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Americans Support Wide Array of Proposed Energy Policies, but Not Yet Ready to Make Tradeoffs

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RISMEDIA, April 6, 2009-Despite partisan debate, the American people find common ground on their support for a number of measures to address the nation’s energy problems. At least 10 major energy proposals that would provide incentives for energy efficiency, reduce gasoline usage and support alternative energy have widespread support. But the public may not yet be prepared for the tradeoffs and challenges needed to make these proposals a reality, according to a new survey, “The Energy Learning Curve(TM),” released by Public Agenda, the nonpartisan opinion research and citizen engagement organization.

The study, based on an in-depth national survey of 1,001 Americans, is being released in conjunction with “Planet Forward,” (www.planetforward.org) an innovative Web-to-television-to-Web initiative produced by the Public Affairs Project of The George Washington University, designed to advance the discussion on energy and climate change with both citizens and leaders submitting their ideas.

The public’s interest in energy alternatives is broad and not necessarily dependent on its worries about gas prices, according to the survey. Three quarters of the public (73%) disagrees with the statement that “if we get gas prices to drop and stay low, we don’t need to be worried about finding alternative sources of energy,” and 53% “strongly disagree.” While the survey found consensus on many aspects of the energy challenge, there are also significant barriers in building public support for change.

“Perhaps no challenge facing the United States today is more dependent on public support and consumer action than energy,” according to Daniel Yankelovich, Public Agenda’s chairman and social scientist, who developed the Learning Curve concept of public understanding. Citizens typically move through distinct stages, from first, initial consciousness of the problem to a second stage of “working through” the tradeoffs in different options and then finally, to resolution about solutions. “The challenges involved in solving our energy problems and getting public support for those solutions are difficult but far from insurmountable. Given what’s at stake, it’s essential that progress up this learning curve accelerate as quickly as possible,” Yankelovich said.

As part of the Learning Curve analysis, Public Agenda identified four broad clusters of public opinion based on their attitudes, values and knowledge; the Anxious (40%), the Greens (24%), the Disengaged (19%) and the Climate Change Doubters (17%). The steep learning curve required for all four groups poses challenges for policy makers.

Common Ground on Alternative Energy and Taxes

Despite the many differences in public attitudes and gaps in knowledge, there is widespread public support on a number of policies that the nation could pursue, particularly around alternative energy, conservation, and incentives to become more efficient. A number of proposals have more than two-thirds support:

- 86% agree that investing in alternative energy will create many new jobs (45% believe this strongly)
- 84% support more investment in fuel-efficient railways (47% strongly)
- 81% support tax rebates to individuals who reduce energy use (44% strongly)
- 79% support tax rebates to businesses (41% strongly) who reduce energy use
- 78% want higher gas-mileage requirements for cars (50% strongly)
- 74% say developers should be required to build more energy-efficient homes (32% strongly)
- 73% support tax credits to purchasers of hybrid automobiles (38% strongly)
- 72% want to reward businesses that reduce carbon emissions and penalize those that don’t (37% strongly)
- 71% agree that more tax money should be spent on public transportation (33% strongly)
- 68% want the nation to take steps to gain energy independence even if it raises energy costs (24% strongly)

By contrast, majorities oppose measures that would force change by increasing the cost of driving, such as setting a “floor” on gasoline prices (72%, with 58% strongly opposed), congestion pricing (61%, 41% strongly) and higher gas taxes.

Some 57% reject a gas tax even when it would be used to achieve energy independence, with 37% strongly opposed.

“Very often politicians and the media focus on the deep divisions in our society, and those divisions are real enough. Yet despite many differences among citizens, there is important common ground on a range of solutions to the energy challenge. The Energy Learning Curve(TM) survey is proof that people can have very different starting points and end up at the same place,” said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda executive vice president and director of public issues analysis.

Four ‘Clusters’ of the Public

Public Agenda’s study found four clusters of people with distinctive values, beliefs and knowledge. While they come at this problem from very different perspectives, they sometimes end up with similar views on solutions. The groups include: the largest group, the Anxious, account for 40% of Americans. Worried about energy costs, oil scarcity and global warming, they favor conservation, regulation and development of alternative energy sources. They tend to be younger, lower income and have less knowledge about energy issues.

The second largest cluster, the Greens, represent 24% of the public, strongly favor conservation and developing renewable energy over drilling for oil. They are willing to pay more to develop renewable energy. Politically moderate, they tend to be higher income and more knowledgeable about energy issues.

The Disengaged group comprises 19% of the public and can be described as politically moderate, lower income and disproportionately older and female, with limited knowledge and concern about energy issues.

Finally, 17% are Climate Change Doubters, who do not consider global warming a problem. They are politically conservative and support more nuclear power and expanded domestic oil drilling.

Public Primarily Troubled by Energy Prices and Oil Dependence

Right now, the majority of the public sees the price of energy and the problem of oil dependence as deeply troubling problems. Climate change is a lesser concern.

Overwhelming majorities worry about increases in the price of gas and fuel (89% overall, with 57% saying they worry “a lot”).

Concern about dependence on foreign oil is almost as high at 83% (with 47% worrying “a lot”).

Concern about climate change is much less intense. While 71% say they’re at least “somewhat” worried about global warming, only 32% say they worry “a lot.”

Barriers to Public Engagement

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.

“Better information, by itself, isn’t enough,” Yankelovich said. “It would be a terrible mistake to assume that if and when the knowledge gap is filled, the public will then be ready to support sound policies. People can absorb factual information much faster than they can overcome wishful thinking and denial or accept far-reaching changes in habits and lifestyles.”

As Yankelovich says: “This is a unique challenge to policy makers: the combination of a fast-moving, complex problem and a comparatively slow-moving public trying to come to grips with it. While the challenges are significant, and the hurdles extensive, there’s nothing in our research to suggest that they’re insurmountable. The American public has grappled with complex challenges.

Given committed leadership and the right conditions, the public can come to firm, sound conclusions. Energy is the next big challenge, and given the right circumstances, can be the next success.”

For more information, visit www.planetforward.org and www.publicagenda.org.

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