by Richard T. Stuebi
Recently, I’ve been working more closely with people who are active in setting and shaping policies, and it’s clear that they’re wired differently from me. As an economist, my first question in considering policy usually is: “What are the costs and benefits?”. The policy-wonks tend to first ask: “What do the polls say?”
When it comes to energy issues, it’s increasingly clear to me that an instinctual reliance by politicians and staffers on polling data is a dangerous thing. That’s because the average citizen/voter is so badly lacking in basic understanding of the key issues that the opinions of Joe/Jane Six-pack on energy/environmental matters, sadly but frankly, ought not to be given much weight.
That doesn’t seem to stop firms from conducting more and more surveys on energy topics, and from touting their fresh results to support their pet positions. For instance, Deloitte recently conducted a survey on alternative energy, and the generally pro-renewables press release claimed that “a majority of customers said they would pay more for clean energy because it is good for the environment”.
However, the frothing anti-renewables critic Robert Michaels, writing in the June 8 New Power Executive, offered an opposing interpretation of the Deloitte poll results: that the indicated support of the average customer is actually rather lukewarm when reviewed in detail.
Moreover, Michaels points out, rightly, that survey data often overstates customer enthusiasm for renewables, relative to what customers actually do decide to purchase when offered renewable energy.
And, Michaels brings up the inconvenient truth that I’m bringing up today: that Americans are clueless about energy. Michaels refers to a survey conducted earlier this year by Enviromedia Social Marketing, which reported in its press release that “more Americans have no idea what fuels their electricity than those who can name any particular source — either correctly or incorrectly.”
As an even more damning anecdotal piece of evidence, Michaels trots out a 2004 survey from Kentucky in which 41% of respondents identified coal, steel and oil as renewables. Yikes!
Do we really want the public sector following the wishes of the masses on energy, if this is what the public thinks it knows about energy?
I think the last word on the lunacy of polling Americans on critical energy issues must go to the blogger Engineer-Poet who posted the following missive on Alternative Energy Blog about two years ago in response to a Yale poll on environmental positions:
“92% considered dependence on imported oil to be serious or very serious. 89% considered the high price of gasoline to be serious or very serious. Only 19% supported a pollution fee on gasoline, and a mere 15% supported a general increase in the gasoline tax. It takes a lot of ignorance to hold such contradictory opinions.”
I think that little ditty says it all.
In general, I don’t know where I stand on the Jefferson-Hamilton spectrum, but I don’t think policy-makers ought to make policies just to appease and pacify the ignorant.