Climate Change Polls Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

Even as energy costs continue to spiral in the U.S. and around the world, a recent Gallup survey found Americans still overwhelmingly support several key proposals aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

So why aren’t American voters putting more pressure on Congress to move major climate legislation? 

It almost certainly comes back to Americans’ concerns about how any climate policies would impact their own personal finances. Even before the latest burst in energy prices worsened by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Americans were only willing to go so far to join the battle against climate change.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC), a majority of Americans said they would be willing to pay one extra dollar on their monthly energy bills to combat climate change. But when that hypothetical cost increased to an extra $10 per month, only 35% of Americans said they would be willing to pay.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in January 2022 asked respondents how they thought the increased production of renewables at the expense of fossil fuels would affect their household energy bills. The public was split, with as many respondents saying they believed prices would increase as those predicting a decrease. Both groups are partially correct—while it would be cost-effective in the long run, clean energy is a commodity with high upfront costs.

Wind and solar farms are more expensive to build than traditional fossil fuel plants due in part to the variety of minerals these technologies require. Further, the intermittent nature of wind and solar power means that they must be supplemented by fossil fuels or nuclear power to provide the baseload power utilities need to ensure the lights are always on. And transmission costs for renewables like wind and solar can be higher, as electricity from these sources must be transported from windy or sunny locations to populated areas. These factors would certainly be reflected in household energy bills in the short term, which has helped fuel the narrative that a clean energy transition would be too expensive for the U.S., or the world, to take on.

But there are some hopeful trends to suggest a transition to cleaner energy might not be as expensive as some Americans fear. Based on the increased efficiency of renewables and the current trajectory of technological advancements (for example, advancements in battery storage for wind and solar power could address the intermittency problem, and modernization of transmission infrastructure could lower associated costs), an increased reliance on renewables could actually result in household savings in the long run. According to the International Energy Agency, if global investment in clean energy were on track to reach decarbonization goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, the average household in an advanced economy would pay less for energy in 2030 than they do today. The Rhodium Group predicts that these energy bill savings would amount to between $400 and $600 annually compared to average 2020 costs.

Even with rapid expansion of renewables, the goal of achieving a fossil fuel-free future within the next decade is almost certainly not possible. Even as renewables’ share of American energy consumption has grown exponentially in recent years, fossil fuels account for about 80% of our overall energy usage today. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that fossil fuels will still account for 56% of U.S. energy consumption by 2050.

The American people desperately need some straight talk from Washington about what it will take for us to achieve the twin goals of energy security and climate change mitigation.

Many policymakers have responded to concerns about the costs of clean energy by claiming that we can’t afford not to combat climate change. They’re right, but they need to be more explicit about the fact that the clean energy transition will come with upfront costs and that some of the savings will be realized in the future.

Leaders in Washington hoping to take definitive action on climate would be wise to start framing the clean energy transition as a long-term investment and more directly addressing the ways in which it would affect American families.