By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three out of four U.S. voters favor regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse-gas pollutant, and a majority think global warming should be a priority for the president and Congress, a survey of American attitudes on climate and energy reported on Thursday.
The survey was released one day after Rolling Stone magazine published an interview with President Barack Obama in which he suggested that climate change would become a campaign issue this year.
In results often at odds with the political debate in Washington, the survey conducted for Yale and George Mason University also found most Americans would vote for a candidate who raised taxes on coal, oil and natural gas - fossil fuels that emit climate-warming carbon dioxide when burned - while cutting income tax, in a revenue-neutral "tax swap."
This maneuver, which would not add to federal revenues but would change where they came from, has long been discussed by such disparate political actors as former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat, and Bob Inglis, a Republican former congressman.
Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported the tax swap, while 20 percent said they would be less likely.
In 2010, Democrats took a different approach, pushing legislation through the House of Representatives that aimed to lower carbon emissions by raising the price of fossil fuels. But the effort died in the Senate amid strong Republican opposition.
While Democrats are frequently perceived as being "greener" than Republicans and independents, the survey found sizable majorities of all three groups favored the tax swap and other environmentally friendly policies, said Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
For example, the survey found 75 percent of respondents support regulating carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas pollutant, which the Supreme Court ruled legal in 2007 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has advocated.
But looking at the political breakdown on this question, 84 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of independents favor this regulation.
A GAP BETWEEN VOTERS AND CONGRESS
While there is a wide gap between Republicans and Democrats, Republican voters still favored this move by a solid two-thirds majority, while most congressional Republicans have opposed it, Leiserowitz said.
"You do have to draw a distinction between the members of Congress and the broad public ... The two parties have now become more and more ideologically pure ... and that is not true among the public at large," he said in a telephone interview.
The nationally representative survey of 1,008 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, found 72 percent of Americans think global warming should be a very high, high or medium priority for the president and Congress. Among registered voters, 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans agreed.
A related survey released on Wednesday by the non-profit Civil Society Institute found 76 percent of Americans think the United States should move to a sustainable energy future by reducing reliance on nuclear power, natural gas and coal and boosting renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Obama, who campaigned for the White House in 2008 as an environmental candidate committed to stemming climate change, sounded in sync with the results of these surveys in his comments to Rolling Stone.
"I suspect that over the next six months, this (climate change) is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way," Obama said.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has changed his views during his campaign on whether human activities cause climate change. His website does not list environment or climate change as one of his issues, but the site critiques Obama's energy policy as "incoherent."
"Mitt's Plan," it says, "would make every effort to safeguard the environment" while protecting U.S. jobs. Romney also plans to amend the Clean Air Act to exclude carbon dioxide as a pollutant that could be regulated.
Obama acknowledged that it was challenging to get Americans to focus on climate change when their top priorities in the last three years were jobs, housing and gasoline prices.
Karlyn Bowman, who tracks public opinion at the pro-business American Enterprise Institute, confirmed that impression. Bowman noted that polls of U.S. priorities rank the economy far above either energy or climate change.
(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Mohammad Zargham and David Gregorio)