For a bunch of wonky government regulations, the newly proposed EPA rule for existing power plants, announced yesterday, has inspired heated debate from both sides of the political spectrum -- the most rabid, naturally, coming from the far right. A full-page ad ran in Politico accusing the anarchist-militia-terrorist EPA of threatening to shut down America's electric grid, while politicians revived claims of a "war on coal." Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the announcement "a dagger in the heart of the American middle class”; House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) called it "a sucker punch for families everywhere."
So what to make of a study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (backed up by a similar Washington Post-ABC News poll) showing that the majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, support the limiting of carbon pollution from power plants -- also known as the very thing that the EPA proposed?
Salon called up Dr. Tony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Project, to ask if was surprised by the results. He answered with a resounding "nope."
Yale researchers have been asking that same exact question since 2008, Leiserowitz explained, and they've gotten a more or less consistent result every time. Even when they tweaked that question to clarify what the regulations are, and to emphasize that they come at a cost to electricity prices, Americans continue to express support for the idea of allowing the government to "regulate carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, as a pollutant" at a roughly 2 to 1 ratio.
The reason, Leiserowitz suspects, is that outside of political and green spheres -- where the debate is certain to be ferocious over the coming months, and into the midterm elections -- the general public isn't particularly engaged on these issues, or even very clear on the specifics. "I think many people don’t actually know what carbon dioxide is," he said. "I don’t think they are clear on what the difference is between carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, or sulfur dioxide, or nitrous oxide, or all the other kinds of pollutants that come out of smokestacks. They see 'carbon dioxide' and they see the word 'pollutant,' and they think, 'I’m not for that. No, of course not!'"
When it comes down to it, of course, that's all carbon dioxide is: a pollutant, at least so far as the EPA is concerned. The Supreme Court decided as much back in 2007, when it ruled that the agency has the authority to regulate the greenhouse gases in automobile emissions in order to protect public health and welfare. Two years later, the EPA confirmed that, releasing an "endangerment finding" that concluded that "the current and projected concentrations" piling up up in the atmosphere from human activity "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations."
And human health, coincidentally, is one of those issues that tends to gain bipartisan support.