Nearly All Americans Want Off of Fossil Fuels

Halsey, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Late last year, The Washington Post reported a remarkable poll finding: Nearly half of American adults — 46 percent — believe the U.S. needs to “drastically reduce” fossil fuel use in the near future to address the climate crisis. Another 41 percent favor a more gradual reduction.

In short, almost 90 percent of us support transitioning off fossil fuels — including over half of Republicans, whose elected officials overwhelmingly support the industry.

This is remarkable. The U.S. is the world’s largest oil and gas producer, third largest coal producer, and the only country to leave the universally adopted Paris Climate Agreement. Yet nearly all of us want off these fuels.

You’d expect a media outlet to treat this as the immensely newsworthy (and headline-worthy) finding that it is — especially if that outlet commissioned the poll!

Yet The Washington Post buried these numbers in the 14th and 15th paragraphs of the story. Their headline? “Americans like Green New Deal’s goals, but they reject paying trillions to reach them.”

This assertion, while not outright false, is misleading.

The poll had a single vaguely worded question about the price tag for a national climate action plan, which asked whether respondents supported raising federal spending by unspecified “trillions.” Two-thirds of respondents said no.

Pollsters gave respondents no specifics on the amount of “trillions” we’re talking about, or how they would compare to the overall federal budget, huge existing line items like the military and fossil fuel subsidies, or the country’s GDP.

The poll didn’t ask respondents whether they would support such a spending increase if it were paid for entirely by revenue increases. But actually, they might.

The same poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans — 68 percent — support raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for climate action. Another 60 percent support raising taxes on fossil fuel burning companies “even if that may lead to increased electricity and transportation prices.”

The Post ignored both findings entirely in the article. A more accurate portrayal of the poll results might say that U.S. adults support paying for climate action by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but they don’t want to raise taxes for working people (for example, by raising gas taxes).

Why did the Post bury some of the most significant findings of their own poll? I won’t speculate too much — that’s for them to answer. But in establishment media, political biases that equate government spending with waste — while evading or ignoring issues of tax fairness — run deep.

A more objective — and hopeful — reading might emphasize that the vast majority of Americans support phasing out fossil fuels. Large majorities also support reaching 100 percent renewable electricity in 10 years (69 percent support) and a jobs guarantee with good wages for all workers (78 percent support).

Finally, two-thirds of respondents support increased spending on climate resilience for communities who are vulnerable to disasters. Two-thirds also support a government program for universal health care.

Polls aren’t always trustworthy. But as a snapshot, this one shows large majorities of Americans wanting serious governmental action on climate change that incorporates social justice and workers’ rights, paid for by progressive taxation. They also want more regulation of corporations, more government spending on community resilience, and public, universal health care.

This is great news for those of us who want a just transition from our extractive fossil-fuel driven economy to a safe, healthy future for all. The Washington Post may not think that’s important, but we do.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.