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It Takes More Than Data to Make a Decision

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The Environmental Protection Agency last week launched its much-awaited database reporting on the greenhouse gas emissions of major power plants. You can go to and find out how many tons of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases are being put out by facilities in your community or state.

It’s a major advance for transparency on greenhouse emissions, and analysts and activists will have a field day with the data. But will it really help the public move forward on making energy decisions?

A lot of people, particularly in the scientific community, believe more and better information means more and better decisions. Whether that actually works out in practice, however, depends on how that information fits into the broader method of how the broader public (rather than experts and activists) grapples with problems.
Social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, the co-founder of Public Agenda, has put forward the idea of a “Learning Curve” in public thinking about complicated problems. Experts and activists, those who have spent their lives learning about a specific topic, are ready to take new facts and move forward – maybe in the right direction, maybe not.

The public usually needs time to get up to speed and make up its mind about a problem. Generally speaking, the public passes through a “learning curve” of several stages , from initial consciousness of what the problem is, to “working through” the tradeoffs in different options and then, to “resolution” about solutions. Sometimes that happens quickly; sometimes it can take years or decades. The more complicated the problem, the longer it takes the public to reach resolution. And the problems surrounding energy and climate are particularly complex. When Public Agenda surveyed public attitudes on energy several years ago, we found that many Americans were stumped on questions that were far more basic than how many tons of greenhouse gases their local power plant put out.

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Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) cannot name a fossil fuel. About 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) says that solar energy contributes to global warming. In many of these cases, there were also high levels of “don’t knows.”

More importantly, even when the facts are out there, any number of other problems can block the public from getting behind a course of action. A lack of urgency, mistrust, wishful thinking and a paucity of alternatives can all keep the public from grappling with a problem, even when everyone’s agreed on the facts. When it comes to energy and the environment especially, addressing the public’s lack of trust and fear of change can be just as important as giving people more information.

The new database – or any other new information source – will work best if it’s combined with a sense of practical choices. Despite all the focus on national policy and global treaties, energy and climate decisions are driven by local decisions by utility companies, state regulators and community activists. They’re the ones who decide what kinds of power plants get built – and deciding what kind of plants we build is the core of the climate problem. If we’re going to shift those policies, we need to not only show the pros and cons of our current plants, we also need to show the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives. And people need to wrestle with the alternatives in local communities where trust is likely to be stronger and where people can envision the alternatives in concrete ways. Otherwise, we end up where we are now: with energy choices we can’t sustain and yet won’t change.

Data can show us how we’re going wrong. The trick is finding ways to use it to guide us in the right direction.