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Energy policy and uninformed opinion

Poster of men talking (1943): "THIS IS AMERICA... WHERE PUBLIC OPINION IS THE BASIS OF NATIONAL POLICY."  Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:THIS_IS_AMERICA..._WHERE_PUBLIC_OPINION_IS_THE_BASIS_OF_NATIONAL_POLICY._-_NARA_-_515765.jpg

Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to respond to questions about the direction of the economy and financial markets by saying: "I answer because I'm asked not because I know."

Such is also the case with poorly informed members of the public whose views pollsters seek on every conceivable topic including energy. A recent Gallup poll asked a sampling of Americans whether they believe the United States will face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.

Some 31 percent responded yes, the lowest number on record since the question was first asked in 1978 (though it was not asked again by Gallup until 2001.) In 2012, the last time the question appeared in a Gallup survey, the number was 50 percent. The highest result came, not surprisingly, in 2008 when oil was making its historic climb to an all-time high of $147 per barrel. In March of that year (five months before the oil price peak) some 62 percent of American respondents thought the United States would face a critical energy shortage in the next five years.

There is, of course, the problem of what "critical energy shortage" means to each respondent. Prices for all varieties of energy were elevated in 2008, but there weren't any critical shortages--just very high prices which made it impossible for some to afford as much energy as they would like.

Currently, in the face of gasoline prices which have fallen to $2.11 per gallon nationally and natural gas prices that recently touched lows reminiscent of the late 1990s, it is remarkable that even 31 percent still think critical energy shortages could show up within five years. That belief may be the after-effect of the highest average daily prices on record for crude oil four years running from 2011 through 2014.

That 66 percent seem unconcerned may represent those whose opinions merely follow the prevailing trend--which in energy prices for the moment seems to be down. Interestingly, 1 percent said we are already in such a shortage, the same percentage who said it in the high-energy-price year of 2008. In this year's survey, only 2 percent said they had no opinion, a rare admission among opinionated Americans.

The urgency with which the United States and the world treats energy issues has to do in part with whether the public thinks there is a problem. And, Americans don't think there is a problem with low-priced energy as is evidenced by a political past littered with such unpopular taxes as President Jimmy Carter's Windfall Profits Tax aimed at U.S. oil companies benefiting from the deregulation of oil prices; presidential candidate John Anderson's 50-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax (offset by a 50 percent reduction in Social Security taxes); President Bill Clinton's ill-fated BTU tax; and now Barak Obama's proposed oil tax.

All of these except the Windfall Profits Tax presumed that America's energy consumption was excessive and sought either to reduce it and/or to shift it to renewable energy sources.

It used to be that the public needed only to concern itself with the supply of energy--or rather the supply of affordable energy. Now, it is obliged to think along two axes, one relating to supply and another relating to climate change since the vast majority of our energy still comes from the burning of fossil fuels which emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.

To ask people their views about energy without asking about their views regarding climate change is more than just a careless oversight. It misses what is perhaps now the central issue in energy: Can we as a civilization survive the long-term side-effects of the fuels we currently use?

Put this way, the problem seems much more urgent regardless of the price. That said, informed opinion--or should I say truly informed opinion--would tell us that low energy prices endanger future energy supplies by making investment in exploration for oil and natural gas, development of alternative energy sources and investment in energy conservation measures all less attractive. Truly informed opinion would therefore poll just the opposite of mere popular opinion.

America's tradition of anti-intellectualism puts a low premium on careful thinking, allowing the substitution of slogans for analysis. The current presidential campaign should be evidence enough of how true this is.

But there is another reason for resistance to careful thinking; it can be difficult and distressing, especially if it leads to conclusions that are uncomfortable or contrary to our current beliefs. Which brings us back to John Kenneth Galbraith who once said: "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking."

Conventional thinking is all we are likely to get out of polls and explains why serious energy policy thinkers continue to run up against opposition to what for a long time has been sensible energy policy, namely, dramatically reducing energy use through efficiency and conservation measures and rapidly switching to renewable sources such as wind and solar--sources that do not create the triple threat of depletion, pollution and climate change posed by fossil fuels.

Image: Poster of men talking (1943): "THIS IS AMERICA... WHERE PUBLIC OPINION IS THE BASIS OF NATIONAL POLICY." Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

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