"The Climate of Belief"

April 22, 2010

A conversation with Professor Barry G. Rabe, the first social scientist ever awarded the prestigious Annual Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

States and regions have quietly emerged as hotbeds of innovation and experimentation for policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases. Much of Professor Barry Rabe's recent research has chronicled that phenomenon, exploring how and why state efforts have outstripped those of the national government.

But for the past several years Rabe, a professor of public policy at the Ford School and a professor of the environment in LSA, has become increasingly interested in what the American public thinks—and in what elected officials can do with (and about) public opinion.

In 2006, Rabe struck up a collaboration with another political scientist, Christopher Borick, who directs the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. With funding support from the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, they launched a national poll to gauge American public opinion on climate change.

Dubbed the "Muhlenberg-Michigan Survey," the annual poll joins a host of other national surveys on belief in climate change. But unlike other efforts, Rabe and Borick also query respondents about their support for specific policy options and about which levels of government should be held responsible for actions on climate change.

Their latest findings, issued in January from the Brookings Institution, indicate a downward shift over the past year in both belief about whether global climate change is occurring and in identification of it as a serious problem. The decline in belief was pronounced among self-identified independents, where the percentage of believers fell from 74% to 61%. And even among believers, the percentage deeming global warming a "serious" problem fell from 60% to 51%.

Why the decline, after decades of steady increase in belief about the hazards posed by global climate change? Rabe cites several factors that might be pushing the needle. First, he mentions two recent controversies: the serious errors found in a seminal report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and 'Climate-gate,' the leaked emails among prominent scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. The emails reveal the scientists’ efforts to stall publication of work by climate change detractors. It’s not entirely clear that data was destroyed or findings manipulated, but the scandals opened a door for skeptics.

Second, Rabe points out that the active policy debates over the past year—Copenhagen, wrangling in Congress over federal legislation, the EPA designation of carbon dioxide as an air pollutant, and more—took place against a backdrop of deep economic crisis and uncertainty. "We know that when unemployment goes up, support for environmental initiatives goes down."

Finally, Rabe cites a challenge intrinsic to climate change—that it "represents a truly intergenerational problem, where we are asked to make decisions now for the benefit of future generations." The longest of long views is required, and yet many people still draw conclusions based on their own immediate personal experiences. Rabe points outside his office window, where a late-February snowstorm has blanketed Ann Arbor and exasperated residents. "All jokes aside, the snow is not a trivial factor!" he laughs. "People to a large degree come to view this issue through what they see around them. So after events like droughts, or hurricanes, for example, we see a spike in concern about climate change." The last few years have been more temperate in much of the United States, and that may have impacted belief.

So if the public’s view on climate change can be influenced by what’s in the news or just outside their windows, what can serious, well-intentioned elected officials do to lead?

Rabe, who has consulted with public officials at the state, federal, and international levels, encourages policymakers to think big. To the extent possible, leaders should try to weave environmental policy into the conversation about longer term issues and challenges—taxation systems, funding for entitlement programs, energy mix, and job creation—to package those factors together "rather than getting into a political food fight over whether a lot of snow signifies that climate change is or is not happening."

That issue of framing is one where Rabe believes political scientists can usefully contribute to climate change policy, a field so far mostly informed by the natural and physical sciences and by economics. Political scientists can help think about how elected leaders can frame difficult climate issues for the public, how they might make a viable political case for good environmental policy.

For example, many experts on the economics of climate change doubt whether any real improvement is possible if we don’t price the carbon content of fuels. "But that’s a very tough issue for the public," notes Rabe, because whether the policy is a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme that auctions allowances, the price of energy will rise. "Our survey, like others, indicates that by an overwhelming margin, Americans prefer regulatory policies where they can’t directly see the costs." (Consider the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, for example: we pay more for cars but the cost is out of plain sight.)

So if you ask the public, "do you support higher taxes on gasoline?" the answer is mostly, "no." But when policymakers broaden the conversation to encompass what might be done with revenues from gas taxes, the picture shifts. Alaska, for example, instituted an aggressive tax program on energy—a controversial move for a state dependent on the oil industry. That tax netted an estimated $6 billion dollars the first year alone. It may have increased fuel prices, but every citizen receives a hefty share of the revenue at year’s end and the policy remains very popular.

Rabe sees little hope that any significant, sound climate change legislation will emerge from the current U.S. Congress, where progress has bogged down in the Senate. In March 2009, the Obama administration proposed a national carbon cap-and-trade system, with 100% auctioning of carbon permits. The Office of Management and Budget touted a windfall of projected revenues. But when the pushback began from a number of opposition groups, talk of revenues receded. "And that’s when the sausage-making began," Rabe notes, "The proposals became incredibly complicated very quickly as legislators tried to determine what elements were needed to secure votes from specific politicians from specific districts."

The stalled federal efforts highlight an advantage states or even regions have: smaller jurisdictions can tailor policies to their own economies, strengths, and politics. They can keep environmental initiatives relatively simple, set more modest targets, and craft governance structures that work in their particular contexts.

So who is doing things well? Are there places where sound science is being heard, politicians are framing the issues well, and citizens are particularly well-informed? Barry’s answer is an enthusiastic "yes." Here in the U.S., fully twenty-nine states have adopted renewable electricity mandates and twenty-three have made progress toward implementation of carbon cap-and-trade programs. He edited a forthcoming book from Brookings Press, Greenhouse Governance: Addressing Climate Change in America, that examines some of those successes:


  • Ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a mandatory carbon cap-and-trade regime with a market-based auctioning mechanism. Launched in 2005, RGGI completed its seventh auction in March, netting $88 million dollars—revenue that the states have pledged toward renewable energy initiatives.
  • In 2008, British Columbia introduced a consumer-based carbon tax, the first such attempt in North America. How was the legislation made politically palatable? The revenue flows back to consumers as payroll tax cuts. A centrist government put the initiative forward, took tremendous opposition from the left as a result, but won re-election.
  • Texas remains the gold standard for enactment of renewable electricity mandates. Lawmakers there designed "a clean, transparent, straightforward policy," notes Rabe. As a result, the state has achieved a fourfold increase in energy derived from wind power over the past ten years.

"There are lots of positive lessons not just in North America, but also Europe, Australia, and a number of other places," Rabe says. "This offers a real-world policy laboratory, filled with potential best practices as well as lessons on what does not work."

Indeed, state and regional experiments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions offer cautionary tales as well. Where things have worked poorly, the policy design or implementation is often to blame, Rabe notes. In California, for example, lawmakers set extremely ambitious goals, pledging to make the state a global leader in carbon reduction. But in the rush to finish the legislation before the 2006 election, a very ambitious bill was enacted. Without adequate planning, funding, or staffing, the program has struggled and faces possible repeal.

Here at the Ford School, Rabe teaches an undergraduate capstone seminar, a core course on public management, and a graduate class on the politics of environmental regulation that draws students from up to eight schools across campus. He is a vocal booster of the University’s interdisciplinarity. With primary appointments at the Ford School and LSA, Rabe maintains close connections with faculty and students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the School of Public Health, and others, as well as with natural and physical scientists working on energy and climate issues.

Already a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, just this month Rabe was also named a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). NAPA fellows—experts from the public, academic, and private sectors—work to solve complex management problems for the federal government. His first assignment will be on a group commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The government plans to consolidate all federal climate change data collection and analysis under a single, new agency within NOAA; Rabe and his colleagues will make recommendations for the design of that new agency. That experience and others will serve the school’s MPP curriculum review efforts over the next year as Rabe will play an active role in the group examining the public management component.

Asked to speculate about prospects for a major international accord on climate change, Rabe answers, "I think we’re a long way from that." What’s likely to continue emerging instead, he says, are bits and pieces of strategy and initiatives that different regions and nations patch together. But he’s cautiously optimistic about the results of those efforts. And he believes that governmental revenue challenges may contain an important silver lining for the environment. "Governments may begin to look seriously at pricing energy not just or even primarily to reduce carbon emissions but as a revenue source," he says. "For a bunch of reasons, it might be more desirable to generate revenue from pollution rather than from labor or property."

Read the latest findings from the Muhlenberg-Michigan Survey. Barry Rabe’s edited volume, Greenhouse Governance: Addressing Climate Change in America, will be published by Brookings Institution Press in August 2010.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2010 State & Hill here.