Beacon survey shows support for climate policy and action

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A new survey of Rochester Beacon readers found strong support for policies to address climate change. 

The survey was conducted in advance of Wednesday’s alternative fuels online event presented by the Beacon. Though the poll’s methodology was not scientific, and the 133 respondents cannot be considered representative of the Rochester metro population or even of the Beacon’s readership, the opinions expressed are roughly consistent with more robust national polls of popular sentiment.

A sense of urgency

An about-face on climate is one of the clearest changes arising from Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump in November’s presidential election. This is reflected in the Beacon’s poll and in response to a similar question posed by Pew Research Center in 2019. Only 12 percent of Beacon respondents want the Biden administration to slow the pace of climate policy change. The rest split evenly between supporting the current—and newly accelerated—policy push and those who find even Biden’s plan to be too conservative.

The Pew Research Center, polling in October 2019, found two-thirds of respondents supporting a more ambitious federal policy.

Willing to ‘pay for lunch’?

Policies supporting a shift to alternative fuels are not costless—economists’ “no free lunch” mantra applies. Beacon respondents expressed some willingness to accept these costs, however.

Although some are inspired by the majesty of a massive wind farm, the visual impact is arresting and can detract from the natural landscape. The prospect of wind turbines on the horizon of lakes Ontario and Erie didn’t pose a problem for the majority of Beacon survey respondents, however. Support for offshore wind turbines was expressed by 83 percent of respondents with only 16 percent opposed.

Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication has mapped the results of climate opinion polling at different levels of geography, ranging from county to congressional district to metro to state. These maps show broad endorsement of tax-funded incentives for private actions supporting the climate action. Rebates for alternative-fuel vehicles or solar panels captured support from 82 percent overall with significant support in every county in the nation. Similarly, 86 percent of the nation supports alternative fuels research.

Many survey respondents and participants in the Wednesday’s alternative energy forum expressed support for the elimination of fossil fuels subsidies.

Yale’s climate opinion mapping project found the nearly identical result, although the question was worded differently, placing the tax obligation firmly on fossil fuel companies and explicitly endorsing a corresponding reduction in other taxes. The county map (below) shows support for a carbon tax over 50 percent for all but a handful of counties. At the state level, support ranges from a low of 55 percent in Wyoming and North Dakota to a high of 76 percent in New York and 75 percent in Maryland and New Jersey.

Despite strong support expressed for the Biden administration’s newly assertive climate action plan, there’s a limit to how much Beacon poll respondents wish to pay personally for progress on the climate front. Three-fifths are unwilling to pay extra for alternative fuels and 33 percent are willing to pay no more than 15 percent more. 

The 44 percent of respondents who expressed a belief that Biden policy “should be more aggressive” are more willing to pay extra—but not that much. More than half of this more committed group would still draw the line at paying more than 15 percent extra for alternative fuels, although a fifth of this group would pay a premium of 25 percent or more.

It is tempting to suggest that support for climate policy will remain strong only as long as the effects of policy on individual pocketbooks is hidden. New York voters have elected a state leadership that supports wind, solar and other climate policies through charges to utilities—the offshore renewable energy credits that make offshore wind possible, for example, are directly funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, whose budget comes from utilities. The utilities pass these costs on to ratepayers, of course.

Elected officials may know their constituents better than they know themselves—the apparent popularity of a carbon tax might evaporate were it to directly increase the price of gasoline by 50 cents a gallon. Taxing “fossil fuel” companies (which would increase the price at the pump) or assessing utilities for alternative energy purchases (which would increase the price of heat and power in our homes) can improve the prospects for the climate while limiting a negative reaction at the ballot box. In politics, ignorance is bliss.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor. 

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