The Wilson Quarterly

Climate change activists take note: Your efforts appear to be in vain. Despite constant warnings about global warming, the American public doesn’t think about the issue much when making judgments about which domestic fuel choices to support. On the basis of this conclusion, Harvard government professor Stephen Ansolabehere and Georgetown public policy professor David M. Konisky argue that leaders would be smart to emphasize policies focused on other issues in order to tackle the climate challenge.

Ansolabehere and Konisky studied a series of public opinion surveys launched in 2002 to gauge how Americans assess the costs and environmental effects of different fuels used to generate electricity. The two researchers found, on the one hand, that many rated environmental impact an important factor in their opinions about national energy use. Specifically, they favored forms of energy they believed to be less harmful to the environment. Seventy-five percent wanted to increase the use of solar and wind power, for instance.

The problem is that most of the respondents did not have an accurate understanding of energy costs. And they conceived of environmental harms in terms of local problems—think water pollution and toxic waste—rather than grand phenomena such as climate change. Wind and solar power were perceived, wrongly, as being cheaper than coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power. When surveyed again after being told that coal and natural gas are in reality much cheaper than wind and solar power, respondents’ support for traditional fuels grew slightly while support for renewable sources dropped significantly.

Even Americans who are very worried about global warming “express only slightly higher support for expansion of nuclear power or contraction of coal power—two changes in the U.S. energy portfolio thought to be essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector,” Ansolabehere and Konisky note. If all Americans were to share that high level of concern about climate change, the number of supporters of coal would only fall 10 percentage points, and the number supporting wind and solar power would only increase 20 percentage points.

The two researchers despair of rallying support to combat climate change directly. They believe that policymakers should instead harness concerns about local environmental damage to do the job. Reducing emissions from local coal-burning plants through regulation is one way. A pragmatic approach may not please climate change activists, but at least it’s a start.

THE SOURCE: “The American Public’s Energy Choice” by Stephen Ansolabehere and David M. Konisky. Daedalus, Spring 2012.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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