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Bothered and Bewildered: Counterintuitive Energy Ideas and the Public

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Mount Everest: apparently a great place for solar power, although getting there is a challenge. (Photograph by Rupert Taylor-Price, Flickr)

It’s the counterintuitive energy ideas that people have trouble grasping.

Another one came out this week, in the form of a Japanese study in Environmental Science & Technology that found the best areas for photovoltaic solar energy may be the Earth’s coldest regions, even the high altitudes of the Andes and the Himalayas. Not only is sunshine abundant in high altitudes, but the cold temperatures may actually improve how solar technology performs.

The practical applications of this may be limited, the study admits, because there are lots of other reasons why you don’t build giant power plants in the high Andes. But the contradiction of cold weather and high solar power got us thinking about one of the biggest challenges in talking to the public about energy: what’s intuitive isn’t always true.

This isn’t about knowledge per se – although the fact that four in 10 Americans can’t name a fossil fuel, and even fewer can name a renewable energy source, should certainly give anyone pause.

But consider, for example, the question of smog. The United States has made considerable progress on visible air pollution over the last few decades, even as greenhouse gases continue to rise. But the public sees the two as related in ways that don’t hold up. About half (52 percent) say that by reducing smog the United States has gone “a long way” in reducing global warming; another 12 percent were unsure if this was true or false.

This is understandable and even logical; after all, if the air looks cleaner then we must be making progress. Going forward, the two goals of clean air and reducing carbon emissions can move in tandem. But the fact is that the emissions controls designed to reduce ozone and remove the sooty “particulates” that cause smog we’ve put into place in the last 40 years don’t remove the invisible greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It wasn’t until recently that the EPA even attempted to regulate carbon dioxide (and they still may not get to carry it out).

A great deal of analytical time and effort has been spent on trying to figure out whether hot weather makes people believe in global warming and snowstorms make them more doubtful. Indeed, both environmentalists and climate skeptics try to capitalize on this. But the distinction between smog and global warming is something that may escape even well-informed people. And it suggests the public may be measuring our energy and climate problems by yardsticks that do not even occur to experts.

The real question is how this affects solutions. In the case of cleaner air and global warming, there are energy solutions that both work and look like they’re working. Shifting from coal to cleaner options, or from conventional cars to electric vehicles, can be “two-fers” in that sense. Others are harder. In one Public Agenda survey, 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) says that solar energy contributes to global warming.

The point here isn’t that people are ill-informed, although that’s true enough. It’s that they grapple with solutions in ways that experts and advocates don’t always understand. And unless you have an accurate picture of where people start and how people learn, the best citizen education and engagement efforts will misfire. That’s a genuine shame. It’s hard to get people’s attention, and when you do, you really need to make the very best use of that time to help people enhance their understanding.

The burden is really on the elites – and we include advocates and activists in this group – to zero in on the misperceptions and gaps in knowledge that are really tripping people up. Unless we’re much smarter about environmental and energy citizen education, we’ll never be able to help the public make sense of these counterintuitive ideas. They’re not all going to become experts or advocates, but there are plenty of Americans who aren’t as engaged, and who aren’t going to be as engaged, but who still want the right things to happen.