New Poll Finds Americans Like What the EPA Does (Surprise?)

To listen to Republicans, you’d think Americans hate all forms of government regulation. Along that front, Newt Gingrich has been pushing the idea of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet a new poll shows most Americans want the EPA to do more, not less.

Gingrich’s "Moderate" Proposal

This week, Gingrich, a Republican presidential hopeful, has come out with a radical plan to abolish the EPA on the grounds that it supposedly kills

jobs. He wants to replace it with an agency that would take into account corporate interests as well as the general public’s. Can you imagine if Massey Energy had an even bigger say in how we protect the environment?

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Opinion Research Center International conducted a poll asking Americans what they thought about this proposal. They found strong majorities of Americans are against abolishing the EPA. This includes 67% of all Americans, including 61% of Republicans.

The poll also asked people how they felt about Congress blocking the EPA’s ability to update pollution safeguards. Most respondents again supported the EPA doing its job. This included 77% of respondents and even 61% of Republicans. All-important independents supported letting the EPA do its job by an even wider margin, with 82% in favor. In short, Gingrich’s stance does not resonate with the people most likely to swing a presidential election his way.

In spite of this, his talk about eliminating the EPA would seem to be in line with a presidential run. The tough anti-government talk is likely to appeal to primary voters, which tend to skew towards the far right of the Republican spectrum.

If he wins and his views continue to be unpopular with the general public, he can use a tried and true political tactic: sweep it under the rug. It might surprise you to know that politicians walk back campaign rhetoric all the time. As of last check, Guantanamo is still open and immigration reform is nowhere to be seen. So it’s completely feasible Gingrich’s modest proposal will fade into the background, should he win the Republican primaries.

Hidden Meanings

The NRDC poll is also interesting for what it doesn’t talk about. Here’s the question they asked about whether Congress should block the EPA:

“Some members of Congress are proposing to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating safeguards to protect our health from dangerous air pollution, saying they will cost businesses too much money.

Do you believe Congress should block the EPA from updating pollution safeguards or should Congress let the EPA do its job?”

Rep. Fred Upton speaking at the Energy Summit Stakeout

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, the big story is Republican Fred Upton’s proposal to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. And on his blog, Gingrich cites greenhouse gas regulations as "definitive proof that the EPA has gone well beyond its original mandate" and, thus, the main reason for his attack on it.

Yet the question makes no mention of climate change or greenhouse gases nor does anything else in the poll. In a request for why they chose not to address greenhouse gases directly, Pete Altman responded through NRDC press secretary Suzanne Strugliski saying: “Some members of Congress are working to block Clean Air Act updates that would limit carbon and other pollutants, including smog, soot, hazardous air pollution and mercury. The question is general for that reason.”

Yet in his post on the poll, Altman refers to “carbon pollution” rather than the other issues cited in his response. Yet one thing is curiously missing from his post: the words "climate change."

Another poll by NRDC last fall that shows support for climate regulations is a little lower, though. The poll specifically asked people if they would support the EPA regulating greenhouse gases. At all ends of the spectrum support declined, particularly the Republican end, with 42% opposing EPA regulation.

The framing in the poll coupled with other recent posts on NRDC's blog might provide a little insight into how NRDC is going to move forward on climate change. In short: don’t mention it. It might seem backwards, but addressing climate change without talking about it could garner wider support for mitigation actions.

Altman’s aforementioned post doesn’t once mention the words climate change but it sure sounds a lot like that’s what he’s talking about for most of the post. The focus is more in public health instead. He quotes As Health Care Without Harm’s Climate Policy Coordinator Brenda Afzal saying:

“Chairman Upton’s bill, which is expected to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating the Clean Air Act to limit carbon pollution, puts our nation’s health at risk. Leading health organizations and experts consider carbon dioxide pollution to be a wide-ranging threat to public health.” (Emphasis added)

Carbon dioxide certainly has negative effects as a local pollutant. However, it's real negative effects come from it's role in the atmosphere and it’s threat to global public health. The ruling that gave the EPA the authority to regulate it under the Clean Air Act says as much. And it fits with the agency’s mission, which is “to protect human health and the environment.”

So could this signal a shift in how NRDC and other environmental groups are going to frame climate change? People value their health regardless of political background. Focusing on those shared values rather than bringing up something politically divisive like climate change could garner broad support for EPA greenhouse gas regulations.

At the time this went to press, those questions remained unanswered by NRDC’s spokesperson. However, it seems climate change has become like Voldemort. Avoiding mentioning it all while trying to defeat it might just be the best path forward, though. Or at the very least, keeping agencies like the EPA around and on the job.

Photo credits: Thoth, Gage Skidmore, republicanconference