An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2013

Does the American Public Support Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emission?

Jon Alexander Krosnick and Bo MacInnis

Despite efforts by some congressional legislators to pass laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the use of fossil fuels, no such laws have yet been adopted. Is this failure to pass new laws attributable to a lack of public desire for such legislation? Data from national surveys support two answers to this question. First, large majorities of Americans have endorsed a variety of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; second, policy support has been consistent across years and across scopes and types of policies. Popular policies include fuel economy and energy-efficiency standards, mandated use of renewable sources, and limitations on emissions by utilities and by businesses more generally. Support for policies has been price sensitive, and the American public appears to have been willing to pay enough money for these purposes to cover their costs. Consistent with these policy endorsements, surveys show that large majorities of Americans believe that global warming has been happening, that it is attributable to human activity, and that future warming will be a threat if unaddressed. Not surprisingly, these beliefs appear to have been important drivers of public support for policies designed to reform energy generation and use. Thus, it seems inappropriate to attribute lack of legislation to lack of public support in these arenas.

JON A. KROSNICK, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2009, is the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences; Professor of Political Science, Communication, and Psychology; and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute at Stanford University. He is also a University Fellow at Resources for the Future. He was Co-Principal Investigator of the American National Election Studies and directs the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford. He has coauthored or coedited several books on survey methodology, questionnaire design, and the psychology of political attitudes and behavior. His work has appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Climatic Change, among others.

BO MacINNIS is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.

Recent years have seen a number of efforts in Congress to shift American energy generation away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner and renewable energy sources. For example, in early 2009, the Obama administration and members of Congress designed and enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, earmarking nearly $80 billion in clean-energy investments. Projects included upgrading the national electricity grid to improve efficiency; assisting and encouraging the formation of clean-energy businesses through tax incentives; and investing in cleaner and more efficient forms of public transit, such as high-speed rail.

In June 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which sought to place nationwide caps on greenhouse gas emissions. This law targeted a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 83 percent reduction by 2050. It also mandated that 20 percent of American electricity be generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind power by 2020. The Senate did not vote on the Act, so it was not adopted into law. Since then, no significant efforts have been made in Congress, and leaders either have chosen not to discuss the issue or have opposed legislative efforts to facilitate development of a new energy economy.

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