What should we do about the energy issues we face? Public Agenda, in its Energy Learning Curve study released today as part of Planet Forward, found that despite a lot of partisan debate, Americans find common ground on many proposals, including using more alternative fuels. There’s also a lot of agreement on what not to do, especially making it more expensive to drive. Our research suggests this consensus may be shaky as policymakers take up the issue – as many people had both unrealistic ideas and misconceptions about energy production and use.
I was surprised by public opinions on a few points, but mostly the survey confirms my own experience in dealing with people over energy issues. Some of their findings:
Finding 1: Right now, a majority of the public sees the price of energy and dependence on foreign oil as troubling problems. Significantly, they also believe the problem won’t go away when the price of energy falls. Climate change, however, is less of a concern.
Finding 2: There is substantial consensus on the proposals that the nation should pursue, particularly alternative energy, conservation and incentives to become more efficient. These seem promising to the public, but they may not have realistic assumptions about how quickly and easily these alternatives can be achieved.
Finding 3: Just as there’s widespread support on promising ideas, there also seems to be broad agreement on what’s off the table. Anything that increases the cost of driving is soundly rejected by the public.
Finding 4: The public’s knowledge level is low on energy, with significant numbers who do not know some basic facts about how energy is produced. This calls into question how firm the consensus is and how well it will hold up under pressure.
Emphasis mine. First, some comments on the findings. 80 percent responded that they worry that dependence on foreign oil will involve us in wars and conflicts in the Middle East. But 57 percent said they wouldn’t be willing to pay an additional $0.40 a gallon to help achieve energy independence. (Oddly, 68 percent agreed that “We should take whatever steps are necessary to gain energy independence even if it increases the cost of gas, electricity and heating fuel over the next few years.”) A majority reject an increase in gas taxes regardless of the reason. (I would like to see the results if one of the options was my proposal to refund the tax via income tax credits).
The level of energy knowledge is abysmal. To me, this is the biggest obstacle in adhering to a long-term, coherent energy policy. 39% of respondents couldn’t name a fossil fuel. A majority – 51% – couldn’t name an alternative energy source. 65% thought that most of our oil imports come from the Middle East. The report sums up the problem quite well: Without certain facts, the public can’t judge what’s realistic and what’s not, and that’s bound to hamper constructive decision making. I would add that it isn’t just the public; it extends to the politicians that we elected.
The survey identified four distinct groups: the Disengaged (19 percent), the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent), the Anxious (40 percent) and the Greens (24 percent). The Disengaged don’t know much about energy, and don’t care to. The Greens are reasonably knowledgeable about energy, and distributed across both major political parties. The Anxious are more likely to be unemployed, Democrat, less educated, and under 35.
The Doubters were more likely to be male, Republican, and have a higher level of college education than the general public (one of the surprises to me). 90% of the doubters don’t worry about global warming at all, 79% would accept a nuclear plant in their neighborhood, and 89% favor increased drilling.
In the Afterword, they hit upon why I do what I do:
Climbing the learning curve involves three distinct stages. Consciousness-raising to make the public aware of the threat is the first stage. The second — and longest and most arduous stage — involves the need for people to confront their own wishful thinking and denial as they wrestle with the need to make painful tradeoffs and sacrifices. The third and final stage is resolution and support for remedial action.
Energy is such an integral part of all of lives, that I believe it is critically important to make sure the voting public is well-informed on energy issues. Too often we engage in wishful thinking, where algal biodiesel or cellulosic ethanol will come riding to the rescue as our domestic energy supplies deplete. Ironically, the Public Agenda website encourages people to go to Planet Forward to share your ideas of how we can get off of fossil fuels. One of the features is a segment on algal biodiesel, which to me falls squarely in the category of wishful thinking.
The take home message for me here is that it is important to continue pushing the dialogue on energy issues. Deep down I am optimistic that as fossil fuel prices continue to stretch people’s budgets, they will become more interested in informing themselves on energy issues.