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US public wants climate change dealt with, but doesn’t like the options

Image of an orange sky with a bridge and buildings partly obscured in the haze.
Enlarge / The East Coast has gotten the chance to experience something that’s become disturbingly familiar out west.

After rejoining the Paris Agreement and passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the US has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and hitting net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. That will require significant changes in everything from household appliances and cars to how electricity is generated. Is the US public up for the challenge?

The answer is a pretty resounding “no,” according to new polling data released by the Pew Research Center. While the country generally supports things like renewable energy, there’s still strong resistance to taking personal actions like swapping out appliances. And the sizeable partisan gap in support for doing anything has persisted.

We need to do something!

In general, the US public supports action on climate change. Three-quarters of those surveyed said that the US should participate in international efforts to reduce climate change, and two-thirds say the US’ top priority should be developing alternative energy sources.

Support for many climate policies as high—especially if they don't directly impact the people being polled.
Enlarge / Support for many climate policies as high—especially if they don’t directly impact the people being polled.

There’s also widespread support for specific climate-friendly policies. Tree planting programs have nearly universal support (89 percent of those surveyed), with similar levels of support for requiring companies to close methane leaks from oil and gas wells. Strong majorities (70 percent and up) supported policies that induced companies to limit emissions, such as tax credits for carbon capture development, and emissions-based carbon taxes.

Over 60 percent of people even supported requiring all power plants to have zero emissions by 2040, a key step toward President Biden’s climate goals.

As with most climate-related issues, there was a large partisan gap. A slim majority of Republicans felt that we should be prioritizing fossil fuel production, including coal. But these opinions were strongest in older, more conservative Republicans. Younger and more moderate Republicans tended to break ranks on things like promoting carbon capture and engaging in international climate treaties.

Democrats, in contrast, were nearly unified, with 90 percent of them saying that developing renewable energy should be the priority. The strong support for climate policies was widespread among left-leaning participants.

There were mixed thoughts about how the energy transition would go. Majorities or pluralities felt it would improve the environment, create job opportunities, and limit the frequency of extreme weather. But they were fairly evenly split about whether it would raise the cost of power and destabilize the electric grid, and a plurality felt that it would boost inflation on everyday goods.

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