If Polls Say ‘Yes’ to a Climate Bill, Why Do Lawmakers Say ‘Maybe’?

Nytimes logo2 A recent Times article goes into why recent polls illustrating public support for a climate bill, clean energy and clean energy jobs investment hasn't been an indicator of any legislative success or momentum. In addition to contending with a super rich fossil fuel lobby, the article states that…"Environmentalists
and their allies say it takes time to connect public sentiment with
political behavior, and many lawmakers do not have a firm grasp of how
the public views this issue or how it can benefit them on the campaign
trail."

Posted Jan 26th, 2010
By Alex Kaplun, Climatewire/NYTimes

If one were to judge the fate of climate legislation based solely on
public polling, it would appear that it is only a matter of time before
the bill easily cruises through Congress and arrives on the president's
desk.

Hardly a week seems to go by without a new poll showing strong
support for climate change legislation. And even though advocates on
both sides have spent millions of dollars for or against the bill,
those polling numbers have stayed fairly steady.

Most polls show
that at least a plurality, often a majority, of voters support climate
change regulation, would like to see more government investment in
renewable energy jobs, and believe that climate change is real and is
caused by human activity.

Just last week, environmental groups
released two such surveys — one from the Democratic polling firm
Benenson Strategy Group and another from well-known Republican pollster
Frank Luntz — showing the same general patterns (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

Independent media polls have shown roughly the same results. A Washington Post-ABC
News poll released just before Christmas showed that 65 percent wanted
the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; an NBC
News/Wall Street Journal poll a few days earlier placed that voter support for government action at 54 percent.

But
if the adage that politicians follow public opinion is true, why are so
many key lawmakers still on the fence over the legislation? Why are
politically endangered Democrats hesitant to support a bill that the
polls say that voters actually like? And why does the seemingly popular
legislative item continue to slide further and further down the
congressional agenda?

Answering those questions could be pivotal
for the future of climate legislation, as both sides admit that the
fate of the bill could be determined just as much by public opinion as
by the actual policy language in the legislation.

Environmentalists
and their allies say it takes time to connect public sentiment with
political behavior, and many lawmakers do not have a firm grasp of how
the public views this issue or how it can benefit them on the campaign
trail.

"There are frequently positions that politicians take that
are out-of-step with America," said Joel Benenson, head of Benenson
Strategy Group, which conducted its poll for the coalition Clean Energy
Works. "I think that when you campaign and you create a narrative about
whether a candidate is siding with special interests like oil companies
and Wall Street is opposed to creating energy independence, capping
pollution, regulating the financial industry, I think that's a pretty
good argument for a Democrat to have against a Republican in a lot of
races right now."

Some lawmakers say their colleagues' perception
of public opinion has been muddied by efforts launched by a handful of
powerful interests to defeat the bill. "Some folks, I don't think are
listening to people on the ground — this is a battle between public
sentiment and special interests," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), an
ardent supporter of the climate change bill. "Over time, the public
sentiment has started to prevail."

But critics and some polling
experts see the matter differently. They say that while the public may
indeed articulate surface-level support for climate change legislation,
that sentiment fails to adequately reflect two important factors in any
political debate — cost and voter engagement.

"When you ask
people in an isolated way do they want to do something to address the
problem, they say, 'yes,'" said Christopher Borick, director of the
Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "When you give them
financial implications, those numbers start to erode."

Borick
added, "Political figures just do not sense a deep commitment; they see
it as a cursory commitment to action rather than a deep commitment that
would include financial support."

Yesterday, the Pew Research
Center for the People & the Press reported that 28 percent of
voters believed that dealing with global warming should be a "top
domestic priority" for President Obama.

That number put it dead
last among the 21 topics covered by the poll and at its lowest level
since Pew started testing the issue in 2007. Addressing the country's
"energy problem" came in at 49 percent — an 11 percentage point drop
from last year and the lowest since 2006.

"There's more support
than opposition for it, but people haven't heard a lot about this,"
said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for
the People & the Press. "This issue is off the radar for a lot of
people."

How does it play in Peoria? And Reno? And Los Angeles?

With so many of the key climate players in the Senate up for
re-election this year, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.),
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and
Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the question is
whether the issue can help or hurt a lawmakers' chances at the ballot
box.

The Benenson poll found that 56 percent of voters said they would be
more likely to vote to re-elect a senator if they voted for a climate
change bill, while about 50 percent said they would be less likely to
vote for a senator that opposed the measure. But Benenson admitted that
number is far from indicative of how voters might cast their vote,
indicating that such sentiment is only part of larger matrix of how
voters make decisions.

Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist and
pollster, says the response to a polling question that summarizes an
incredibly complex issue in a few questions is not a good
representation of the kind of pressure that lawmakers would face on the
campaign trail, and astute politicians are keenly aware of that fact,
he said.

"On a survey question, everyone is in favor of it but if
you flip it around and ask it the way it would look in an attack ad in
a campaign, 'Would you be in favor of a national energy tax,' then the
bottom drops out," McKenna said.

"And unlike in a poll, an
opponent isn't going to provide both sides," McKenna added. "He's going
to say, 'Where's the jugular, and how do I sever it,' and the jugular
on this issue is the cost."

Environmentalists have long been
aware of the generally low level of public concern for their issues and
for that reason have tried to sell the climate change bill largely as a
job creator, saying that the desire to end dependence on foreign oil
and jump-start the economy is ingrained in voters even outside the
context of the current climate debate.

"They already believe that
energy is an economic and national security issue. There is no doubt in
Americans' minds that our dependence on oil hurts our economy and helps
our enemies; they come to the table with that set of beliefs," Benenson
said.

The top three concerns for voters in the Pew poll were the economy, jobs and terrorism.

But
it is not clear that climate bill advocates have convinced voters that
the potential economic benefits will exceed the hit that some expect to
take in their pocketbooks.

"The majority may still be in favor of
some policy options, and if you can package it with the idea that it
will be a stimulus for green jobs and green technology, it remains
somewhat popular," Borick said. "But you really have seen a
considerable drop off in support when you start to put tangible cost on
it."

Borick's polling has reflected that dynamic — a poll
conducted by the institute in conjunction with the University of
Michigan in fall 2009 showed that 53 percent would support a
cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But when
told that the cap-and-trade program would cost them $15 a month in
additional energy costs, that support drops to 42 percent, with 51
percent opposed. When the cost number increases to $50 a month, that
support dropped to just 22 percent, with 72 percent opposed.

McKenna
said his own surveys have shown that the "price point" — the cost that
voters are willing to personally absorb from climate change legislation
— tops out at somewhere between $100 and $200 per year.

"The
American public is willing to spend a very modest amount on this;
they're not willing to spend what it's going to cost," McKenna said.

There
is no universally agreed-upon consumer cost for the climate change
bill, and both sides have used their preferred numbers to make their
case, with most Republicans and their allies arguing that it cost the
average family thousands of dollars, and climate bill supporters
arguing that the cost would be no more than a couple hundred dollars
and would be offset by other legislative benefits.

Proponents of
the bill say concerns about costs have been overblown by special
interests that oppose the measure, but voters still consistently show a
willingness to support some cost increases on a number of
environmentally beneficial issues.

"People say that they are willing to pay more for renewable
electricity, they are willing to pay more for fuel-efficient vehicles,"
said Anthony Leiserowitz, a climate polling expert at Yale University.
"We still find a very large proportion say that they are willing to pay
for some of these higher energy costs, with one big exception and
that's gas prices."

Leiserowitz noted, however, that voters tend to become more cost-conscious during tough economic conditions.

"It's
not a priority but especially in today's political climate where
unemployment is still very high, where people are still losing their
jobs," Leiserowitz said. "All of those factors really push issues like
climate change and a lot of other issues off the agenda."

The
poll conducted by Benenson includes the standard opposition argument
that the climate bill would raise "middle class families' energy bills
by almost two thousand dollars," but even with that statement, 57
percent of the voters still said they would support the measure,
compared with 39 percent opposed.

"I think as politicians move
more into 2010, they'll take a second look at this. I think they'll
take a look at data coming out from both sides showing very similar
sentiment from the American people," Benenson said. "I think they will
see this not as just an isolated partisan-tract debate, I think they'll
see that there is upside."

Which way are the numbers going?

Should
climate change legislation move to the forefront of the national
political debate, that does not mean the current levels of support for
a bill will remain constant, as support for seemingly popular ideas can
fall off the cliff once it becomes the dominant issue of the day.

Democrats
would have to look no further than health care reform, where public
support has fallen as the debate has dragged on. Another example cited
by some pollsters is President George W. Bush's effort to reform social
security — an idea that tested well initially but whose support
quickly collapsed as the Capitol Hill debate got under way.

"It's
unclear if this were to move up on the agenda, whether those numbers
would change or not," said Doherty of Pew. "At this point, it's a
gut-level response to something that most voters probably haven't
thought very much about."

The polls have already shown some troubling signs for climate change supporters.

The Washington Post
poll, for example, which showed 65 percent for climate change
legislation in December, showed 75 percent support just six months
earlier. The 54 percent support found in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal represented a drop of 2 percentage points from just a couple months earlier but a 10-percentage-point drop from 2007.

And
a Pew poll released in the fall showed a drop of 14 points in the
percentage of voters that believed there is solid evidence that the
Earth is warming and a 9-percentage-point drop in the voters that saw
global warming a "serious" problem — one of several polls that has
shown increased voter skepticism over the issue.

"There's a lot
of movement going on here, which makes people even more uneasy," Borick
said. "There may still be majority support, but the trend lines are
going in the other direction."

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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