When Republicans take control of Congress next month, top on their agenda will be undoing environmental regulations they claim will harm the economy, chief among them President Barack Obama's plans to limit heat-trapping carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The results of a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Yale University show their priorities may be misplaced.
Six in 10 Americans, including half of all Republicans, said they support regulation of carbon dioxide pollution, although they weren't asked how. Nearly half of Republicans said the U.S. should lead the global fight to curb climate change, even if it means taking action when other countries do not. And majorities across party lines said environmental protections "improve economic growth and provide new jobs" in the long run, a popular Obama administration talking point.
The picture of Republicans that emerges from the poll runs counter to the monolithic view of Republicans in Washington as a global warming-doubting, anti-environmental regulation party keen on attacking Obama's environmental plans. And the results come as the Obama administration continues to forge ahead on its own with aggressive plans on climate change, even if it means going head-to-head with a Republican-controlled Congress that could derail the administration's environmental legacy.
"The American people have made it clear they know climate change is real, and that we can protect the planet and grow the economy at the same time," Frank Benenati, a White House spokesman, said after reviewing the poll results. "Climate deniers in Congress and those who would try to block efforts to address the climate challenge would do well to listen."
Still, climate change itself ranked near the bottom of environmental problems tested in the poll.
"Global warming was second to last among environmental issues. That is all you need to know," said Mike McKenna, a GOP pollster and consultant.
In recent weeks and months, the White House has announced a deal with China to curb the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming and pledged $3 billion to a fund that helps poor countries prepare for climate change, further irking Republicans after a near sweep in the midterm elections.
The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on global warming are real, the poll shows, and stark. A little over a quarter of Republicans believe global warming is an extremely or very serious problem, compared with 64 percent of Democrats. And while nearly three-quarters of Democrats believe global warming is happening, less than half of Republicans do.
"Americans are more concerned about the economy, jobs, and affordable and reliable energy, which is counter to the type of regulations coming out of President Obama's EPA," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement. Inhofe, who has called global warming a hoax and dismisses the opinions of the majority of the world's scientists on global warming, will chair the Senate Environment Committee next year.
"This poll proves that Republicans here in Washington are disconnected from average Republicans across the country," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the current chairwoman of the Senate environment panel. "Anyone with a pulse and a heartbeat — with the exception of Republicans in Congress — knows that climate change is upon us, and we must step up and reduce dangerous carbon pollution."
While issues such as global warming and the Keystone XL oil pipeline are front-burner for politicians, the AP-NORC poll shows that they are not top-line issues for many Americans, even compared with a dozen other environmental concerns.
After the Senate failed to pass a bill approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil to Texas refineries, Republicans vowed to try again next year. But despite protests waged by environmental groups, and the political showdowns on the issue, the new poll shows that half of Americans have no strong opinion on the pipeline — 31 percent favor it, 18 percent oppose it, and the rest are neutral or not sure. A majority of Republicans support it, but Democrats are more ambivalent than opposed.
Obama has said he would base his decision on approving the pipeline on whether it would exacerbate global warming.
Yet relatively few Americans make the connection between fossil fuels, the primary culprit in global warming, and environmental risks. Only a third of people surveyed said they were concerned about coal or oil's environmental risks, suggesting possible support for the Republicans' defense of those industries and an energy production boom overseen by the Obama administration even as it tackles global warming. Even fewer Americans were concerned about the environmental risks posed by natural gas, which is in the midst of a boom thanks to the technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking has been banned in some areas because of concerns over water and air pollution. The EPA is considering whether the practice needs more federal regulation.
The poll also suggests there are limits to Obama's go-it-alone strategy on global warming: 58 percent of Americans say there should be no global treaty, or the Obama administration should only proceed to negotiate one with the Senate's backing.
The AP-NORC Center survey of 1,578 adults was conducted online Nov. 20-Dec. 1, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Funding for the survey comes from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.