Sunday, August 29, 2010

The complex politics of global warming

TERRE HAUTE — Are elected officials just shills for the oil companies? Or are they waffling, poll-driven, self-interested, political opportunists? A bit of both? Anyone think maybe neither? The politics of global warming suggests neither.

On June 9, 2010, Dr. Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and political psychology at Stanford University, released findings from a National Science Foundation funded survey of Americans on their beliefs and policy preferences surrounding climate change. The release of the findings was coupled with his New York Times op-ed. The op-ed is worth reading if for no other reason than Dr. Krosnick’s insights into how the press treats poll results and for a primer on how media-driven poll questions too often miss the mark of what is really important (

Dr. Krosnick’s survey is of a high-quality and representative sample and his survey is more carefully crafted than most media sponsored polls. The survey shows significant majorities of Americans believe that the earth is gradually warming (74 percent), that human activities contribute to that warming (75 percent), and that large majorities favor government action to address the problem (76 percent). (The reason that a larger percentage believe human activities contribute to warming and favor government action than believe the earth is gradually warming is because those who indicated they did not believe the earth is gradually warming were asked to assume that it was for the other questions. “Assuming the earth is gradually warming …”)

Based on these findings, Dr. Krosnick concludes, “Even as we are told that Americans are about equally divided into red and blue, a huge majority shares a common vision of climate change. This creates a unique opportunity for elected representatives to satisfy a lot of voters.” Dr. Krosnick apparently thinks or hopes that the majority of politicians are waffling, poll-driven, self-interested political opportunists.

I am convinced by the evidence that the earth is warming. I also am convinced by the evidence that industrial processes, especially the generation of power by burning hydro-carbons, wood, and other carbon-rich sources, is contributing to that warming. And while I, too, think that the government must lead in responding to this problem, I am in the minority in what the general outline of those policies should be.

The Stanford survey showed a clear preference for supply-side (read passive, volunteer) policies in contrast to demand-side (read active, required) policies. Super majorities reject taxes on gasoline (71 percent) and electricity (78 percent) that would raise prices on consumers which in turn would affect their behavior. Eighty-four percent favor tax breaks for companies that produce electricity from renewable sources. Fifty percent or better support tax breaks for producers of cars that get better gas mileage, companies that produce electricity from alternative, renewable sources; and for homes and offices that use less energy. Twenty percent are true libertarians who favor no government action in these areas whatsoever.

Americans believe in convenience, technology (not so much science), and the market. A technology that is cheap, energy efficient, but most important, doesn’t cause “me” to change (or at least not in ways that appear to be inconvenient) is what people will adopt with or without any government action. Producer-side policies, however, don’t yield the results that the demand-side policies do. The market has produced a voracious appetite for energy. When consumers demand 40 MPG cars the producers will produce them. But, either gas has to return to over $4 a gallon or the government has to make 40 MPG the law or tax gas to achieve $4. I think our politicians know that, but those policies, despite their success, would be politically costly.

The elected officials who don’t jump to satisfy the tantalizing super majority of voters who support what seems like a straight-forward policy aren’t necessarily in the hip pocket of the big energy companies, nor are they necessarily poll-driven opportunists. If they followed these poll results, they could give voters what they want and big tax breaks to big business. Woo-hoo, everyone is happy. So, why don’t they do it? Maybe because those policies won’t work.

Maybe our elected officials have a more complex understanding of policy and its interplay with Americans’ behavior than what this or any high-quality survey suggests. Understanding people’s beliefs and values are probably more important than relying on poll results. Indeed, poll results have to be interpreted in light of a deeper understanding of the society in which the respondents live.

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