Where are the Swing Voters on the Climate Bill?

by Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson

As the Senate environment committee starts to hold hearings on the climate change bill, we think there's one critical question for the senators: Who are you talking to?

That's not an obvious question, or an (entirely) sardonic one. Legislation is almost always shaped more by leaders and lobbyists rather than the public at large, and given the complexity of the climate bill that's even more true here.

But you can't solve the climate change problem if the public isn't ready to accept some level of change. In the end, this is an argument about how we get the energy to fuel the life Americans want to live. You can't change the energy picture without getting the public to reconsider where our energy comes from and what practical alternatives there are for developing a more climate-friendly mix. If too many Americans believe there's an easy, cost-free answer out there, or conversely, if too many believe that we can't tackle our climate problems without destroying the American way of life, we're not going to get very far.

Right now, too many Americans are heading into this fight unarmed. Four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, according to Public Agenda's Energy Learning Curve survey. Even more can't name a renewable energy source. It's a fair assumption that most people aren't going to understand the ins and outs of the climate bill.

What's worse is that most don't understand the fundamental challenge here: that the world needs to change the kind of energy we use, even as we need more and more of it. World energy demand is projected to rise 50 percent over the next 20 years, mostly because hundreds of millions of people in China, India and the developing world will be buying cars and living better lives. Production of fossil fuels, particularly oil, is going to have trouble keeping up with that demand anyway. And even if we could meet that demand with fossil fuels, we'd end up with irreversible climate change.

But there is a coalition to be built here, if you talk to the right people in the right way.

When our organization, Public Agenda, conducted its Energy Learning Curve survey of Americans, we found they fell naturally into four broad categories: the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent) and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).

The Greens, as you can imagine, are probably at a 350.org rally right now, the Doubters are still chanting "drill baby drill," and the Disengaged are watching the playoffs instead. The most interesting group -- and the most significant -- are the Anxious. They don't know much about energy issues, but they know enough to be worried. Almost all of this group worries "a lot" about the cost of energy (91 percent); They report higher levels of worry than the other groups on scarcity and on increased worldwide demand for oil. Global warming is a lesser concern, but even here 69 percent say it's real and 54 percent say they worry "a lot" about it.

Most importantly, the Anxious are the largest single group, at 40 percent. They're the "swing voters" of this issue, and you can't build a majority without them.

A lot of environmentalists seem convinced that the key to success is making everyone else as concerned about climate change as they are. That's no help in persuading the Anxious; they're already worried about it and convinced it's real. Making sure there's enough energy to go around, and at a price that people can afford, are even more important to this group.

So what's the takeaway here? There are two key points:

Back to basics: We've been doing a lot of work to educate the public on energy (in fact, we've just written a book on the subject). And one thing we've learned is you can't assume people know the fundamentals. And we're not talking about the science of global warming here. We're talking about the fact that there's a relatively short list of options that can provide the energy we need in the volume we need. Right now, 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas and only 2 percent from wind and solar combined. Given that, we have some practical choices to make here, and in our experience, people are pretty good at making them, if you lay them out and are honest about the pros and cons. Plus, a little information up front can head off a lot of misinformation later on, as the health care reform advocates found out to their dismay.

Speak to people's real concerns. People can approach a problem from entirely different perspectives and still end up at the same place. The Anxious are actually strongly supportive of alternative energy, ranging from ethanol to solar, and they strongly favor conservation over exploration. So do the Greens. But the rationales are different -- Greens favor alternative energy because it's clean; the Anxious favor it because they want to stretch the supply.

The groups who will play a major role at the Senate hearings -- cabinet officers, environmentalists, businesses -- are all critical. But the public matters, too. If we let the concerns of lobbyists and policy experts drive this debate, we'll never build the coalition needed to move forward.

Then, if the lights go out, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

About the authors:

Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

For additional energy resources and supplemental material, please visit http://www.whoturnedoutthelights.org/.



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