Energy: What Americans Don't Know Can Hurt Us

There's a dirty little secret about the debate over energy and global warming in America, and it's got nothing to do with carbon. But it's got everything to do with whether the American people are ready to make the choices needed to grapple with the problem.

Four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, according to the new Energy Learning Curve survey released by Public Agenda in association with Planet Forward. Even more, 51 percent, can't accurately name a renewable energy source. Fewer than half know how much renewable energy we use now, and two-thirds overestimate how much oil we get from the Middle East. Almost all Americans believe we've got more oil in the U.S. than we really do.

So what does this mean, other than that the producers of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" can look forward to steady employment?

For a start, it means that a lot of the political debate on energy is blowing right past most Americans. You don't have to be Mr. Wizard to make sound decisions on energy, or to play a meaningful role as a citizen. But people do need enough basic information to understand what's realistic and what's not, and to seriously weigh the choices and tradeoffs involved in making decisions.

You can't have a serious debate about renewable energy when half the public doesn't know what it is. You can't have a thoughtful discussion about energy security when only 5 percent of Americans know we've only got less than 5 percent of the world's oil. You certainly can't discuss a complicated, arcane strategy like cap-and-trade when a significant minority of the public can't identify a fossil fuel and half believes that combating air pollution means that "we've gone a long way" in combating global warming.

On some issues, this might not matter so much. There are problems that people are fairly content to delegate to the professionals. But energy isn't one of them. It's too intertwined with our lives, touches too many parts of our economy.

This problem can be solved, just like our energy problems in general can be solved. The public typically goes through a "learning curve" on a problem, from initial consciousness of the challenge to "working through" the options and finally, to resolution. They've done this on all kinds of problems in the past. In fact, the survey includes one nugget that suggests that Americans are making some progress. Nearly three-quarters reject the idea the country won't need renewables as long as gas prices stay low. It's an important and encouraging signal that the public is beginning to define the energy issue as more than gas prices. But we need to go further. So we'd like to suggest a few simple reminders for politicians, advocates and the media:

Don't assume. It's perfectly natural for experts (and we include reporters and citizen advocates in that category) to jump over the elementary school information to get into the meaty stuff. But lots of people won't understand the meaty stuff without the basics. So it wouldn't hurt to drop in a sentence saying, for example, "oil, coal and natural gas are fossil fuels, all of which release carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming."

Everyone's ignorant, just on different subjects. We're big fans of this line from Will Rogers, because it's a useful reminder of another pitfall experts and advocates fall into: the belief that if people don't have the facts on a certain topic, they shouldn't have a say at all. This is a democracy. People will have a say whether you want them to or not. In fact, you can't solve the energy problem without them. Better take the time to help them along.

Don't just transmit the slogans. Energy experts are often discouraged by the public's focus on energy independence. Most question whether the U.S. can or even should aim for the goal of being independent of energy imports. But given how often politicians invoke the independence goal, why wouldn't most Americans think it's reasonable? They've heard politicians from across the political spectrum calling for it.

Passing a law doesn't mean it's over. No doubt lots of environmentalists are glad that the current administration seems much more sympathetic to their cause, and are eagerly anticipating new regulations and legislation. But even when new policies are put into place, however, they've still got to be implemented, and that means the decisions of everyone ranging from public utilities and automakers to millions of individual consumers. You still need public support after the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden - in fact you may need it even more, because no policy will stick unless the public buys into it.

The good news is that in many respects the public has been listening. No less than 10 energy proposals attract strong support from the public, according to the Energy Learning Curve. A lot of these are overwhelming no-brainers: 86 percent say investing in alternative energy will create new jobs. Eight in 10 support tax credits to individuals and businesses who reduce energy use, and raising mileage standards for cars. Three-quarters would mandate energy-efficient homes and provide tax credits for hybrids. Seven in 10 would spend more on public transit.

Plus, there's a significant consensus on what's off the table. Anything that increases the cost of driving doesn't get very far with the public. Majorities reject the idea of a gas tax, congestion pricing or a "floor" under fuel prices to make alternative energy competitive.

These numbers suggest that the door is open, that people want change, and that leadership has an opportunity to engage citizens. Now the challenge is to get the public's "informed consent." We've got a ways to go before we have that, but leaders can build a consensus for change if they're ready to to stop talking past the public and start talking to them.