An interesting report out today from Public Agenda, entitled “The Energy Learning Curve.”  They report on a survey that is both heartening with respect to the public perceptions of global warming (and needs for policy response thereto) and frustrating for what they suggest about the policy conversation in Washington. 

The Good

The good news is that there is overwhelming support for rather major changes in our energy policy and infrastructure:

  • 86% believe that investing in alternative energy will create jobs
  • 84% support investment in fuel efficient railways
  • Solid majorities support policies that transfer wealth to individuals and businesses who invest in clean technology (84% like tax rebates for individuals who reduce energy use, 79% support the same for businesses, 73% support tax rebates on hybrid vehicles, 72% support policies that both reward business that reduce CO2 emissions and penalize those that don’t.)
  • 68% support investments in energy independence, even if it raises energy costs.

(As a minor quibble, I’m sorry that all the questions about wealth transfers were framed as tax rebates — as if that is the only policy tool we have at our disposal to create fiscal incentives to invest.  But I digress.)

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Perhaps the most intriguing thing though is that when they parse people’s attitudes, they find that only 17% of the population are “Climate Change Doubters.”  To be fair, of the remaining 83%, 19% are simply “disengaged,” but that still leaves pretty compelling majorities who have not been swayed by Inhofe, ACCCE and the rest of the Flat Earth Society.

The Bad

While this should come as no surprise, it’s worth noting that in spite of the overwhelming support for good policy, no one really wants to pay for it.  From congestion pricing to gas taxes, overwhelming majorities are opposed to those options that — as framed in the survey — suggest that specific economic pain may be imposed on the specific survey responder.

Frankly, I’m not sure that’s such a big deal.  All of us have no shortage of personal conflict when it comes to societal goods and our personal roles therein.  (I will personally confess that as much as I am concerned about the steady growth in human population, I have been known to enjoy the occasional bit of procreation.)

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That said, it does explain much of the politics around greenhouse gas policy.  One side articulates the critical need to respond and gets support.  The other side articulates the personal pain that will be imposed on You and gets support from many of the same people.  Which brings us to …

The Ugly

Why don’t “green” politicians get this?  Overwhelming majorities of people believe people who reduce CO2 should be rewarded for doing so, and yet our GHG policy debate is focused virtually exclusively on (a) penalizing polluters and (b) making sure that all money flows back into the beltway before it gets redistributed.  We have massive debates about how government should spend the proceeds, from payroll tax deductions to national debt reduction with nary a moment to ask whether or not that actually encourages GHG reduction.

The result is that the deniers have a valid point when they say that GHG bills will raise your energy bills.  After all, if the proceeds are being used to do anything other than build cleaner, less fuel-intensive (and therefore, cheaper) energy sources, then they can’t avoid causing that dichotomy in every voter who wants GHG reduction and reductions in their electric bill.

The failure of politicians to effectively articulate these win/win alternatives has provided fodder for that minority of deniers to create a wedge and stall action.  Worse, it has substantially limited our ability to have an informed debate.  As the survey notes:

The study found most Americans tend to focus on one or two aspects of the “energy problem,” such as prices or climate change, not recognizing their connection to other issues.  Despite consensus on certain solutions, misconceptions and lack of knowledge hinder informed judgment and create a disconnect between the public and policy makers. For example, half of all Americans could not identify a renewable energy source, nearly 4 in 10 cannot name a fossil fuel, two-thirds overestimate U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and more than half think that, by reducing smog, the United States has gone “a long way” in addressing global warming.

That’s not because the public is stupid, but rather because we have yet to have a politician who understood the issues well enough, and took the time to explain them.  We’re overdue.