EPC Resource Library / Weekly Roundups

Environmental Polling Roundup – March 29, 2024





Polling on new vehicle emissions standards has found that the public widely supports stronger EPA rules to curb pollution from cars, trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles.

Last month, for example, the American Lung Association found that 72% of voters (including the majority of Republicans) support the EPA “setting stricter limits on carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.” Additionally, 60% of voters said that they support the EPA “setting stricter limits on emissions from light-duty vehicles like cars and trucks.”

In this new Economist/YouGov poll, however, Americans are much more split on the idea of “setting standards for automakers that will lead them to transition from producing fewer gas vehicles to producing more electric and other low-emitting vehicles” (44% support / 41% oppose).

The contrast between the two polls underlines a couple of important findings: while the idea of reducing vehicle pollution is relatively uncontroversial, the idea of phasing out gas-powered vehicles tends to divide people along partisan lines. By tying new vehicle standards to the EV transition, the Economist/YouGov poll produced a very polarized reaction: around three-quarters of Democrats (73%) said that they support the new vehicle standards, while three-quarters of Republicans (75%) said that they oppose them.

The Economist/YouGov poll question actually does not mention “pollution” or “emissions” as part of the new rules, just vague “standards for automakers” that will prompt automakers to manufacture more EVs. This kind of framing is unhelpful, as it suggests that the rules are mostly about the types of vehicles that automakers manufacture and not about reducing pollution across automakers’ fleets. 

Where possible, we recommend that advocates focus on the core intent and benefit of the new EPA vehicle emissions rules: reducing pollution. This is an important goal that the vast majority of the country can agree on, wherever they stand on EVs. The new vehicle rules are likely to be much more popular if the public correctly understands that the rules set stronger pollution limits and provide automakers with flexibility about how to adhere to those limits.

The Economist/YouGov poll also asked about people’s impressions of gas powered versus electric cars on a variety of dimensions, finding that Americans tend to believe that gas-powered cars are “more reliable” (56% gas / 13% electric), “more affordable to maintain” (54% gas / 14% electric), and “safer to operate” (39% gas / 15% electric). Meanwhile, Americans say that electric vehicles have advantages in being “more energy-efficient” (44% electric / 23% gas) and “better for the environment” (46% electric / 19% gas).

These data points illustrate some common misconceptions about electric vehicles. In particular, despite studies consistently showing that EVs are cheaper to maintain than gas-powered cars, only 14% of Americans say that EVs are more affordable to maintain. This represents a clear knowledge gap for clean car advocates to address in their communications to the public.

Elsewhere in the poll, the Economist and YouGov find that 61% of Americans recognize that the world’s climate is changing as a result of human activity – slightly higher than we typically see on this question.

And to underscore how little public backlash there has been against President Biden’s actions on climate change, only one-quarter of Americans (25%) say that the U.S. government is doing too much to address climate change. Americans are nearly twice as likely to say that the U.S. government is not doing enough on the issue (46%), while 17% say that the country is doing “about the right amount.”

Looking at the results by party affiliation, Democrats are much more likely to say that the country isn’t doing enough on climate change (69%) than Republicans are to say that the country is doing too much on the issue (48%).

Data for Progress finds that voters mostly have positive attitudes about their utility companies (61% favorable / 26% unfavorable), and large majorities say that their utility companies do at least “somewhat well” at ensuring that customers have reliable access to energy (76%) and responding quickly when customers have issues with their energy access (71%). (Polling on this topic is similar to what we see on health insurance, where Americans tend to believe that the system isn’t good but are generally content with their own experiences with it.)

Still, voters are eager to see stronger regulation on utilities – including banning junk fees and preventing utilities from using customers’ money for political activities. 

Three-quarters of voters (75%) support banning junk fees based on the following description:

“Utility companies charge customers certain junk fees not related to their overall energy use. These include late fees, which can be charged at a flat rate or as a percentage of a customer’s total energy bill if a customer misses a payment deadline, and reconnection fees, which are typically charged at a flat rate if a customer is disconnected from the grid for missing a payment deadline or other reasons. Some lawmakers are considering legislation to ban utility companies from charging these junk fees.”

Language about this proposal appears to make a substantial difference, with voters reacting particularly strongly to the term “junk fees.” Data for Progress fins that voters support banning junk fees by a 75%-18% margin after reading the explanation above, while voters support the same proposal by a less lopsided 61%-30% margin after reading a version of the paragraph that describes the payments as “certain fees” rather than “junk fees.”

Voters also overwhelmingly support legislation to prevent utility providers from using money from customers’ monthly bills to fund political activities (72% support / 21% oppose) after reading that “utility providers often use money collected from customers’ monthly bills to fund their political activities, including lobbying, advertisements, and trade association membership dues.”

Support for this proposal is very balanced across party lines, with 74% of Democrats, 72% of independents, and 69% of Republicans in favor of legislation that would ban utility companies from using customers’ money on political activities.

In this new open-access article, researchers from Yale and George Mason used data from several nationally representative surveys to explore whether five different emotional reactions to climate change (guilt, anger, hope, fear, and sadness) relate to individuals’ support for different types of climate policies.

Interestingly, they find that certain emotions are more strongly linked with support for different types of policies:

Pulling from the article linked above, with emphasis added in bold:

“As a whole, these results are in line with previous research that found that the discrete emotional reactions were linked with discrepant political outcomes in other contexts, such as immigration policy… Thus, this current research furthers our understanding that emotionality, in general, is important for understanding climate policy support, and begins to make the case that understanding the link between specific emotions and support for particular policy outcomes adds to our ability to predict such support.

These findings are relevant to people and organizations seeking to promote greater public support for climate policies. Research on political advertising has demonstrated that emotional political campaigns are more successful at engaging voter turnout than less emotional campaigns, and the same may prove true for generating support for climate policy engagement…. 

As previously shown, emotions are important predictors of policy support and this work indicates that advocates should consider tailoring their emotional appeals based in part on the types of policy options they are promoting–especially if they are seeking to advance one particular type of policy proposal. Thus, for those supporting regulatory options, communicating fear about climate change might be a useful strategy. Similarly, when advocating for personally costly solutions, arousing guilt might resonate with some audiences, especially audiences not predisposed to support climate policies. And when advocating for proactive solutions, messengers could emphasize hope for the future. Finally, for those advocating for general climate policy solutions, fear was the emotion most strongly associated with all types of policy support (compared to the other emotions).”

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