On Earth Day this year the Biden administration revealed a carbon management plan that would reduce carbon emissions by 1.5-2.4 billion tons by 2030. Democrats supported the plan while Republicans opposed it. This division echoes a sentiment on climate change that was palpable in the most recent election. Whether climate change is a real phenomenon or not no longer prevails as the major issue, instead the cause of climate change and how to address the problem stand as points of disagreement.
A survey conducted by the Hobby School of Public Affairs and UH Energy at the University of Houston during the 2020 presidential election found a similarity across party lines: the cost of addressing climate change may be too high to the average consumer or in many cases the cost is unknown. The survey was fielded from Oct. 12-22, 2020 and included 1,000 individuals from all 50 states and the District of Colombia. Another 500 applicants from Texas were surveyed for a total sample size of 1,500 voters.
“A majority of both Republicans and Democrats, even if they are concerned with climate change, are not willing to entertain high fuel costs,” said Pablo Pinto, survey co-author, associate professor and director of the Center for Public Policy at the Hobby School of Public Affairs and UH Energy fellow at the University of Houston. “They are willing to support the development and adoption of technologies and pay for the energy transition if it results in a low cost to them.”
About 81% of Donald Trump voters and about 40% of Joe Biden voters said initially that they were not interested in carbon-neutral fuels, according to the survey. By contrast, when presented with a currently estimated price point of $1.70 per gallon increase in gasoline for carbon-net neutral fuel, 49.8% of Trump voters and 70.1% of Biden voters felt the price hike was either affordable, offered good value or was affordable but expensive.
Amidst the price tag challenge, a silver lining emerged. An overwhelming majority amongst Trump and Biden voters included a willingness to pay for methane emission reduction.
“Methane on a 100-year timescale is about 20-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas,” said Aparajita Datta, co-author and research scholar with UH Energy at the University of Houston.
“Globally the agricultural sector contributes the bulk of those methane emissions, but in the US, it is reversed and the oil and gas industry makes up about 41% of the country’s total methane emissions. It is a low-hanging fruit in terms of cost, so if the public is willing to support it, we are at the right time to have more flaring and venting regulations.”
Another similarity across voters regardless of party alignment manifested in a general lack of understanding about policies for combating climate change. Voters for Trump and Biden both voiced concern for climate change and support carbon management adoption, but more granular knowledge regarding methods for reducing carbon emissions and the associated costs leaves room for educating the public further on what options are available.
Major energy suppliers like ExxonMobil and BP, among several others, release sustainability reports annually that detail their investments in renewable energy and efforts to comply with an energy transition that aims at reducing carbon emissions to net zero by at least 2050. Still, it appears the average voter remains unfamiliar with the process of combating climate change, and that perhaps by further educating the public on these matters more bipartisan support could be possible.
“A theme in neutral responses for either Trump or Biden supporters, where people did not have strong feelings one way or the other, may signify possibilities for bipartisan agreement, such as the role of government in supporting and subsidizing carbon management and the role of oil and gas companies in the energy transition,” said contributing author Gail Buttorff, co-director of the Survey Research Institute at the Hobby School of Public Affairs.
Voters did attribute responsibility for climate change to the governments of developed and developing countries, as well as to the energy industry. Moreover, 70.4% of Biden voters and 54% of Trump voters agree or remain neutral that energy companies can remain profitable and create new jobs if they invest in carbon management. Over half of Trump voters agree or remain neutral that the government should promote, incentivize and subsidize carbon management, along with nearly 90% of Biden voters.
So, perhaps a bipartisan pathway forward on climate change is three-pronged, according to the survey: Mitigating costs in the energy transition, addressing low-hanging fruit options like regulating methane emissions and providing more education to the public on energy transition options. Additionally, according to voters, acting stakeholders of change ought to include not only the government but the energy industry too.