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Politics

Americans Still Don’t Know Much About Biden’s Climate Law. That Spells Trouble.

Republicans seem intent on making the Inflation Reduction Act an electoral issue.

A Republican making redactions to the IRA.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If Republicans repeal parts of a climate law that nobody knew about, did they ever exist?

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled House passed the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” which would not only accelerate fossil fuel projects but also take a blade to a few key provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. As legislation, the Republican bill is “dead on arrival” in the Senate and stands almost no chance of being passed into law. But it should still be a wakeup call that America’s historic piece of climate legislation isn’t entirely safe.

The stakes are amplified by the fact that while the Inflation Reduction Act is fairly popular on the surface, the public is still pretty clueless about it.

In December, the Yale Program on Climate Communications found that when people were provided with a brief description of the new law, about two in three registered voters, or 68%, said they supported it. That included 66% of those who identified as “liberal” or “moderate” Republicans. But the same poll found that 57% of voters hadn’t heard much about the legislation. That still seems to be the case, as the Heatmap Climate Poll, conducted in February by Benenson Strategy Group, found that some 63% of Americans have heard “not much” or “nothing” about what is contained in the Inflation Reduction Act. I can also personally confirm that no one seems to know what the hell it is by the blank stares I receive whenever people ask me what I’ve been writing about recently.

Though Biden‘s stance on climate policy was a major draw for votersduring the election, 53% of Democrats and 73% of independents reported not hearing much about his signature climate package, per the Heatmap poll.

Provisions like the electric vehicle tax credit, which has been grabbing headlines for months, are somehow failing to appear on many people’s radar. Even 62% of people who said they "wanted to drive an electric vehicle in the future" also reported that they didn't know much about the IRA, and 45% of all respondents reported they weren't aware of the tax credit until taking Heatmap's survey.

It’s not exactly a surprise that people don’t know the ins and outs of a 700-plus page mega-bill that went by several different names over the course of more than a year of grueling, will-they-or-won’t-they-pass it negotiations. The fact that the biggest climate and clean energy package in history is called “The Inflation Reduction Act” doesn’t help, either.

It’s clear that once people learn about what’s in it, those provisions will be popular, said Jamal Raad, co-founder and senior advisor for Evergreen Action, a climate policy advocacy group. Indeed, the Yale survey found that when asked if they support government subsidies for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and home energy efficiency, most Americans said yes. “The challenge of the movement and the administration and others is to tell the story of the clean energy future we’re building. The polling suggests that that work still lies ahead of us,” said Raad.

To be clear, the Republican bill doesn’t entirely repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. It would eliminate a fee on methane emissions and a $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, much of which is dedicated to spurring renewable energy projects in low-income communities. A section titled “Homeowner Energy Freedom” contains provisions that would cut rebates and contractor training for installing energy efficient, electric appliances like heat pumps and induction stoves.

There was already a question about whether some of these programs would actually reach the public, as they rely on states to apply for the funding and distribute it. “There’s a risk of Republican governors deciding they’re not going to take advantage of projects or programs,” said Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way. He said it was a problem that advocates like himself need to think through. “How do we communicate to voters that the decisions that governors are making are literally hurting their pockets?”

It also won’t help that navigating the web of tax credits and rebates has already been a challenge for consumers. On Friday, the Treasury Department unveiled new rules for the electric vehicle tax credit that will probably dramatically scale back which models qualify, at least in the short term. Some homeowners eager to take advantage of rebates to replace their boilers and water heaters with electric versions have come up against skeptical contractors who barely understand how the rebates work themselves.

Still, Raad thinks the public will begin to feel the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act soon enough, due to the nature of some of the other provisions, like federal tax credits for wind and solar farms and domestic manufacturing. “You will see major investment in rural and Republican areas just due to the nature of where clean energy is. So the tax credits are a pretty decent check on these funds being distributed pretty much across the country,” he said.

At least so far, those tax credits don’t appear to be on Republicans’ short list to nix. To Raad, the House energy package that passed this week was more about appealing to Republican donors in the fossil fuel industry, who want support for more drilling, than riling up the conservative base. But some members of Congress have indicated it’s just the beginning of a push for full repeal.

“They’re gonna have to try to point to some things that they’re doing to govern, and energy seems to be one of those things that they have enough agreement on that they can actually introduce legislation,” said Freed. “Whether there's a broader appeal to the public than Republican primary voters is a very big question. But I think they’re gonna keep going after it.”

The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted via online panels by Benenson Strategy Group from Feb. 15 to 20, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. You can read more about the topline results here.

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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