Americans aren't willing to pay to stop climate change

Stated belief without skin in the game is meaningless

Politicians use polls as justification for policy decisions. But polls can be misleading and gamed. For instance, if you ask someone if they’re opposed to Obamacare versus the Affordable Care Act, you’ll get different responses.

But even without explicit bias in how the question is worded, stated beliefs are meaningless. Of course most people want affordable health care and care about the environment. To see what people actually believe you have to see what they do when they have a personal stake.

Very few Americans actually believe in climate change

Don’t get me wrong. People say they believe in climate change. Most (67%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Only 38% say that the seriousness of climate change is exaggerated. 58% of people say that it’s a critical issue and another 23% say that it’s important.

Every poll you look at points to the same conclusion: people increasingly say they believe in the existential threat climate change poses and the government is not doing enough.

But one poll question you rarely see ties personal stake to a belief:

Suppose a proposal was on the ballot next year to add a monthly fee to consumers’ monthly electricity bill to combat climate change. If this proposal passes, it would cost your household $10 every month. Would you vote in favor of this monthly fee to combat climate change, or would you vote against this monthly fee?

The question was asked starting with a monthly fee of $1 going up to the highest level of $100. The answers show that most people would make at best modest personal contributions to combat what most consider a serious very issue:

To combat climate change, 57 percent of Americans are willing to pay a $1 monthly fee; 23 percent are willing to pay a monthly fee of $40.

A spreadsheet of the results and pivots can be found here, or the original can be found here under “public use files”.

Note that this is likely an overstatement of people’s willingness to pay. The “how much would you pay for” surveys are almost always biased upwards. For instance, if the surveyor asks how much you would be willing to pay, and then proceeds to offer the participant that exact exchange, a significant portion of people would back out.

And it’s not about the money. These numbers are consistent across income groups. In fact, participants that make more than $150,000 (6% of population) are less likely to pay $40 than the typical participant (60.78% oppose) and the group most likely to be willing to pay $40 a month are those making less than $10,000 (5.6% of population, 55.32% oppose). The group least likely to be willing to pay is the $40,000 - $50,000 income group (9% of population, 66.23% oppose).

Even if you look at responses based on how people replied to the question “[Climate Change] How important are the following issues to you personally?”, you’ll see that of those that answered “extremely important” (27% of population), 24% objected to paying $40 a month extra, while only 53% would not be opposed to paying over $100 a month extra. Pretty small price for an “extremely important” issue. When you move to “very important” (21% of population), 37% of people oppose paying $40 a month.

You see similar results when looking at surveys about gasoline tax:

Regardless of question wording, support is not especially strong. Only 2 of the 35 polls found a majority in favor of a mileage tax, and only 23% had support above 40%

Of course polls being polls, you can phrase the question to get a higher response. In general people support higher taxes, especially if they’re paired with a laudable goal and ideally not affecting them. But when its more direct (e.g. you personally will have to pay X more per month), support quickly fades.

Again, any survey about what someone would theoretically be willing to pay is already a high estimate as to what they would actually be willing to pay if they had to on the spot.

What do people really believe?

People act on their beliefs. Suppose someone states that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but is unwilling to personally part with $40 a month in a hypothetical scenario to mitigate that risk, what do they believe? Can you say someone really believe something if their actions suggest otherwise?

When this is taken into consideration, many of the climate actions by politicians make sense. Plans to phase out gas powered cars in the next 15-20 years are popular, or adherence to various climate protocols and gas mileage minimums. Everything pushed out a decade or so without an explicit price tag for the typical person.

But what you don’t see are any meaningful proposals required to tackle the issue.