Can We Afford the Planet?

One must always wonder whether people’s statements of solicitude for the environment are matched by their behavior as consumers. That’s all the more true now that fear about the economy is eclipsing all other worries.  Is eco-concern falling into the category of luxuries that many Americans will do without for the duration of the recession? A couple of recent surveys give some reason to suspect that this is the case.

A report issued last month by EcoAlign, based on polling fielded in October, indicates consumers are least enthusiastic about planet-friendly actions when the costs hit closest to home. One question asked respondents how they’d feel if they were “personally required to pay 10 percent more for your electricity bill due to the costs of managing climate change, yet were very confident that climate change would be managed effectively into the future with that money.” Just 32 percent said they’d be “satisfied” with this trade-off, while 33 percent would be “dissatisfied” and the other 35 percent would feel “neutral” about it.

The report stressed that people are more inclined to reduce their consumption of goods than they are to pay more for “green” products. For instance, when asked whether they are more likely to “use less energy in your home” or to “buy more energy efficient appliances,” respondents preferred the first option by 56 percent to 44 percent.

People don’t enjoy feeling they’ve been coerced to pay a premium to be green, if only because this robs them of the pleasant sensation of having done something noble on their own. Many Americans have been buying Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient cars. But a new WorldPublicOpinion.org report finds a majority are averse to having the government impose an extra charge on them when they make different choices. One question in its survey (fielded in August) asked respondents whether they favor or oppose having the government mandate an extra charge for appliance and automotive models that aren’t energy efficient. Fifty-two percent were opposed, vs. 43 percent in favor and 5 percent declining to answer.

That same report gauged support for governmental action “requiring utilities to use more alternative energy, such as wind and solar, even if this increases the cost of energy in the short run.” With the question worded in a way that put the onus on utilities, its proposal won the assent of 66 percent of U.S. respondents — even though it would mean higher electric bills for them.

That’s consistent with the EcoAlign report’s finding that people are eager to put environmental responsibility on corporate shoulders, even as many must suspect the costs will filter through to them as consumers. When asked to pick “the best way for society to pay for the costs of managing climate change,” 61 percent of that survey’s respondents chose “higher penalties on companies that contribute to climate change.” Just 16 percent favored “higher fees on products or services that contribute to climate change.”

Looking more broadly, EcoAlign found Americans split on the question of whether, given what it tactfully refers to as “the current economic conditions,” the country can now “afford to pay for the costs to manage climate change.” Forty-five percent agreed (including 14 percent “strongly”) that the U.S. can still afford to bear those costs; 36 percent disagreed (15 percent “strongly”); 19 percent said they didn’t know.

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