The energy crisis America faces today is unlike energy crises we faced in the past. There is no supply crunch; energy prices are not skyrocketing. US cities are not choked with smog. We don’t face energy-driven security threats, or potential embargoes.
The new problem is that the United States has too much energy, not too little. We have coal, natural gas, and oil reserves that could last hundreds of years at modest cost, thanks to new extraction technologies, such as fracking with horizontal drilling. Therein lies the rub. Scientific consensus holds that continued use of fossil fuels is the single largest contributor to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — and that our consumption cannot continue indefinitely without risking even more serious global environmental change.
America would seem to need a new national energy policy to face this risk, but we haven’t had one for decades. President Obama has taken a handful of steps toward limiting environmental harm from our energy sources, as have many states and regions. But at the national level, a broader energy policy remains ensnared in bitter partisan and regional politics, and any meaningful congressional action on climate change appears hopeless.
The political rhetoric coming out of Washington suggests a nation divided on energy—torn between industry and environmentalists; between voters who want cheap fuel, and voters who want cleaner power sources. Conventional wisdom holds that it has become impossible to find enough common ground to move forward. But is that right? What do Americans actually believe about energy?
Over the past decade, we have sought to answer that question. In a series of surveys conducted as part of the MIT Energy Initiative and the Harvard University Center on the Environment, we undertook the most comprehensive and prolonged assessment of American public opinion about energy. We compared many different forms—from traditional fuels such as coal and oil to less widely used energy sources such as solar and wind power—to determine what Americans believe, what they know, and what they want.
What we found is that Americans have a good broad grasp of the tradeoffs required when it comes to energy, and considerable willingness to make them. They appreciate that wind and solar are cleaner than fossil fuels, and that it’s more expensive to generate electricity with oil and nuclear energy than with natural gas or coal. They have some mistaken ideas about cost, believing that large-scale wind or solar power is cheaper than it really is. However, when presented with the actual cost of providing electricity through these alternative sources, the public still prefers a substantial deployment of wind and solar to the status quo. And, contrary to what you might think from the political debate, Americans don’t really divide along partisan lines when it comes to their energy preferences.
Americans’ attitudes matter profoundly to our energy future. The country faces difficult political decisions over the coming decades as it replaces hundreds of obsolete power plants, most of which burn coal. Local governments and power companies will have to decide how much to spend, where to site them, and what sorts of power will be acceptable. State and national legislators will have to make regulations that balance the need to keep costs low but also provide safe and clean electricity. What the public wants and believes will be crucial in moving forward. Here are some key findings that we expect will shape the debate.
People actually do want change
It’s commonplace to assume that creating new energy policy is difficult in part because people want to live the way they’re used to, and that includes their current power sources. But our findings reveal that people want a starkly different energy portfolio than what we have today.
Americans have a clear understanding of what types of energy they want to see the United States use, and what types they want to see reduced. Four out of five Americans want to increase use of wind and solar power. Most Americans want to increase the use of natural gas and decrease the use of nuclear power, and three out of five want to reduce use of coal and oil. These fundamental preferences have not appreciably changed in response to historically high oil prices, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.
People care about both harm and costs — but more about harm
When it comes to why people favor certain kinds of energy, the factors that matter most are the perceptions of the environmental harm and economic cost. Factors such as partisanship and region, we found, matter far less.
This is not to suggest that Americans always assess the harms and costs correctly. Although people generally understand the relative adverse environmental and health effects of different energy sources, they tend to greatly underestimate the expense of renewable energies. A large segment of the American population thinks that solar and wind power are “somewhat cheap” or “very cheap,” when in fact they’re far more costly on a large scale than natural gas or coal.
One important thing we found is that people place far more weight on harm than on cost. Although Americans value both—that is, they want their energy to be both cheap and clean—when asked to make a tradeoff, they are willing to pay more if it means cleaner energy. This cuts against typical assumptions in the political and policy debates that Americans aren’t willing to accept higher costs for cleaner electricity or gasoline.
Hurting the earth matters less than hurting your town
The environment affects us al l, and climate is a global phenomenon—so fittingly, the macro-level debate about energy tends to concern itself with global-size issues.
But this isn’t how people naturally think about energy. When we surveyed Americans, we found that the primary environmental consideration driving their preferences is local air and water pollution, and toxic waste. Despite more than two decades of efforts by scientists and advocates to link our personal energy choices to global climate change, most Americans don’t make a strong connection.
This finding is tremendously important to climate politics. Americans express significant resistance to policies, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade regimes, that are explicitly designed and discussed as ways to mitigate climate change. The environmental advocacy community tends to think about the environment in global terms, and rightfully so, but this is not what motivates the thinking of average people. Rather, the public wants policies that address problems that they feel are most proximate. Any leader pressing for major changes, then, will need to frame them in terms of local and not just global impacts.
People don’t have favorites
The national debate tends to pit energy sources against each other, talking about coal and natural gas versus wind and solar, as though people really preferred one kind of energy over the other. But what we found is that Americans’ preferences are not source-specific. People don’t like or dislike coal or wind because it is coal or wind. Rather, it is the attributes that matter. People like coal because it is cheap, but they dislike that it’s dirty. They like natural gas because it is relatively clean and has become relatively inexpensive.
In this respect, Americans view energy sources as consumers view any good. Americans want energy to be less harmful to the environment and they want it to be less expensive.
It might sound almost obvious, but the fact that Americans view energy choices through this common lens is important. For one thing, it suggests that “coal vs. wind” might reflect how industries see it, but it’s not really relevant to consumers and voters. It also suggests that people can change how they feel about different energy sources—so as technological advances diminish environmental harms from some dirtier fuels, or reduce costs for newer and cleaner ones, each could become more competitive in the economic marketplace, more acceptable to the public, and more palatable in the political realm.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these results is just how commonsensical they are. In essence, the public wants cheap but dirty energy options like coal and oil to be cleaner, and they want expensive but cleaner energy choices such as wind and solar power to be less expensive. When forced to choose, people are much more willing to choose cleaner energy over cheaper energy.
Beyond this common ground, understanding public attitudes suggests new strategies for how to talk about policy. The question of local impact turns out to be key in terms of motivating people toward better solutions. Natural gas produced from fracking, for instance, has costs and benefits that reach both globally and locally—it’s cleaner energy than coal or oil, but it also risks harming local air and water quality. Our research suggests that it is the local issue that weighs far more heavily on people, and the one most likely to inspire action.
We have already seen evidence of the power of this lever. We have consistently found that a majority of Americans support policies such as the recently introduced EPA regulations of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. These represent more than just climate policy; they offer an opportunity to reduce air and water pollution locally. Burning less coal for electricity means fewer cases of asthma, fewer cases of heart disease, and less contamination of drinking water, and people respond to these results. The interest in local harms also explains why Americans support many of the other environmental protections they do, such as limits on mercury emissions to the air and arsenic in drinking water.
Climate change is a global problem that will require an international commitment to address, but the United States will need to lead the way. A path forward on climate policy—and one that we believe advocates must do a better job of integrating into their activities and communication—is to focus on the local impacts from energy use, not the impacts to the global climate.
There is a political opportunity for companies and elected officials to develop policies that reduce pollution and ensure inexpensive energy within communities. That goal will often be consistent with a broader effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions. To actually bring these changes about, however, will take creative leadership from the private and public sectors. Improvements in the efficiency or emissions from of traditional fuels are likely to be as important as the deployment of alternative energies.
The end game will be the same: to move the United States toward a cleaner energy economy. But with people’s real concerns in mind, our strategy may be different.
Stephen Ansolabehere is a professor of government at Harvard University, and David M. Konisky is an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. They are coauthors of “Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming” (MIT Press, 2014).