Post image for Trick-Question Poll ‘Finds’ Upton’s Constituents Want EPA To Regulate Greenhouse Gases

Trick-Question Poll ‘Finds’ Upton’s Constituents Want EPA To Regulate Greenhouse Gases

by Marlo Lewis on May 20, 2011

in Blog, Features

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund commissioned a poll from a Democratic pollster finding that voters in Rep. Fred Upton’s district disapprove of the GOP congressman’s efforts to overturn EPA’s climate change regulations. Hold the presses! Man bites dog! I mean, what are the odds that a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by NRDC would reach that conclusion?

Actually, what’s surprising is that Greenwire (May 19, 2011, subscription required) would bother covering the NRDC poll as if it were news.

Some background to put things in context. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is the lead sponsor of H.R. 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act. H.R. 910 would stop EPA from ‘legislating’ climate policy under the guise of implementing the Clean Air Act — a statute enacted years before Al Gore ever heard of global warming. Although opponents defeated companion legislation in the Senate on a 50-50 vote, Upton and his allies won big in the House with a vote of 255-172.

The NRDC poll supposedly finds that voters in Michigan’s 6th District “have reservations” about Upton’s plan to rein in EPA. The poll reveals “significant disappointment” among constituents with Upton’s “current policy choices,” according to Matt Howes, a spokesman for the group.

The poll has not yet been released to the general public, but judging by Greenwire‘s description, it’s not worth the recycled paper it’s printed on. The questions posed employ rhetorical tricks to elicit a predetermined conclusion, namely, Upton is out of step with his constituents and risks electoral defeat in 2012.

The survey, says Greenwire, “asked residents their views on whether EPA should do more to regulate air pollutants in general. Fifty-three percent of respondents answered in the affirmative, while 33 percent said they opposed the idea and 14 percent had no opinion.” 

The opening question is almost meaningless. It’s equivalent to asking residents whether they want the air to be cleaner or dirtier. The pollster might as well ask whether Upton’s constituents think schools should do more to teach math and science, drug companies should do more to cure cancer, or the Department of Homeland Security should do more to secure the borders. 

Most people reflexively say they want more of any perceived public good in the abstract. The NRDC-sponsored poll tells us nothing about how much Upton’s constituents are prepared to pay — in higher energy prices, fewer jobs, higher taxes, or lower GDP, for example — to achieve how much incremental improvement in air quality.

Note also that by starting with a question about unspecified “air pollutants,” the poll implicitly identifies “carbon dioxide” — the topic of the next question — with air pollution. Because most people try to give logically consistent answers, anyone who answered yes to the first question will feel obliged to answer yes to the second question.

The second question, as described by Greenwire, is “whether constituents supported EPA’s taking steps to limit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions, rather than waiting for Congress to pass a new climate change law.” Greenwire elaborates: 

“The Head of the American Petroleum Institute says Congress should decide when and how greenhouse gases should be regulated. But others say Congress should let EPA do its job,” the question read. “The head of the American Public Health Association says that blocking the EPA’s work to reduce carbon dioxide could mean the difference between a healthy life for many Americans or chronic debilitating illness. Which opinion do you support?” The survey showed that 59 percent of respondents chose the answer “Congress should let the EPA do its job,” more than twice the 28 percent who said the agency should wait for Congress to act.

Several rhetorical tricks are at work here. First, rather than just state opposing opinions and ask the respondent to choose between them, the poll identifies one position with the head of the American Petroleum Institute and the other with the head of the American Public Health Association. The question thus appeals to a widespread prejudice — propagated by groups like NRDC — that Big Oil is bad and self-described ‘public health’ advocates like, well, NRDC, are good.

If the poll is going to name names and it aims to tell us something about Fred Upton’s district, then why not identify Upton’s policy with Upton rather than the head of API? Very likely, because the information that Upton is the key proponent of the policy would sway responses in favor of it. This poll, ostensibly about voter attitudes towards Upton’s policy choices, never mentions him by name, as far as we can tell from the Greenwire article.

Second, the API head simply says Congress should decide when and how greenhouse gases should be regulated without giving a reason. In contrast, the APH head gives a reason why he thinks EPA should act — the unsupported but scary assertion that stopping EPA “could mean the difference between a healthy life for many Americans or chronic debilitating illness.”

Third, the pro-Upton answer is to “wait for Congress to act.” Not very appealing, as it calls to mind the negative phrase “do-nothing Congress.”

Fourth, and most importantly, the other possible answer, “let EPA do its job,” is Orwellian. EPA’s job is to implement policy, not legislate it. H.R. 910 aims to relimit EPA to the job it’s supposed to perform under our constitutional system of separated powers and democratic accountability.

Try this thought experiment. Suppose that Massachusetts v. EPA had never been litigated. Suppose also that Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), instead of introducing a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, sponsored legislation authorizing EPA to regulate GHG emissions via the Clean Air Act as it sees fit. How many votes would it have gotten? Far fewer than the narrow majority that voted for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which subsequently died in the U.S. Senate. A bill authorizing EPA to do exactly what it is doing today would have no chance of passage notwithstanding the global warming movement’s 15-plus-year campaign to persuade Congress and the public of the necessity of curbing GHG emissions.

It is absurd to suppose that in 1970, years before the advent of the global warming scare, Congress, when it enacted Clean Air Act, also authorized EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Determining climate policy is not EPA’s job. Deciding when and how greenhouse gases should be regulated is above EPA’s pay grade.

The NRDC poll, in short, pushes respondents to draw a stupendously false conclusion.

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