Five Radical Climate Policies That Most Americans Actually Like

Most registered voters are in favor of spending trillions on weatherized buildings and renewable-energy infrastructure.

Young people protest outside the San Francisco Federal Building during a Climate Strike march.
Young people protest outside the San Francisco Federal Building during a Climate Strike march. (Kate Munsch / Reuters)

For the first time in years—and maybe ever—Democrats are getting ambitious about climate change. Several presidential candidates have proposed $1 trillion plans that variously nudge, cajole, and force the economy to reduce carbon pollution. The largest plan, from Senator Bernie Sanders, calls for $16.3 trillion in public investment over 10 years, which would be the biggest economic stimulus package since the New Deal.

These plans confront a confusing array of public views. Voters are more worried about climate change than ever before, but they also seem to dislike the Democratic Party’s move to the left. So how do voters feel about this new set of progressive policies?

A new survey finds: They like it. At least five aggressive and left-wing climate policies are supported by most registered voters in the United States. Americans seem particularly fond of large spending packages, as Sanders has advanced, and climate policies with a populist bent, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed climate import fee and her “economic patriotism” plan.

The poll was conducted by YouGov Blue and Data for Progress, a liberal think tank. While I try to avoid explicitly ideological surveys, I trust this data because YouGov is a reputable, nonpartisan firm that also conducts polls for CBS News and The Economist.

Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, also told me that the poll’s findings are in line with other research. “Climate policy is very popular,” she said. “If you highlight the cost, it’s less popular. If you highlight new taxes, it’s less popular. But if you highlight job creation or the air-pollution benefits, it’s more popular.”

She added that many climate policies are especially favored now because the public tends to take views opposite those of the sitting president, a concept known as thermostatic public opinion. “With Trump being president, you’re going to find people want more environmental protection now than when Obama was in power,” she said.

These results also align with those of conservative-leaning surveys. The American Action Network, an advocacy group tied to the House GOP, recently asked Americans in 30 congressional districts—including 12 “battleground” districts and 10 Donald Trump–supporting districts—if they liked the idea of a Green New Deal that would move the United States “from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy.”

Shockingly, the idea was more popular than not, with 48 percent of respondents in support and 7 percent undecided. Only when pollsters told people that a Green New Deal could cost $93 trillion did support for the idea collapse. But according to the GOP group’s own math, a Green New Deal that focused only on climate change could cost only $13 trillion.

Results from the new YouGov Blue/Data for Progress poll find majority support for spending along those lines, though the poll never uses the term Green New Deal. Here are the five climate policies with the most support:

1. A national recycling program for commodities

During World War II, the federal government encouraged Americans to save and pool commodities—including paper, steel, and rubber—so that they could be recycled and turned into new ships, planes, and guns. Sanders proposes launching a similar program today for clean energy. It would seek to reduce the cost and blunt the environmental impact of the huge build-out of wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries that he proposes.

The idea is overwhelmingly popular, with 64 percent of registered voters in support and only 16 percent opposed. Americans of every race, age, and religion overwhelmingly support the idea. So do six in 10 white men, and a majority of self-described born-again Christians.

Data for Progress/YouGov

2. $1.3 trillion to weatherize every home and office building in the United States

At least three different Democratic climate plans—proposed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, Governor Jay Inslee (whose plan has been largely adopted by Warren), and Sanders—have promised to boost federal spending on weatherizing homes and buildings. Sanders’s plan calls for more than $2 trillion in grants to help families improve their home’s energy efficiency.

The idea is very popular. Six in 10 voters support spending more than $1 trillion “to weatherize homes and buildings to make them more energy-efficient and reduce energy bills.” A smaller majority of voters older than 65 also support the proposal.

Data for Progress/YouGov

3. $1.5 trillion for a massive federal build-out of renewable energy

Sanders promises to build out enough wind, solar, and geothermal energy to power every home and business in the United States by 2030. Such a plan would cost $1.5 trillion, he says, and it would be possible to execute under the existing legal powers of the Energy Department.

While the poll didn’t ask Americans if they would support that legal maneuver, a large majority of voters said they were ready to foot the bill for the plan. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would strongly or somewhat support $1.5 trillion in federal spending to build out renewables. Among white voters without a college degree—a group that normally breaks Republican—the idea found 52 percent in support.

Data for Progress/YouGov

4. A climate adjustment fee on environmentally destructive imports

Warren has proposed imposing a “border carbon adjustment” on imports that require high levels of carbon emissions. This policy could help American climate policy from “offshoring” carbon pollution into China and India, supporters say, and it would encourage American cement- and steelmakers to invest in greener ways to make their products.

For now, at least, Americans love the idea. Sixty percent of respondents strongly or somewhat supported the idea, while only 23 percent opposed it. (About one in five Americans still aren’t sure what to think.)

But among working-class voters, the idea was one of the most popular proposed. Fifty-five percent of people without a college degree liked the idea, a level of support that did not change across white and nonwhite respondents. Voters from families making less than $60,000 a year also supported the idea at about that level.

5. “Economic Nationalism for Climate Change”

This summer, Warren announced her plan for “economic patriotism,” a policy agenda that actively aims to boost American jobs and industry. Its first plank is a green-manufacturing scheme that pledges $2 trillion over the next 10 years. In short, Warren seeks to revive industrial policy.

This poll asked about “economic nationalism,” which it described as a plan to “aggressively encourage large American manufacturing firms to specialize in solar panels, wind turbines, and other climate-friendly technologies.”

The proposal commanded majority support, with 53 percent overall in support and 30 percent in opposition. It also won a majority of voters who said they lived in a suburb or rural area. Among white voters without a college degree, the idea was above water at 46 percent and an eight-point support gap.

But 15 percent of that group said they weren’t sure what to think of the proposal. That may suggest that the group could reject it overall if Republican leaders turn against it. Or perhaps not: Among deeply Republican segments of the electorate—such as white, self-identified born-again Christians—the idea is already 20 points underwater.

Data for Progress/YouGov

Not every idea was so popular.

Sanders has proposed to fund his $16.3 trillion Green New Deal “by imposing new taxes, fees, and lawsuits on fossil-fuel companies.” Forty-three percent of voters approved that idea, making it more popular than unpopular. But nearly a third of respondents “strongly opposed” it, suggesting that any backlash could be widely and deeply felt.

Stokes wondered if voters were responding primarily to the “taxes” line in Sanders’s pitch. In a recent poll she ran with other researchers, funding climate policy through lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies was one of the most popular options.

Electric-vehicle policy seems particularly tricky. In his plan, Sanders proposes a $2 trillion grant program for low- and middle-income families to buy new electric cars. Yet nearly half of voters oppose that idea outright. A majority of voters also reject Sanders’s proposal to end the sale of gas-burning cars by 2030. That plan attracts the special ire of white voters, 42 percent of whom “strongly oppose” it. Warren, Senator Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all proposed similarly timed bans.

The only other proposal opposed by a majority of voters was a plan to nationalize and shut down fossil-fuel companies such as Exxon while making sure workers “laid off by this closure would be fairly compensated.” No Democratic candidate has supported this idea, but it is a goal of some activists and researchers on the American far left.

Finally, YouGov and Data for Progress polled the popularity of a carbon tax of $100 a ton. Carbon prices are widely seen as a possible centrist solution to climate change. They win the support of most mainstream economists. As such, there is plenty of good polling on them. It shows that a majority of Americans often, but not always, support the general idea of a carbon price.

But this poll aimed to explore more radical policies, so it asked about a $100-a-ton carbon price. This is very, very high. Only two countries, Sweden and Switzerland, levy carbon taxes of at least $100 a ton. In the United States, state-level carbon prices range from $5 to $15 a ton. The Climate Leadership Council, a bipartisan advocacy group backed by major oil companies, endorses a federal carbon price of $40 a ton.

Yet such a high price may find some support in climate science. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that carbon prices might need to start at $135 a ton—and then keep rising—to keep global temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But there isn’t yet public support for that kind of policy. Nearly half of voters, 47 percent, oppose such a high price, according to the poll. The 38 percent of voters who support the policy in any way is only moderately larger than the 33 percent of voters who say they “strongly oppose” it. The one bright spot for supporters: About 15 percent of respondents were not sure.

All respondents were told that the $100 carbon tax could increase gas prices by about 88 cents a gallon, an estimate based on data from Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank.