Energy knowledge chart

In surveys, significant numbers of Americans admit they don't know some basics on energy. Source: Public Agenda

What will it really take to get the public to make tradeoffs on energy?

It’s a fundamental question, because energy policy is all about the tradeoffs. No form of energy is perfect. Everything comes with pros and cons. The key to moving forward is figuring out what people will accept: how much will they pay, what risks are they willing to accept, and what alternatives we should pursue.

The latest survey on this issue, published in Nature Climate Change and conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, tries to pin down how much people will pay for cleaner energy. The survey concludes that most Americans would be willing to pay modestly higher energy bills in support of a national clean energy standard. The same study uses a statistical model to go on to project that such a standard could pass Congress if it increases electricity rates less than 5 percent on average.

It’s a useful and intriguing analysis. But there may be more fundamental issues when it comes to how the public considers energy tradeoffs. Survey after survey shows that consensus is possible, at least on paper, but we never actually seem to get there in practice.

One reason may be that the public lacks some basic knowledge about energy. A Public Agenda survey in 2009 found nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) couldn’t name a fossil fuel. Nearly half couldn’t name a renewable energy source. More than half of the public (56 percent) says incorrectly that nuclear energy contributes to global warming. About one-third of the public (31 percent) thought solar energy contributes to global warming. While the survey is a few years old, we’re skeptical that public knowledge has improved all that much.

And that may be the under-appreciated issue in public opinion on energy. No wonder the public has trouble judging what’s realistic and what’s not. No wonder that it’s hard to figure out how much people are willing to pay to change their energy future: they don’t know what they’re getting for their money.

Experts, particularly scientists, often overstate the importance of information in public decision making. Facts are important, but they’re not enough. The public can have all the facts and still not move forward on a problem, if all the solutions seem impractical, expensive, or in conflict with their values.

More importantly, people don’t need to become experts on an issue in order to fully participate in democratic decision making. We don’t expect the voters to become physicians in order to set priorities for health care reform or hold a doctorate in education to realize what’s needed in their local schools. And people have the right to a say in choices that affect their lives, whether they recall their middle-school science lessons or not.

But the public does need enough information so it can understand the basic elements of the problem and wrestle with the implications of different choices. In the end, we face some basic choices on energy: what kind of energy should provide our electricity? What kind of vehicles should we drive? All the other choices flow from that.

And that’s one reason why consensus is so elusive on this issue: not that people are selfish, cheap or unreasonable, but that they’re not prepared to judge what our real alternatives are and come to firm conclusions. If more than half of Americans believes that nuclear energy contributes to global warming and roughly 3 in 10 think solar energy does the same, it’s really no wonder the national energy debate is so muddled. Until we help the public grasp the country’s alternatives and weigh them, we probably going to keep on postponing the decisions the country genuinely needs to make.


  1. Tommie Sue Montgomery
    Newcastle, Ontario
    May 29, 2012, 4:07 pm

    Both of these comments are thoughtful and should be taken seriously. But the more fundamental problem to which the article points is ignorance. If 51% of those surveyed cannot name a renewable energy source (the sun? Wind?) and 39% cannot name a fossil fuel (what do they think oil and coal are?) it will be difficult to begin–much less sustain–a conversation about future energy needs and alternative sources.

  2. Stephen Booth
    United Kingdom
    May 25, 2012, 7:47 am

    I’d also like to know what definition of ‘contributes to global warming’ was used. It’s very easy for the oil lobby and their friends to confuse the issue by twisting definitions. They can argue that sunlight contributes to global warming as the heat is trapped heat from the sun, whilst omitting that the reason the heat is trapped is because of cabon dioxide caused by burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of habitats like the Amazon rain forests, corals and oceanic algae that would absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide.

    I agree that when looking at power generation we need to look at the full cycle from building the plant, through generation to final decomissioning, but we need to look at that for all forms of generation. Sure there are set up and tear down emissions for nuclear, solar, wind &c. But there also are for coal, gas and oil fired generation.

    I’m reminded of an article I read near 10 years ago about a coal fired power plant in Australia. This plant happened to be near to a number of farms producing macadamia nuts and the processing plant that took the nuts from the famrs, shelled them and processed and packaged them for sale to consumers and food manufacturers. Preparing the nuts for sale produced a large volume of organic waste, mostly nutshells. Previously this had been shipped away by road or rail to landfil. Coal for the power plant and fertiliser for the farms was shipped in by the same routes. Then someone worked out that they could burn the shells in the power plant along with the coal and produce electricity. End result was a massive reduction in the carbon footprint of the plant both directly from burning less coal and indirectly from having to ship in less coal and ship out less waste. As I recall they even found that by burning nuts shells the ash from the plant became easy to process into feriliser foir the farms. The nutshells (and other plant waste) didn’t completely replace coal (not enough were produced) but they did make for a drastic reduction in the amount required and a comensurate reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the plant. It also meant that the carbon released had been trapped the previous year, rather than millions of years ago so over the span of the year it was carbon neutral. Of course the anti-renewables started saying there was no saving in carbon as burning the shells released carbon dioxide and accusing the pro-renewables of hiding the truth and misleading the public (which is what they themselves were actually doing). We had to point out that the carbon dioxide released from burning would be released anyway through the rotting process, indeed much of the carbon so released would be in the form of methane which is a much worse greenhouse gas as it traps more heat per gram carbon.

  3. Wyatt
    May 24, 2012, 9:32 am

    What is the definition of “contributing to global warming”?

    Part because I like playing devil’s advocate, and part because I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, it might not be as black and white as the survey might have suggested.

    For starters, there needs to be a baseline for comparison. Is the baseline using a different source of energy for the electricity or is it not using the electricity at all?

    If the null condition is not having the electricity, then both nuclear and solar DO contribute to global warming. Consider the full cycle of the system (manufacturing, construction, and maintenace), not just the ‘tailpipe’ emissions. If the elctricity is replacing electricity from coal, then it probably swings the other way.

    Next, how is the heat produced during generation and use dealt with? All electricity ends up as thermal energy eventually (light is absorbed, momentum is lost to friction, resistance in the transmission lines creates becomes heat), except the light that escapes the atmoshpere. For solar, this comes down to whether the collection (PV or solar thermal) affects the reflectivity of the local surface. If sunlight is capture that otherwise would be reflected into space, one could argue that the system contributes to warming the earth. In the realm of nuclear, a lot of energy is released by fission – note the cooling towers and ponds required at nuclear facilities. Granted, this energy was already contained in the earth, and would be released at some point in the [distant] future, but it definitely does do some local warming.

    One could also say that any activity that does not involve removing [thermal or future thermal] energy from the earth (be it the act of removing it {I’m thinking LASER pointed out into space} or reducing the insulation around the earth) contributes to global warming.

    I doubt this was the thought process of most of the responders, but I can have some fun with it, can’t I?