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What climate policies do Americans want from their legislatures?

After West Virginia v. EPA, legislators can draw on this research as they craft responses

- July 5, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia v. EPA last week seriously limits executive power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reversing decades of judicial deference to the expertise of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the court promoted an alternative “Major Questions” doctrine — concluding that federal government agencies have limited discretion to act on matters of “vast economic and political significance.”

In this case, the court curtailed the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. The reason? The court ruled that previous EPA regulations exceeded the authority provided to the agency under the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Last week’s decision puts more responsibility on federal and state legislatures to enact new climate policies. If Congress or state legislatures seek to fill this gap, they can draw on an active body of research from political scientists and policy scholars about the most effective policy designs and messages to make climate policies more politically viable. Despite disagreement over some details, one point is clear from this work: Proposed climate policy measures succeed better when they provide clear and tangible benefits for the public.

Carbon pricing isn’t the issue

The use of a “price on pollution” approach has become a leading conflict in the debate over climate politics. Some experts argue that these “price-based” policies, like a carbon tax or emissions trading, are more likely to spark economic objections about higher energy prices, making them less politically viable than traditional regulatory approaches. Numerous studies confirm that arguments about economic effects are especially prominent in climate change politics.

New research, however, suggests that economic arguments can appear just as frequently for traditional regulatory policies as they do for price-based strategies, calling this critique of pricing into question. For example, our new study shows that economic arguments were equally dominant in two recent climate policy debates: Virginia and Ontario, Canada. During the 2020 passage of Virginia’s Clean Economy Act, which took a regulatory approach, nearly 75 percent of the opposing arguments were economic, focused on higher energy prices and taxpayer impacts.

That’s nearly identical to the frequency of economic arguments attacking Ontario’s 2016 price-based policy. The prevalence of economic criticisms of regulatory policies is consistent with the long history of attacks on older U.S. environmental policies for allegedly being too costly. These attacks have targeted, for instance, the Clean Air Act (as advanced by the plaintiffs in the West Virginia case) and the Clean Water Act.

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Economic benefits are vital

The research suggests that legislative solutions for any type of climate policy that deliver clear and immediate benefits to the public may prove more effective. That’s especially true when legislation addresses concerns related to energy prices as well as public health.

This strategy was critical to the political success of long-running price-based climate policies like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeastern United States that is now adding new states to its original group of adopters. By dedicating the majority of revenue from the price of carbon pollution to helping homeowners reduce their energy consumption and costs, this initiative built a great deal of political support. Other price-based policies have had similar political experiences. Conversely, Ontario’s effort failed, after pushback that legislators had ignored public concerns about energy costs.

At the same time, research indicates that tangible economic benefits for the public also increase the popularity of non-price-based approaches like the Green New Deal. Support for mandates and public investment policies to increase renewable energy production increases when combined with tangible economic benefits like new jobs, higher wages or better housing opportunities.

Local air quality is important

Surprisingly, another critical consideration for any climate policy appears to be improvements in local air quality. Climate change experts tend to describe emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other “air toxics” as “co-pollutants” associated with greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. But these co-pollutants are often key the politics of environmental policy.

States like California have only been able to extend their ambitious climate policy goals through a growing emphasis on reducing air toxics, especially for disadvantaged communities often subject to higher levels of local air pollution. The research shows this trend toward greater consideration of local air quality improvements in climate policy has spread to other jurisdictions and is another important tangible benefit that politically successful climate legislation is likely to require.

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Public benefits may be the key to successful climate legislation

Thus, there’s surprising agreement on what drives greater political support for climate legislation. Voters appear more likely to support legislation that delivers tangible and immediate benefits to the public.

Legislators who want to act on climate change after the recent Supreme Court decision may wish to keep this principle of public benefits in mind — rather than being distracted by arguments over whether to use a price-based policy in seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Leigh Raymond, a professor of political science at Purdue University, is the author of “Reclaiming the Atmospheric Commons: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a New Model of Emissions Trading” (MIT Press, 2016).