Americans Don’t Know Squat About Energy Issues

A new election-year guide explains the basics, without telling people how to vote.

Americans are worried about high gas prices. But they don't really understand the policies that affect the price at the pump. (Photo: Getty Images). 

Jul 19, 2012
writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

Can you name a renewable energy source? How about a fossil fuel? If you're answer is no, the "good" news is you're not alone.

A survey conducted in 2009 by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization, found that nearly half of all Americans couldn't answer the first of these questions and 30 percent shrugged their shoulders at the latter.

At the same time, more recent data has shown that nine in 10 Americans think that the energy situation is serious, and five in 10 believe that the U.S. will face an energy shortage in the next five years.

MORE: Who's Greener: Obama or Romney?

Clearly, Americans care about energy issues, but is uninformed concern any better than educated apathy?  How are Americans supposed to choose candidates this November who reflect what they value when they don't know what's at stake?

New York City-based Public Agenda has just released Energy: A Citizens' Solution Guide, designed to try and walk voters through key energy issues.

The guide gives a basic overview of the kinds of energy used in America—petroleum, coal, natural gas, nuclear, renewables—and breaks down what each energy source is used for, how much we have in the U.S., and generally, what's good and what's bad in terms of cost, supply, sustainability, and environmental impact.

It also presents three potential policy approaches voiced by candidates and tries to analyze, at least at a basic level, the pros, cons, and the all too often overlooked tradeoffs that don't make for persuasive campaign rhetoric.

The energy policies examined include: moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and making investments in renewable sources; producing more fuel domestically, focusing on natural gas and oil; or moving towards a more energy-efficient society.

In the simplest terms, the guide suggests that: 

  • Moving to renewables will be good for the environment but will be costly and slow;
  • Ramping up fossil fuel production will help provide short-term energy security at low prices, but there are serious environmental impacts, and fossil fuels are finite by definition;
  • Reducing energy consumption may seem like the simplest solution, but it won't be enough on its own and it will take a massive overhaul of infrastructure as well as significant lifestyle changes. 

Perhaps the best part of the guide—which probably won't make anyone happy since it doesn't suggest that anything is a silver bullet—is that it doesn't tell voters what to think. You choose what your priorities are, yet you don't get to escape looking at the tradeoffs. Leave that to folks in D.C.

Do energy issues influence your vote? Let us know in the comments below. 


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