Michigan News release: In climate policy, Americans want states to pick up federal slack

June 9, 2017

A majority of Americans across the political spectrum believe states are responsible for addressing climate change in the absence of federal policy, according to a new survey by University of Michigan researchers.

The National Surveys on Energy and Environment track public opinion on climate change and energy policy. This update gives a snapshot from this spring—after President Trump began eliminating former President Obama's Clean Power Plan, and just before Trump's June announcement to withdraw from the international Paris climate agreement.

"Prior to the Obama administration, the states were really driving climate policy, and Americans say if the federal government doesn't want to act on climate anymore, then states should be back in the driver's seat," said Sarah Mills, a research fellow at the U-M Ford School of Public Policy and co-author of the study. "States are where we have historically made progress and where we can continue to make progress in the future."

Mills says there's strong support from all political parties for specific policy steps states have taken in the past—and not just among those who believe in climate change.

Among the report's key findings:

  • 66 percent of respondents agree with the statement: "If the federal government fails to address the issue of global warming, it is my state's responsibility to address the problem." This is up from 48 percent the last time this question was asked in 2013.
  • 77 percent of Democrats say they believe it is their state's responsibility to address global warming, a 20-point jump from 57 percent in 2013. And 51 percent of Republicans now also agree that states should act, up from just 34 percent four years ago.
  • 81 percent of respondents support efficiency mandates and 79 percent support "renewable portfolio standards," which require that a set portion of electricity come from renewable sources. These are both established state-level policy options that can reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector. Twenty-nine states have renewable portfolio standards, and in 2013 alone, they reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • 89 percent support increasing the use of solar energy and 83 percent favor the use of wind energy at the state level outside of the context of a mandate. Republicans in particular, while slightly more inclined to oppose a renewable energy mandate, show very strong support for increasing wind and solar use by other means.
  • 74 percent of Americans who don't believe there is evidence that Earth is warming support adding more solar energy in their state, and 67 percent support adding more wind energy.
  • A majority of Americans—including those who do not think climate change is happening—say that solar and wind energy create jobs.

"As President Trump was announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Accord, a number of governors—and mayors—reaffirmed their commitment to reducing carbon emissions, pledging deep cuts within their boundaries and proposing more inter-state collaboration," said Barry Rabe, U-M professor of public policy and director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. "Our data suggest that these state-level pledges match the expectations of a majority of Americans.

"While it is still unclear what specific policies states will seek to uphold their pledges, our data finds the suite of policy options that have previously formed the backbone of state climate policy are likely to enjoy broad-based public support across the political spectrum, even among those who don't necessarily think that climate change is occurring."

The spring 2017 NSEE surveyed 841 adult residents of the United States between April 17 and May 16. The survey is a joint effort of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at U-M's Ford School of Public Policy and the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.

Rabe's book, "Statehouse and Greenhouse: The Emerging Politics of American Climate Change Policy," recently won a best book award from the American Political Science Association for its long term impact. The book explores state-level policies and programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rabe's forthcoming book will explore how durable those policies have been and what characteristics successful ones share.

For more information, contact:

  • Barry Rabe, professor at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy; director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Initiative and the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy; author of Statehouse and Greenhouse (Brookings). 
  • Sarah Mills, postdoctoral fellow with the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Energy and Environmental Policy Initiative, and the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy
  • Full report: Strong Public Support for State-level Policies to Address Climate Change

Michigan News release by Nicole Casal Moore, senior public relations representative.