WBUR Climate Poll: Mass. Voters Not Following Paris Talks Very Closely; Natural Gas Loses Favor

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A majority of Massachusetts voters polled put the Paris terror attacks, the presidential election and, yes, the Patriots, higher on their list of interest than the big climate summit happening in France.  Pictured here, a man walks past a display at COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in France. (Christophe Ena/AP)
A majority of Massachusetts voters polled put the Paris terror attacks, the presidential election and, yes, the Patriots, higher on their list of interest than the big climate summit happening in France. Pictured here, a man walks past a display at COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in France. (Christophe Ena/AP)

 Updated December 4, 2015, 12:45 pm

As the international effort to make a deal to slow climate change continues in Paris, a new WBUR poll finds that Massachusetts residents say they haven’t been paying very close attention.

But when you dig deeper, the poll (topline, crosstabsshows Bay Staters continue to give a big thumbs up to renewable energy, and are possibly growing wary of the biggest fuel in the state’s energy mix: natural gas.

Climate Talks Not A Top Priority 

Melissa Wilson, a Brockton school bus driver, says she’s paying a lot of attention to terrorism in the news these days — and football. But climate change? Not really.

“Patriots, terrorism, it’s all right there,” Wilson said. “Greenhouse effect, right now it’s not one of my top priorities.”

Wilson is one of the majority of the participants in the WBUR poll who put the Paris terror attacks, the presidential election and, yes, the Patriots, higher on their list of interests than the Paris climate summit.

It’s not that Wilson doesn’t think climate change is happening — she does. But only slowly. “I think as time progresses it’s going to get worse and my children and grandchildren will have to worry about the global effects,” she said.

Like Wilson, a majority of the 504 registered voters surveyed this week for WBUR by the MassINC Polling Group think that global warming is happening (78 percent) and that it’s going to be a very or somewhat serious problem (72 percent). There is some disagreement, however, about its pace and whether humans are behind it.

But pollster Steve Koczela says while environmental activists and some in the media may be galvanized by the international talks in Paris, the public opinion needle hasn’t moved much on the issue over four years of polling.

“It’s not that people don’t believe in it, it’s not that they don’t think that it could potentially be serious,” he said. “But it hasn’t grown, it hasn’t changed. And these talks in Paris really haven’t changed public opinion on climate change.”

Opinion is moving in an optimistic direction, though, on the inevitability of global warming: The percentage of state residents who believe it can be stopped has risen 9 percentage points since a MassINC poll last year, up to 55 percent. And the percentage of those who say it’s too late has dropped, from 33 percent to 26 percent.

“I see a lot of good news and good trends, even if our work clearly isn’t done,” said Sue Reid, an activist with the Boston-based environmental group CERES. She’s at the Paris summit now.

Reid notes that in the poll, support for using more wind and solar energy remains strong, at better than 70 percent. Wind has lost some popularity — but natural gas is losing more favor, from 66 percent in a 2011 MassINC survey to 50 percent now.

That should be a signal to Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, Reid says, as it considers a natural gas pipeline proposed by the Kinder Morgan company. The pipeline would span hundreds of miles, from Pennsylvania through New York, western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, ending in Dracut.

“Are they going to stand behind a big push for a natural gas pipeline overbuild or seize the opportunity to really get serious in a whole new way about distributed solar, about offshore wind and truly clean, zero-carbon resources for the future?” Reid said.

For now, it looks like Baker is pretty focused on natural gas. His chief of energy and environmental affairs, Matthew Beaton, says that as dirtier coal and oil plants are retired, there may be a need for more of it.

“So I think it’s inevitable, certainly in the short-term, that natural gas is going to continue to play a very important role in recognition that we have a finite amount of gas coming into the region,” Beaton said.

Hesitation Around Natural Gas

Supporters say the Kinder Morgan pipeline would relieve an infrastructure bottleneck that already chokes the flow of natural gas here.

But public support for the proposed pipeline has fallen from 2-to-1 in favor in a MassINC poll last year, to only slightly in favor now. And when pollsters added to the question the term “hydraulic fracturing,” opposition outpaced support.

“Fracking hasn’t had a good year in terms of public perception,” MassINC’s Kozcela said. “So when you introduce that idea and see the numbers go down even further, I think that’s indicative of the challenge that the pipeline will face.”

Beaton, Baker’s energy chief, says more natural gas supply could lower energy bills, and if residents knew that they’d be more supportive.

But a majority of those surveyed in this poll say they would be willing to pay $10 more a month on their energy bills, if it significantly reduced greenhouse gases.

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