Majority of Americans Wants Climate Action, Survey Finds
For the past ten years, the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College have asked Americans their opinions on energy and climate policies in biannual National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE).
A March report on the past decade of surveys reveals that, in fall 2017, more Americans who believe in climate change answered that urgent government action is required to combat it than at any other point in the survey's history.
"For the past decade or so, and even last year, about 70 percent of Americans [who believe climate change is happening] say that the government needs to act urgently to address climate change," Sarah B. Mills, one of the report's authors and the senior project manager with the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, told Michigan Radio on Tuesday. "On the latest survey, in the fall, it was 76 percent. So that's where we've seen the biggest jump in recent times," she said.
Mills speculated that the jump in urgency might have been a response to Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
In the same Fall 2017 survey, 52 percent of all Americans said the federal government "has a great deal of responsibility … for taking actions to reduce global warming." Fewer numbers of Americans thought state and local governments had the same level of responsibility to act, with 41 percent assigning high responsibility to states and 34 percent to cities and counties.
Opinions did vary by party affiliation, with 69 percent of Democrats and only 30 percent of Republicans saying the federal government had a large role to play.
However, the report found that on individual climate issues Republicans were more receptive to government action than the rhetoric of their party often suggests.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was working on developing a policy for reducing industrial emissions in spring 2013, 51 percent of Republicans said they would want their state to work with the EPA to achieve that goal. In fall 2014, after the EPA had proposed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electrical power plants, 60 percent of Republicans said they approved of the measure. The EPA under Scott Pruitt has since initiated the process of repealing the CPP.
The survey results also hint at how other environmental fights instigated by the Trump administration might play out in the public eye. Currently, Pruitt is in conflict with the state of California over the fate of Obama-era auto emissions standards. Pruitt's EPA looks likely to lower national standards, but California enjoys a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows it to set higher standards than the nation. If the EPA does try to revoke that waiver, as some have speculated, the public would likely side with the state.
Scott Pruitt: California Can’t 'Dictate' National Emissions Policy https://t.co/Xe5fcl295i @NRDC @SierraClub… https://t.co/waW9RYrPA7— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1521121204.0
According to the fall 2017 NSEE, 65 percent of Americans think their state has a responsibility to act on climate change if the federal government refuses to do so. Further, when the fall 2009 and 2010 surveys asked if states should be allowed to set stricter emissions standards than the national government, 75 percent and 64 percent, respectively, said they should. The spring 2017 NSEE asked about California's waiver specifically and found that 56 percent of Americans supported it.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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