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Report Studies Public Opinion on the Nation’s Energy Problems

As the Obama administration begins to push its agenda for tackling the nation’s problems, it faces a major set of energy challenges representing a “triple threat” to the economy, security and environment of the United States.  In response to these challenges, the Public Agenda organization has published a report aimed at providing policymakers information about the public knowledge and opinion concerning energy issues.

The report, entitled “The Energy Learning Curve”, based its assessment on a survey of 1,001 adults over age 18 conducted between January 15 and January 30, 2009. The survey included 25 questions covering topics from participants’ basic knowledge about energy issues to their views on the energy problem and their opinions about potential and current U.S. policies.  The findings of the report offer useful information to policymakers and other interested parties about where the public stands in terms of grasping the problem and moving toward consensus on a solution.

The Learning Curve model used by the authors of this report was previously created by Public Agenda chairman Daniel Yankelovich.  By dividing the public participation process into 3 stages, the model aims to interpret opinion data in a way that can determine what actions are needed to move a group of people toward the end goal of reaching agreement on how best to solve a common problem.  The 3 stages of the model are:  consciousness raising, working through the problem and deciding on solutions.  Based on the five findings summarized below, the report showed the public as being at the juncture between the first and second stages.  In short, the public is aware of the problem but is lacking the general knowledge needed to reach an informed decision. Also evident in the results was the participants’ reluctance to accept responsibility for the impact of their individual actions on the problem and need for them to adjust their own behavior.


1.  The majority of the public currently views the price of energy and dependence on foreign oil as troubling problems, with climate change being less of a concern. They also believe that the problems associated with current energy production and use will not go away when the price of energy falls.

2.  There is consensus among the public that the nation should pursue proposals on alternative energy sources, conservation and efficiency incentives.  However, the public may not have realistic assumptions about how quickly and easily alternatives can be achieved.

3. There is also broad opposition to measures that increase the cost of driving.  In general, people are willing to change their behavior in many ways, but they don’t want to be forced to do so. 

4.  The public’s knowledge level is low on energy, with significant numbers who do not know basic facts about how energy is produced. These findings call into question how firm the consensus is and how well it will hold up under pressure.

5.  Four unique groups emerged during the analysis based on their knowledge and beliefs. Yet there is an opportunity to build consensus on the energy problem.

  1. The Disengaged
  2. The Climate Change Doubters
  3. The Anxious
  4. The Greens


For policymakers and parties working interested in moving the public forward in resolving the challenges facing the nation, the report offers a starting point for approaching the public. As the report emphasized, many citizens still lack the basic knowledge they need to engage effectively in any public dialogue. Others need help accepting the reality of these problems in terms of how it impacts their daily behavioral patterns and the changes required of them.  For outreach efforts to be most effective, the study suggests the need for using a combination of educational tools along with opportunities for the public to deliberate and “work through” the problems they face.

To see the full report, including survey questions and data, please go to the Public Agenda website at http://www.publicagenda.org/reports/energy .


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