The public thinks the fossil fuel industry should be paying for climate costs.
That’s the conclusion of a number of polls that have been released over the past couple of years in countries around the world.
At least four polls have been released in recent years that show that the public in Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia support – by sizeable margins – the idea that fossil fuel companies should pay a share of the costs of climate change.
These polls were conducted by:
- Polling company Opinium (UK) for the environmental organization Client Earth, released in October 2019 (Press release and Poll Report);
- The Yale Program on Climate Change Communications (USA) with support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, released in June 2019 (Overview and Data Visualisations);
- The Australian Institute (Australia), released in March 2018 (Press release and Poll Report); and
- EcoAnalytics (Canada), a partnership of which West Coast Environmental Law is a member, fielded in fall 2017 (Overview).
In addition, there was a February 2019 poll recently released by the Center for Climate Integrity (USA) which shows similar results (Press release and Poll Report). However, we have been unable to obtain copies of the poll questions and other information on this poll, so their results are not included in the following discussion, except where noted.
We are grateful to Client Earth, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications and EcoAnalytics for making additional information available to inform the discussions that follow. However, it is important to recognize that the questions asked in these four polls were not identical, and there are differences in methodology, making direct comparisons difficult.
Nonetheless, all of these polls confirm majority public support for fossil fuel companies to pay their share of climate costs – and in some cases it’s a large majority.
Should fossil fuel companies pay for a share of climate costs? 
The UK, Canada and the two US polls have all asked variations of questions about whether fossil fuel companies should pay a share (or percentage) of the costs associated with climate change – such as costs to fight wildfires, raise seawalls and protect communities from increasing climate impacts. In all of these polls, a majority of respondents agreed. Public support ranges from 57% in the United States to 79% in Canada.
The UK poll only asked for support and opposition, while the other two polls invited respondents to indicate their level of support or opposition.
It is interesting to note that in the Center for Climate Integrity poll, respondents who learned that the fossil fuel industry had deceived Americans on climate science were 12% more likely to think that fossil fuel companies should pay a share of climate costs. This effect was not tested in any of the above polls.
Who should pay? 
Two of the polls, in Australia and Canada, asked more generally who should be “primarily responsible” for paying for climate costs. The US poll also asked a somewhat different question about who should be more responsible for those costs, between fossil fuel companies and taxpayers. These three questions are somewhat more difficult to compare because of how they characterized the answers – but all three provide further evidence that the public supports fossil fuel companies paying a share of the costs of climate change.
A major difference between the Canadian and Australian polls was how they characterized the costs paid by government. The EcoAnalytics (Canada) poll asked whether “government” should pay, while the Australia Institute poll asked whether “taxpayers” should pay.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the terminology matters: having government pay is much more popular than having taxpayers pay. But at the end of the day, if the government is on the hook, so are taxpayers.
In addition, Canadians were less likely to buy into the idea that assigning “primary responsibility” for climate costs should be a simple choice between industry and government. When asked which group should be primarily responsible for the financial costs of climate change (governments, corporations, or individuals), 21% volunteered “all of the above” or “some combination of the above” despite this response option not being made available in the closed list read to them by the interviewer by phone.
In a similar question, Australians were much more likely to select “other” or “not sure,” further indicating a lack of comfort with the options provided. The difference between the two polls may have been partly a result of methodology – since the Canadian poll was conducted by phone, allowing respondents to articulate a choice that was not offered.
In Canada, Australia and the US, a majority of respondents agreed that the fossil fuel industry should pay a significant share of the costs associated with climate change.
In the US poll, respondents were given a choice between having fossil fuel companies or taxpayers pay, and 54% of respondents said that the industry should pay all or most climate costs (an amount comparable to the 51% of Australians who felt that fossil fuel companies are primarily responsible). A further 12% of US respondents said that fossil fuel companies and taxpayers should pay “about an equal share.”
Support for legal and other action against fossil fuel companies 
The US and Canada polls asked about support for legal action against fossil fuel companies. In the US, 50% of respondents supported lawsuits against fossil fuel companies by “local officials” to recover a share of climate costs, while in Canada 57% supported lawsuits by “governments.”
The Canada poll only asked for support or opposition, while the US poll offered respondents a more detailed breakdown between strongly support (23%), somewhat support (27%), somewhat oppose (12%) and strongly oppose (16%).
We asked a similar question in a Google Survey in 2018 and found 58% support nationally for litigation against fossil fuel companies, with over 50% support in every region except for Alberta.
The EcoAnalytics poll, in Canada, also asked about public support for governments sending letters asking fossil fuel companies to pay a share of the costs of climate change, a tool over 20 BC local governments have already used. 73% of Canadians supported their government sending a letter of this type.
Why this matters
Since they first learned about climate change more than 50 years ago, global fossil fuel companies – along with investors and governments – have continued producing fossil fuels in full knowledge that climate change will result. The alarming science had little effect on their business models, because they’ve always assumed that someone else will pay for the costs.
Just like Big Tobacco, this calculus persuaded fossil fuel companies to lobby against regulations that might constrain their profits, and to fund public misinformation on climate change. Because they didn’t have to pay the true costs of their products, the fossil fuel companies could outcompete renewable energy.
The fact that global fossil fuel pollution continues to rise is the direct result of a system that expects someone else to pay for the costs of the climate crisis. Insisting that fossil fuel companies must contribute to these costs – like everyone else – means that fossil fuel companies may finally have an incentive to stop blocking climate action, and instead put their considerable resources towards transitioning us to a sustainable future.
Not surprisingly, industry and industry associations have responded aggressively to the suggestion that fossil fuel companies need to pay anything towards the costs of climate change. They suggest that asking fossil fuel companies to pay a fair share of the costs of their products “defies common sense,” attacking elected officials and others who dare suggest that taxpayers cannot afford to pay the rising costs of climate change – billions of dollars worth – on their own.
Of course, all four of the countries where polls were conducted remain high greenhouse gas polluters (although the UK has reduced its per capita emissions dramatically). Holding fossil fuel companies accountable has to be accompanied by efforts to reduce our collective fossil fuel pollution and to provide resources to those impacted by climate change around the world.
However, these results make it clear that a majority of the citizens in Canada, the UK, the US and Australia agree that fossil fuel companies need to be held accountable for harm caused by their products – providing a strong counterpoint to the nay-sayers who want to let the fossil fuel industry off the hook.
 The polling questions discussed in this section asked:
- UK Poll (Opinium) – “Scientific studies can now confirm that higher carbon emissions in the atmosphere can lead to extreme heat waves, major rainfall and make flood damage more severe. … Do you think fossil fuel companies, whose products contribute directly to climate change, should help pay for the tens of billions in damages from extreme weather events?”
- Canada Poll (EcoAnalytics) – “Thinking now about companies that produce and distribute fossil fuels, do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose holding these companies accountable for a share of the financial costs of climate change?”
- Yale Poll (US) – “How much do you support or oppose making fossil fuel companies pay for a portion of the damages to local communities caused by global warming?”
 The polling questions discussed in this section asked:
- Australia Poll (Australian Institute) – “Who should primarily pay the costs of preparing for, adapting to and responding to global warming impacts?” Possible answers included Taxpayers, People facing climate impacts, Fossil Fuel Producers, Other, None of these, Don’t Know/Not Sure.
- Canada (EcoAnalytics) – “In your opinion, who or which group should be primarily responsible for paying the financial costs associated with climate change?”
- Yale (US) – “Climate scientists say the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) produced by fossil fuel companies is causing global warming, which results in more extreme weather, droughts, wildfires, and flooding from sea level rise. These are costly to many cities and states in the U.S., often requiring them to rebuild their communities and to develop protections against future damages. Who do you think should pay for these costs?” Possible answers included: “Fossil fuel companies should pay for all costs”; “Fossil fuel companies should pay for most costs; taxpayers for some”; “Fossil fuel companies and taxpayers should pay about an equal share”; “Taxpayers should pay for most costs; fossil fuel companies for some”; “Taxpayers should pay for all costs”; “Other”; and “Don’t know.”
 The polling questions discussed in this section asked:
- Canada (EcoAnalytics) – “Would you support or oppose the government suing fossil fuel companies to make them pay a share of the local financial costs of climate change?”
- Yale (US) – “How much do you support or oppose your local officials filing a lawsuit to make fossil fuel companies pay for a portion of damages in your area that are caused by global warming?”
Photo credit: 350.org