I have recently spent much time trying to understand how public perceptions of climate science and policy form. We can be pretty confident that people dislike carbon taxes and respond well to positive messages that emphasize the ancillary benefits of clean energy, such as new jobs or improved energy security. And environmental disasters such as the Gulf oil tragedy increase support for environmental regulations.

Another perspective to public opinion is whether the public understands how different policies actually work. It is clearly the case that very few people are interested in the details of complex policies, such as emissions trading or renewable portfolio standards. But do people understand the basics of these policies, such as the difference between emissions taxes and trading?

I am not aware of any systematic studies of the issue, but the anecdotal evidence gives some reason for pessimism. In surveys, people rate subsidies to clean energy very favorably but strongly oppose any measures to tax pollution. This is quite intuitive, as one policy instrument carries a positive connotation while the other appears in unfavorable light. But since subsidies must be funded from tax revenue (either now or later), the different framing is ultimately hiding the fact that each policy is effectively a tax.

Of course, pollution taxes and production subsidies are very different in many other ways. But if the people cannot get beyond the initial impression of bad taxes and good supportive measures, these other differences never enter the public debate.

This has some rather unfortunate consequences. For example, I have always thought that the following argument is very sensible:

– If we tax pollution, we protect the environment and reduce your income tax.

Here it is, a one-sentence argument for pollution taxes. It is not flawless, as pollution taxes generally hurt the poor more than the rich. But it should not be difficult to reduce the income tax more for the poor than for the wealthy to compensate for this regressive effect.

Unfortunately, it seems that even one-sentence arguments are too complicated to work in the real world. I am not sure exactly why, but it seems that understanding this problem would be very useful.