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Politics

Biden’s Climate Agenda Is Actually Popular

Whether that will matter in November is another story.

President Biden in wildflowers.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As President Joe Biden prepares to run for re-election, one fact has eluded much notice: His climate change policies are pretty popular.

In an exclusive Heatmap poll of 1,000 Americans conducted by Benenson Strategy Group late last year, most respondents backed the core ideas behind Biden’s climate policies. They expressed the most support of ideas meant to beef up the country’s manufacturing economy and build more renewable electricity.

Nearly 90% of Americans, for instance, support encouraging domestic manufacturing. They also support using tax incentives to make homes more energy efficient (85%), funding research into carbon dioxide removal (81%), investing in public transit (80%), and implementing policies that address environmental injustices (78%).

That is despite the overwhelming public disappointment in Biden. Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 37%, an all-time low of his presidency, despite his boisterous State of the Union performance. At first glance, Biden’s climate policy might seem to pose a paradox: It’s really popular (at least facially), but nobody has seemed to notice. That may persist through the November election. But it will not be able to last for too long after that.

The least popular policies are those that Biden has pursued only when he has bipartisan support — or that he has not pursued at all. Making it easier to build new fossil fuel pipelines, for instance, is supported by 62% of Americans, less than almost any other policy aimed at increasing the country’s energy supply. A slight majority of Americans support making it easier to build new nuclear power plants.

The public generally supports climate policy

At first I doubted the veracity of these results — some of Biden’s policies are, after all, putting up autocrat-like ratings. A carbon tax is polling 52 points above water.

But these results largely match other polling. Surveys reliably find that about two-thirds of Americans would support some kind of carbon tax. Last year, for instance, 68%of Americans backed “requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax,” according to a Yale poll. These numbers have been remarkably stable over time. As much as 67% of Americans backed a carbon tax in 2019, according to a poll from the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center on Public Affairs Research.

If these numbers surprise you, you’re not alone. Most Americans underestimate public support for pro-climate policies. (Or at least, they underestimate what polling finds about Americans’ support for climate policies.)

The rub is that public support descends to more Earthly levels once you start asking about concrete costs. Those who say they support a carbon tax when told it will be imposed on fossil fuel companies, for instance, may change their minds after fossil fuel companies pass that tax along as higher prices. Another University of Chicago poll found that most Americans were okay paying a monthly fee of $1 to fight climate change. When asked if they’d pay $40 a month, support fell to 23%.

Climate policy is hard to pass

One of the more ironic aspects of Biden’s success is how rapidly commentators have forgotten that climate change policy used to be seen as uniquely difficult to legislate in the United States. In 1993, and then again in 2010, the House of Representatives passed bills that would have helped fight climate change. Each time, the Senate blocked the legislation. The Senate also effectively blocked the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international climate treaty, in the 1990s.

Through the decades, Congress passed energy bills meant to expand the energy supply in an all-of-the-above way and changed the tax code to let people and companies save money by building solar or wind energy. But these policies expired every few years, and they failed to amount to a unified climate strategy.

Other countries with other forms of government — China, the United Kingdom, the European Union member states — didn’t have this problem. (Which doesn’t mean that they’ve been perfect on climate change.) America’s failure to pass climate policy became a singular indictment of its bicameral system.

Why was it so hard to pass climate policy? The short answer is that for years, climate advocates focused on one particular policy — carbon pricing — as a cure-all solution to climate change. And while carbon pricing is backed up by economic theory, environmentalists and economists struggled to generate the kind of durable, veto-proof support that legislation needs to pass in today’s environment.

By design, carbon pricing raises the cost of energy — meaning that opponents can paint it as a measure meant to increase the cost of living. That didn’t work for voters in the persistently sluggish economy of the 2010s, and it split Democrats’ coalition — of college-educated liberals and lower-income workers — in half. (It also struggled to deal with the political mise en scene. Washington’s interest in climate policy has usually peaked during moments of high energy prices, but the past decade’s fracking boom kept a lid on oil and natural gas prices.)

But climate advocates also struggled for years against more political-economic obstacles. As the political scientist Matto Mildenberger documented, climate proposals have historically invited pro-business groups and labor unions to team up and fight a common enemy. Because climate policy targeted entire industries at once — and because these industries were, naturally, especially sensitive to wholesale energy prices — environmentalists had to take on labor and management at the same time.

It didn’t help that many of the industries concerned had a special claim to Democrats’ sensibilities. Until recently, many of the sectors most affected by climate policy were unionized at a higher rate than the average. Even today, more than 20% of utility workers belong to a union, for example, as compared to 6% of workers in the private sector. These rates were even higher in the recent past. About 16% of automaking workers are represented by unions today, but union membership stood at 60% within living memory. Even in 2010, about one in 10 American workers in the mining, quarrying, and fossil-fuel extraction industries were represented by a union, which was also above the national rate at the time.

Democrats dealt with these problems by abandoning most broad-scale attempts to tax fossil fuels. During the Trump administration, progressives chose to focus instead on using industrial policy and regulations to rein in carbon-intensive sectors — instead of raising the cost of fossil fuels, perhaps a climate law could lower the cost of clean alternatives. And instead of raising energy prices — thereby annoying voters and discouraging high-profile industries — perhaps policy could lower them. Hence the Inflation Reduction Act.

This approach succeeded! And yet many of the IRA’s policies have struggled to attract public attention. Even though the IRA is Biden’s signature legislative achievement — comparable to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — Biden has largely avoided the specific backlash that greeted that law. Obamacare was about 10 points underwater in 2010, even as Obama himself was about as popular as he was unpopular. Biden, by contrast, is incredibly disliked — he is now 17 points underwater, a nadir for his presidency — yet the IRA’s core ideas remain well-liked.

That is politically inconvenient for Biden and it raises difficult long-term questions for progressives. Biden and Democrats have seemingly given voters what they want — and it’s not clear that the voters care.

This is a long-term policy problem for Donald Trump

But for the would-be Grover Cleveland to Biden's Benjamin Harrison, it might be more of a problem. If elected, Trump has promised to repeal parts of the Inflation Reduction Act. His rhetoric on climate change hasn’t really changed since the 2016 election, when he argued that it was “job-killing.” Meanwhile, he hates electric vehicles, claiming that “they don’t go far, they cost too much, and they’re all going to be made in China.”

Yet it’s the electric vehicles made in America that are going to get him. If Trump repeals the IRA’s subsidies, then domestic manufacturing will suffer. The EV industry has created roughly 70,000 jobs over the past three years, and many of those roles are in electorally decisive states, including Georgia and Michigan. Trump has promised to act as a “Day One dictator,” but even then, he will still be at least partly constrained by the desires and interests of the local and state-level Republicans who support him — and they will need those jobs and investment to continue.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that these policies will produce political support. In Texas, an explosion of renewable construction has led not to surging public support for clean energy, but to a state-led “war” on wind and solar. (That said, renewables don’t generate local jobs and economic activity in the same long-term way that factories do.) Yet these policies don’t ever have to be popular to be durable — in part because voters won’t organize around them until they’re threatened. Biden’s climate policies — no matter how popular — will probably never win him reelection. But they could very well protect his legacy long after he’s gone.

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Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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