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Will Americans Make Tradeoffs They Don’t Understand?

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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.