New Polling Shows Voters Want to Hold Big Oil’s Feet to the Fire

Climate activists protest at the Exxon Mobil trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building in October 2019 in New York City.
Climate activists protest at the Exxon Mobil trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building in October 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Angela Weiss (Getty Images)

Oil and gas companies have spent decades spewing ungodly amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and there’s ample evidence that they’ve covered up the climate-warming effects of that pollution. New polling shared exclusively with Earther shows that Americans want to do something about that.

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A national survey conducted by Data for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute shows strong support for a variety of measures to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their role in climate breakdown. The groups conducted an online survey of 1,107 Americans who were likely to vote, weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race, and voting history by party.

Of all likely voters surveyed, 59% said they’d either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” requiring fossil fuel companies to cover the costs of adaptation and mitigation to climate-fueled disasters. That includes 72% of Democrats, 56% of independents and 46% of Republicans.

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“Previous polls have shown that people know that climate change is real,” Kate Chatfield, director of policy at the Justice Collaborative, said. “This polling shows people not only that climate change is real, but that they know exactly who is responsible for it, and who should pay.”

Support for the following question: Do you support requiring fossil fuel companies to cover the costs of dealing with the fallout of climate change, such as increased flooding or increased wildfires?
Support for the following question: Do you support requiring fossil fuel companies to cover the costs of dealing with the fallout of climate change, such as increased flooding or increased wildfires?
Graphic: Data for Progress

Americans also showed support for holding the industry accountable in court. Fifty-four percent of likely voters, including 70% of Democrats, 47% of independent voters, and 41% of Republicans, said they would support local or state litigation against the fossil fuel industry to cover costs associated with the crisis they created.

These types of actions are already underway and could become more widespread in the coming years. The survey didn’t ask about specific cases, but suits like the one Baltimore filed against energy majors for withholding information about the dangers of using their products, which seeks damages for “property damage, economic injuries and impacts to public health,” fall into this category. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said earlier this year in a primary debate that he supports lawsuits to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for damages as well. And his climate plan includes a promise to “take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment and poison our communities’ air, land, and water, or conceal information regarding potential environmental and health risks.”

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An even greater portion of respondents, 60% overall, said that they’d support their elected officials in co-signing lawsuits against governments to ensure fossil fuel firms follow regulations. Again, participants weren’t asked about any specific suits, but ongoing cases against governments of Alaska, Colorado, Florida, and several other states filed on behalf of youth plaintiffs by nonprofit Our Children’s Trust fit the bill.

“Ironically, on the one hand, there are lawsuits against the fossil fuel companies for past damages, but there are also these children’s lawsuits against the cities and states which to say, you have the power to do something about under your state law,” Chatfield said. “And there’s support for both.”

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A similar portion of Americans, it seems, support direct efforts to regulate the oil and gas industry. Sixty-three percent of those polled said they’d support their governors in imposing stronger regulations on fossil fuel companies.

Some familiar trends cropped up among the data. For instance, college-educated respondents were more likely to support every single measure in the survey than their counterparts without college degrees, a pattern long seen in previous polling. Younger voters also showed stronger support for each measure than those over the age of 45, presumably because nationwide conversations about climate have grown so much in just the past decade—and, frankly, probably also because us younger folks will be around to see more climate doom than older generations. This shows where support already lies, and where the movement for accountability could still build more inroads.

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The new polling doesn’t include the income levels of survey participants or the geographical breakdown of support for each accountability measure, both of which raise interesting questions. That additional information might help climate activists learn more about where they’d have success in pushing for more accountability and who the movement still needs to bring on board.

But overall, the data makes it clear that many Americans know the oil and gas industry has done them—and the whole planet—dirty, and that they don’t want to let them get away with it anymore.

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“Political actors sometimes...seem to think it’s enough to merely say they know that climate change is real, and they’ll say, ‘boy, we really ought to do something about this,’” said Chatfield. “But that’s clearly not enough, and people know it. There are real, concrete steps that can be taken, and voters support them.”

Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Maybe we could simply define greenhouse gases as pollutants pursuant to a fairly recent supreme court case and regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. Maybe apply a step-down approach to limits. For instance, allow lesser and lesser total emissions tallied over the entire US on an annual basis each year going forward into the future. Assume 2021 as the start year.

Maybe we don’t need to dream up a brand new omnibus kind of act (law) to be administered and regulated under a newly added administrative department. That might become a sideshow to the main act, which is addressing climate change. Political clusterfucks should be avoided if possible.

And maybe we don’t need to apply a new act modeled on or similar to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), aka Superfund for addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation needs. The term “superfund” was coined when a senator around the time CERCLA was being drafted called it, “a super fund for lawyers.”

A superfund type climate act may be too lawyerly for addressing a crisis under rapid response mode. We will have to apply remedies cautiously, methodically yet quickly with lawyers closely involved along the way. Lawyers are helpful in a democracy governed by laws. But we do need to demonstrate forward motion in solving the problem at hand and how.