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People Will Pay To Fight Warming Poll Says Americans Would Support Higher Gas Prices If It Helps

In a survey that left business lobbyists stunned and environmentalists gloating, a poll made public Thursday found strong support among Americans for higher gasoline prices, if the increase - up to 25 cents a gallon - would help reduce global warming.

But, even after a year of elevated political attention devoted to the phenomenon, the survey found a drop in the percentage of Americans who are concerned about it, and a sizable majority who believe all countries should share in the effort to contain it.

The poll, conducted by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, provides a rare look at public attitudes on environmental and economic questions as international negotiators approach a final round of talks to produce a pact on mitigating the impact of a changing climate.

The poll contained relatively good news for environmental groups and President Clinton.

Of the 1,200 people surveyed last week, 66 percent said they had “a lot” or “some” confidence in environmental groups to “strike the right balance between protecting the environment and keeping the economy growing.” Clinton had the support of 61 percent, congressional Democrats 57 percent, congressional Republicans 55 percent, business groups 43 percent, and labor unions 38 percent.

But the figures that drew the most attention and surprise were those touching on a potential cost attached to efforts to fight global warming.

Asked whether they would be willing to pay five cents more for a gallon of gasoline if the higher price would “significantly reduce global warming,” 73 percent of those surveyed said yes.

“That’s amazing,” said Greg Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When the suggested price hike was raised to 25 cents a gallon, 60 percent said they would be willing to pay.

Oil companies and others opposed to an agreement have focused on potential costs at the gas pump. When informed of the 60 percent figure, Gail McDonald, director of a lobbying campaign on behalf of business, labor groups and others, was momentarily silent. She then said, “That’s interesting, that’s very interesting.”

She added: “It’s such an essential commodity, people will pay more.”

However, Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center’s director, said the significance of the support for higher gas prices “is not whether it is 73 percent or 50 percent, but that there is a public willingness to make ome sacrifices on behalf of the environment.”

Economists, scientists and policy-makers continue to debate the likely economic costs of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The burning of gasoline, oil, coal and natural gas gives off carbon dioxide, which gathers in the atmosphere and traps the Earth’s heat.

One course of action being considered would increase taxes on petroleum products and other fossil fuels to discourage their use.

Representatives of 150 countries will gather in Kyoto, Japan, next month for final negotiations on an accord under which the most industrialized nations would reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

The poorer countries have balked at committing themselves to the limitations, arguing that richer nations achieved economic success through wide use of fossil fuels, and they are entitled the same chance.

In the survey, 19 percent of those polled said developing countries “should not have to bear as much of the burden” for reducing global warming as other countries, while 70 percent said “all countries should make the same changes.”

A $13 million advertising campaign sponsored by a broad coalition of businesses, labor unions and others has portrayed the Kyoto negotiations as giving the developing world a free ride, although the role of the poorer nations has not been determined.

Despite the recent focus on global warming and the scientific debate over whether it is occurring and what its impact will be, the percentage of Americans who say they are worrying about it a “great deal” has fallen, from 35 percent in May, 1989, to 24 percent in the new survey.

Those polled expressed greater concern about damage to the Earth’s ozone layer, toxic waste, air and water pollution and loss of tropical rain forests.