicans and independents.

But fewer Americans -- 52 percent -- support a cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions similar to the one the House may vote on as early as tomorrow. That is slightly less support than cap and trade enjoyed in a late July 2008 poll. Forty-two percent of those surveyed this month oppose such a program.

The Washington Post-ABC News survey showed that support slipped slightly when people were asked whether they would be willing to pay higher prices in general or higher electricity bills in exchange for significant decreases in greenhouse gases. Although 62 percent of those surveyed said they would support regulation even if it raised the price of purchases and 56 percent would back cap and trade if it resulted in a $10 increase in utility costs, 44 percent said they would back a cap-and-trade system if it boosted monthly electricity bills by $25.

"I think there hasn't been enough regulation," said Janet Opkyke, 60, a freelance book editor in northern Michigan. "Way back when deregulation started, I thought it was the wrong thing to do. I thought it was a license for greed. And I'm glad to see it swinging the other way." She added, "I think greenhouse gases are very harmful, and we have to do something about it."

Cap and trade is a signature issue for President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership, and it is the centerpiece of the 1,201-page climate bill co-sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hopes to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote tomorrow -- before a week-long recess for the Fourth of July holiday -- but a dispute with Republicans over annual spending bills could delay that plan.

Pelosi called the bill "a wonderful collaboration," and most environmental groups and a large number of companies endorsed it yesterday, despite last-minute concessions made to win the support of farm-state lawmakers led by the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.).

"These changes will not help the cause of making real reductions in greenhouse gases," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "And even some strong supporters of the Waxman-Markey legislation are now holding their noses, as if on the perimeter of a hog farm."

Nonetheless, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said yesterday in a statement that despite the changes, the group still opposes the "seriously flawed" climate legislation.

A cap-and-trade system sets a limit on the nation's emissions of greenhouse gases, then issues or auctions emission allowances that can be bought or sold by individuals, funds and companies. Over time, the cap is lowered to reduce the nation's emissions. Making emitters pay for carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, would provide incentives for developing renewable energy sources and new technologies to limit emissions from coal plants.

Debate over the cap-and-trade approach has focused on the cost to the average American. The Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that cap and trade would cost the average U.S. household $175 a year in 2020, but House Republicans have pushed the message that the legislation would cost many times that and drive millions of jobs offshore.

That message has failed to sway liberal and moderate Republicans, 60 percent of whom back a cap-and-trade program, but it appeals to the party's conservative base.

Tiffany Collins, 31, a part-time children's activity director at a church and a mother of four in Riverside, Calif., said she does not think greenhouse gases are causing climate change. She said she read a report on the Internet saying climate change was linked to changes in the sun's activity. But in any case, she does not support government intervention. "I'm opposed to the government overregulating just about everything. It costs us money, and they don't do a very good job of it," she said.

One argument used by foes of climate legislation is that the United States should not take action unmatched by China and India, among the world's fastest-growing economies and sources of greenhouse gases. But the Post-ABC poll showed that six in 10 Americans favor U.S. action, even if other countries do less to confront climate change.

One of the sharpest dividing lines in attitudes toward climate legislation was age, with younger adults more receptive to cap and trade and federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Nearly two-thirds of those younger than 30 said they support cap and trade, and eight in 10 support federal limits on emissions. Among seniors, about four in 10 said they back a cap-and-trade proposal, and half favor federal intervention on emissions.

Sensitivity to increased prices is highest among those in households with incomes under $50,000. Nearly all of the drop-off in support for cap and trade or other greenhouse gas regulation comes among people who live in such households. Those in higher-income households were relatively unfazed by the increased costs.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone June 18 to 21 among a national random sample of 1,001 adults; results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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