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Connecting With the Public on Energy - But Which Public?

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

This week President Obama called for the nation to cut its oil imports by one-third by 2025 – no mean feat, given that the United States hasn’t been energy independent since cars had tail fins (1957, to be precise).

Energy security is important to the public, and $100 per barrel oil and unrest in the Middle East shows they’re right to be concerned. But over the years we’ve had enormous difficulty moving from debate to decision on this topic. With another energy plan on the table, it’s worth revisiting how the public thinks about this problem.

When Public Agenda conducted its Energy Learning Curve survey, we included a “cluster analysis,” examining the data in terms of how people are grouped naturally based on knowledge and beliefs. On energy, we found the public divided into four groups: the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent), and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).

Each of the four groups has a distinctive set of values, beliefs or concerns that shape how they approach the energy problem. The key point here is that if leaders are trying to build public support for an energy policy, understanding the public’s motivations is critical. What motivates one group might leave another cold or even repel them. The environmental arguments that resonate with the Greens, for example, would turn off the Doubters.

But there are also opportunities. One of the most intriguing findings is that so many people reach similar conclusions from completely different starting points. For example, both the Anxious and the Greens support alternative energy, but for entirely different reasons. The Anxious are worried about the price and supply of energy, and believe bringing new energy sources on line will help. The Greens, naturally, back them because they’re concerned about global warming and pollution.

Change, particularly when you’re dealing with a subject as complex as energy, requires knitting people with different concerns together. To help the public move up its “learning curve” on this issue, it’s fundamental to understand how people can see a problem through different lenses but still end up at the same place.


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