More research on algae, less cash. Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg
More research on algae, less cash. Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg

A new survey suggests the conventional wisdom about carbon taxes is wrong: Promising to give people their money back with rebate checks isn't the best way to win public support.

Polling by the National Surveys on Energy and Environment, a joint project by the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy and the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College, shows that Americans in general (and Republicans in particular) still don't like the idea of a tax on carbon emissions in general. Democrats are evenly split, and Republicans overwhelmingly oppose it.

One way to soften that opposition is to commit to returning the revenue that's generated. That could be done in different ways, including using the money to reduce other taxes. But the simplest way is just cutting people checks. And when David Amdur, an economics professor at Muhlenberg College and the survey's lead author, tested that option, Democrats supported a carbon tax by more than 2-to-1, as did more Republicans.

(Using the money from a carbon tax to cut the deficit garnered far less support, regardless of partisan affiliation, suggesting that the time when the deficit was the public's overriding concern is past.)

But Amdur found that the best way to gain public support for a carbon tax -- and the only way to persuade a majority of Republicans -- was to use the revenue to fund research into renewable energy.

The poll's sample of 798 included 221 Republicans; it's possible that a larger survey would yield different results. But assuming these responses reflect the feelings of voters nationwide, they contradict a basic notion of modern Republican ideology: More government is almost always bad, especially if the government activity in question looks anything like picking winners and losers.

Indeed, the type of spending proposed by this survey isn't that different from the Department of Energy program that provided a much-criticized loan guarantee to Solyndra, the now bankrupt solar-panel maker, yet it appears to be the best chance to sell a carbon tax to Republicans.

That doesn't mean the advocates of such a tax can start celebrating. When asked whether they would support a carbon tax even if it raised energy costs by 10 percent, respondents of every partisan affiliation said no -- including Democrats, by a significant margin. And however you spend the proceeds of that tax, it will increase energy costs. That, after all, is the whole point.

So the challenge remains convincing voters why a carbon tax is worthwhile even though energy costs increase. Optimists will say that's just a marketing problem; maybe they're right. But this latest survey suggests that, at a minimum, the policy most likely to gain support, even in the face of opposition to higher energy costs, isn't necessarily the one that puts money back in people's pockets. And maybe Republicans aren't as averse to government spending as everyone thought.

Amdur died before the results of this survey were published. His research suggests, however, that the path to a carbon tax with bipartisan appeal isn't hopeless after all.

To contact the writer of this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.