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Poll: Carbon Tax Reused for Renewables Could Work for U.S. Voters

By Jan Lee

The concept of a national carbon tax is a hard sell for most people these days. According to a recent poll, only 34 percent of U.S. respondents said they would support taxing fossil fuels like oil, gas or natural gas.

But support for a carbon tax changes dramatically when it comes to scenarios in which the funds are either reimbursed to taxpayers or used to fund renewable energy projects. The 798 respondents were surveyed for each question according to their political affiliations in order to determine what resonated with each of three specific political groups (Republican, Independent and Democrat). The poll was conducted by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion and the University of Michigan Center for Local, State and Urban Policy this year.

Sixty percent of those surveyed gave thumbs-up to the more creative form of a carbon tax where it is then used to fund renewable energy. Half (51 percent) of those who identified themselves as Republican said they would support a tax that was then reused for greener purposes. An estimated 54 percent of Independents and 70 percent of Democrats said they would support the idea as well.

Stats also showed that respondents weren’t really as worried about getting their money back as about seeing the funds go to a useful “green” purpose. A lower number (56 percent) overall of those questioned said they would support a carbon tax if the money were reimbursed to them. As to political leanings: 43 percent Republican-identified respondents said yea to this idea; 52 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Democrats said this was also a good way to approach carbon taxation.

Those numbers clashed dramatically with respondents’ feelings about a carbon tax in which the funds are then used to pay off the federal deficit. Only 38 percent overall said they would go along with that strategy. Interestingly, the response was about even between Republicans (34 percent), Independents (34) and Democrats (39).

“Conventional wisdom is that carbon tax is a political non-starter,” said University of Michigan professor Barry Rabe, who also serves as director for the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. “But there may be broader support for such a tax than is commonly believed, depending upon how revenues from that tax are used.”

While this research data may be helpful information for the Obama administration, which has said climate change and carbon emissions must be addressed, it’s unlikely to garner much excitement down under. Last week Australia became the first country in the world to abolish a carbon tax. The decision, which was part of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s election platform, received dismay from environmentalists around the world.

It also prompted plenty of Twitter chatter, even from Australia’s own members of parliament. Labor Senate leader Penny Wong predicted: “Abbott to go down as one of most short sighted, opportunistic, selfish & small ppl ever to hold the office of PM.”

Australia Greens party leader Christine Milne added her foresight, “Australia will be relegated to a pariah and a backwater.”

In Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has resisted calls for a carbon tax as well, critics had some interesting insights as to just why heads of state are skittish about taxing a heavily-used resource like fossil fuels.

“In Australia, climate policy has been a death knell for politicians who failed to read the fickle public mood,” noted Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. “When (former Australia Prime Minister) Julia Gillard took over as leader of the Labor Party in 2010, she solemnly swore not to impose a carbon tax.” She didn’t keep her promise, Wente points out, and the voters weighed in at the polls. “They threw the Labor Party out of office and elected Mr. Abbott, who promised to ‘axe the tax.’”

But as the U of M’s recent survey shows, a politician’s career doesn’t necessarily have to be in peril just because he or she has the guts to suggest a new kind of tax. They just have to use the right vernacular that resonates with voters.

The real reason that Prime Minister Abbott’s “axe the tax” platform worked is because he convinced voters from the middle of the supermarket meat isle that keeping the carbon tax meant weekly lamb dinners would be unaffordable for the average household once it took effect. That’s like telling Americans they will no longer be able to drive their cars to work.

Carbon tax support rests not in whether it’s a tax, but ultimately in what it means to the voter. And that can be better technology, a handy rebate check, or a sheep in wolf’s clothing in the form of perceived financial losses. When it comes to the carbon tax, voters say, it’s the results that count.

Carbon tax supporter: Takver

Greg Combet explaining proposed carbon tax to Australian voters: Toby Hudson

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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