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The Energy Learning Curve™

December 3, 2009

By Daniel Yankelovich

Perhaps no challenge facing the United States today is more dependent on personal conduct and public support than energy. The simple act of pulling out of the driveway every morning has policy implications. Yet perhaps on no other issue is there so much work yet to be done.

In Public Agenda's Energy Learning Curve™ report, conducted in association with Planet Forward, we attempt to examine the public's attitudes, values and concerns about the tangle of policy challenges, business choices and personal habits that come under the catch-all heading of "energy." The blandness of the word "energy" hardly does justice to the challenge. Energy policy represents a "triple threat" of challenges, each daunting in its own right:

While the oil price spike of 2008 faded in the global financial crisis of 2009, most analysts say prices will keep going up over the long run. World energy demand is projected to jump nearly 45 percent over the next 20 years, as countries like China and India require more fuel for their booming economies. The United States will face increasing competition for this vital resource.

Oil Dependence
The United States imports about 60 percent of the oil it needs. While most of this comes from close allies like Canada and Mexico, significant amounts come from more problematic nations. Many experts worry this leaves us vulnerable to supply disruptions and yoked to unstable or even hostile regimes.

Climate Change
Groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that it is no longer a question of whether world temperatures increase as a result of global warming; it's a matter of how much. Changing how we use fossil fuels is fundamental to controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of the challenge is the fact that they are all interconnected. While it may be possible to ease dependence on imported oil by increasing domestic drilling and utilizing more coal mined in the United States, that may exacerbate the problem of climate change. And while crafting policy to limit carbon emissions may help control climate change, it may adversely affect the economy.

There are some problems, even public policy decisions, that can safely be left to the professionals—experts who spend their lives examining a problem. Energy isn't one of them. It's too interwoven into our daily lives. Not only does it touch almost every part of our lives and economy, but the decisions we make now have implications for years to come. Unless policymakers can build public support for long-term change, it probably isn't going to happen.

Yet if we have to start making decisions now, as experts say we should, that just magnifies the problem. The public usually needs time to get up to speed and make up its mind about a problem. Generally speaking, the public passes through a "learning curve" of several stages, from initial consciousness of what the problem is, to "working through" the tradeoffs in different options and then, to "resolution" about solutions. Sometimes that happens quickly; sometimes it can take years or decades. The more complicated the problem, the longer it takes the public to reach resolution. And, as we've just noted, the energy problem is particularly complex.

But given what's at stake, it's essential that progress up this learning curve accelerate as quickly as possible. This is a unique challenge to policymakers: the combination of a fast-moving, complex problem and a comparatively slow-moving public trying to come to grips with solutions.

To help cope with this, we're offering our Energy Learning Curve™, a new way of interpreting opinion data to establish how best to move public opinion forward. Based on the Learning Curve model developed by Public Agenda chairman and social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, the goal is to give policymakers new tools to identify where the public stands in terms of grappling with a problem. We try to identify both the common ground and the major barriers to building public involvement and moving the public up the learning curve to resolution.

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Download: FULL REPORT: The Energy Learning Curve™ (PDF, 1.28 M)

Read More: Democracy, Education, Energy, Environment, Tax, Technology, United States, Americas

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