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Americans love clean energy. Do they care if it includes nuclear?

A new poll gets deep into voter preferences on climate policy.

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This classic stock art family loves clean energy.
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There’s plenty of disagreement among climate hawks about which policies and technologies are necessary to decarbonize the US economy. But climate hawks also disagree about which are more popular — which might help build a broader coalition for action, versus those that might activate impassioned minorities but shrink the overall coalition.

Most polls that ask the public about clean energy and climate policy do so at a fairly broad level: pro or con renewable energy, pro or con fossil fuels, that kind of thing. They don’t help much in navigating some of the more specific ongoing disputes. But a new poll commissioned by the Green Advocacy Project (GAP) gets a little deeper into some of those specifics, about nuclear power, carbon taxes, “keep it in the ground,” and more. It’s a gold mine.

(More on the poll methodology in this post.)

The big picture: everyone loves clean energy

Some of the most interesting stuff in the poll has to do with how different groups view energy: Republicans versus Democrats, men versus women, Fox viewers versus MSNBC viewers.

But before getting into those differences, it’s important to establish a broader context: A majority of likely voters support almost anything that tackles climate. Virtually every policy and technology polled garnered support from more than 50 percent of voters, sometimes substantially more.

Renewables poll Javier Zarracina/Change Research

Renewable energy? Majority support. Renewables plus nuclear? Majority support.

Renewable energy jobs? Requiring utilities to use 100 percent clean energy? Energy efficiency? Transmission lines? Public transit? Carbon sequestration? Carbon taxes? “Keep it in the ground”?

Majority support. All of them. And majorities of voters would be more likely to vote for politicians who supported them.

Politicians have plenty of room to act on this issue.

Just a few climate tools drew majority opposition, namely eminent domain (government taking land from private owners) and geoengineering (shooting sulfur particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight, which apparently still sounds ridiculous to ordinary people).

A few policies and technologies are more polarized than others

On a range of options, likely voters were asked to characterize their support with one of four choices: essential to climate policy (intense support), helpful but not essential (lukewarm support), wouldn’t help but wouldn’t hurt (lukewarm opposition), or harmful (intense opposition).

In almost all cases, Democrats support climate policies more than Republicans, but if you add up intense and lukewarm support, together they constitute a majority. There are a few policies, however, that produce a particularly polarized reaction, where intense opposition outweighs intense support.

Keep it in the ground: Blocking fossil fuel production and distribution (drilling, mining, and pipelines) is one of the most polarized policies on the poll, with 66 percent of Democrats calling it essential and 66 percent of Republicans calling it harmful.

Carbon taxes: Despite much recent hype to the contrary, it is Democrats who support carbon taxes (61 percent essential, 28 percent helpful) and Republicans who oppose them (62 percent harmful). This suggests to me that ordinary Republicans’ longstanding aversion to the word “tax” is a lot stronger than any recent signals they may have gotten about “conservative climate policy.”

Nuclear power: The numbers on nuclear power are fascinatingly all over the place. More Republicans than Democrats support it, and more Democrats than Republicans oppose, but not by a ton in either case. The biggest split was not by party but by gender, with 62 percent of men somewhat or strongly supporting it and just 32 percent of women. The demographic slices with the highest levels of opposition? MSNBC viewers and people who have installed solar power on their homes.

nuclear poll Javier Zarracina/Change Research

Which polls better, “clean” or “renewable”?

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the climate policy world lately. On one side: those who believe we should target a future of 100 percent renewable energy. On the other: those who say such a goal is impractical and we should also allow for nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture.

Some states and cities are requiring the former, with renewable energy standards; some (most notably California and Washington) are requiring the latter, with clean energy standards.

Does the public have a preference? The poll tests a series of statements about this.

“We should produce electricity from wind and solar as much as possible.” This gets 59 percent majority support, with 88 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of Republicans, and 41 percent of independents. (Fun fact: 98 percent of Clinton voters.)

“In the future, we should produce electricity using 100 percent renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.” This gets 55 percent majority support, with 92 percent of Democrats, 27 percent of Republicans, and 55 percent of independents. (Fun fact: 97 percent of Democratic women.)

“In the future, we should produce electricity using 100 percent clean energy sources, such as solar and wind, nuclear, and carbon recapture from fossil fuels.” This more expansive definition of clean energy gets 65 percent majority support, with 87 percent of Democrats, 41 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents. (Fun fact: 98 percent of CNN viewers.)

renewables poll Javier Zarracina/Change Research

What to make of all this? Obviously, this is just one poll, and some of these distinctions are close to within the margin of error, so let’s not pretend any great precision is possible. But it looks like, directionally speaking, expanding the definition of clean energy nets a bigger total majority, losing about 5 percent of Dems while picking up about 10 percent of Republicans.

The political trade-off of expanding clean energy

There’s a tricky political trade-off here. Overall, renewables are hugely popular. But an all-renewables majority will be a fairly partisan majority.

Allowing for non-renewable, non-emitting sources of energy like nuclear seems to peel off quite a few squishy Republicans, without losing many Democrats or independents. That might mean a broader majority.

And a more potent legislative force: This strategy of uniting pro-renewables and pro-nuclear camps has worked to get successful clean energy policies in place in Illinois, New York, California, and, most recently, Washington.

There’s also the simple fact that adding renewables and nuclear together yields far more total clean energy. That offers a better snapshot of total progress and can unlock additional ambition, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Jameson McBride argues in this post.

Climate hawks have different opinions on nuclear and CCS, but in my view, if you don’t think they will compete, why not allow for them to try? As long as they don’t drain attention and resources from options that are cheap and available now, it’s not a sacrifice. Give them their research money; harvest the support of their backers.

Given the urgency of climate politics, being agnostic on how to reduce carbon seems a small but easy step toward consensus.

These poll numbers help illuminate how the public thinks about climate policy, but of course, popularity is not the same as effectiveness. Climate hawks should target what works best, all things being equal.

But in politics, all things are never equal. There are some policies (like “keep it in the ground”) that can engage and activate a core base of support; there are others (like clean energy standards and relatively non-ideological options like transmission lines) that can draw a broad majority.

Both have their uses, not just on policy terms but on political terms. Climate hawks would do well to see things through that lens more often — to develop the same expertise on political economy that they have on policy.