Friday, May 1, 2009

Public Agenda: Americans Give U.S. Low Grades on Key Energy Challenges

Public Gravely Dissatisfied With Status Quo on Oil Dependence, Costs, and Alternative Energy, But Lack of Knowledge Could Derail Debate

Americans give the nation poor grades on key energy challenges, such as reducing our dependence on foreign oil, keeping energy costs affordable and developing alternative energy, according to “The Energy Learning Curve™,” a new survey, by Public Agenda, the nonpartisan opinion research and citizen engagement organization and released in association with the innovative web-to-television project Planet Forward.

Additional findings from the groundbreaking national survey, which measures the public evolving views and knowledge about energy issues, will be released tonight on the Planet Forward television special, airing at 8 p.m. tonight on PBS (check local listings). This is the national premiere of Planet Forward, a "virtual town square" hosted by Emmy Award-winning journalist Frank Sesno.

Produced by the Public Affairs Project at The George Washington University, Planet Forward is an innovative web-to-television project where citizens, ranging from students to scientists, entrepreneurs to activists, make their case for what they think about the nation’s energy future. Several citizen contributors will present their ideas directly to Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

The Energy Learning Curve™ clearly shows, however, that whatever ideas the nation pursues in the future, most Americans are unhappy with our energy situation in the present. Nowhere is public dissatisfaction more evident than where it comes to reducing dependence on foreign oil. More than half the public, 54 percent, give the United States grades of "D" or "F" in this area, and only 14 percent would give the nation an "A" or "B" grade.

Failing grades are almost as high for keeping energy costs affordable (46 percent give "Ds" or "Fs") and developing alternative energy sources (43 percent give "Ds" or "Fs"). Grades are somewhat better on climate change, with only 36 percent giving failing grades on reducing global warming, and 31 percent "Ds" and "Fs" for cooperating with other countries on the issue.

One explanation for the somewhat better grades on climate change is that global warming is a lesser concern for the public compared with energy independence and the price of fuel. While overwhelming majorities worry about prices (89 percent), oil dependence (83 percent) and global warming (71 percent), the intensity of their concern is much different. Almost 6 in 10 (57 percent) worry "a lot" about price, while only 32 percent say they worry "a lot" about global warming.

"We're embarking on a new debate about energy in this country, and the public is entering it in a deeply dissatisfied frame of mind," said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda executive vice president and lead author of the report. "But they're unhappiest about the parts of the problem that hit them in the here and now. Global warming is still a more remote problem to the public than prices or oil dependence, and that's reflected in these grades."

When it comes to solutions, the Energy Learning Curve™ also finds widespread support on a range of proposals, including alternative energy, incentives for efficiency, and raising mileage standards for cars. At the same time there is also broad resistance to changes that might increase the cost of driving, and unrealistic assumptions about how quickly and easily alternatives can be achieved.

Of the barriers to progress, the most notable may be a serious knowledge deficit among the public. Half of all Americans can't identify a renewable energy source, nearly 4 in 10 cannot name a fossil fuel, two-thirds overestimate U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, overestimate how much of the world’s oil reserves are in the U.S. and they're divided on whether drilling offshore and in Alaska would make us energy independent.

"This knowledge deficit may be the greatest challenge the nation faces on energy, greater than the economic or technical problems," Bittle said. "The public is unhappy and ready for change, but the lack of understanding could trip the nation up. A new energy policy can only work if the public buys into it. But politicians, experts and the media have to help people understand what's being sold to them. The last thing we need is an energy policy that leaves the public with buyer's remorse."

This report—the first in a series of The Energy Learning Curve ™ studies to measure the public evolving views and knowledge about energy issues—was based on interviews with a national random sample of 1,001 adults over the age of 18 conducted between January 15 and January 30 2009. Over 90 survey questions were asked, covering each facet of “the energy triple threat"—economic, oil dependence and environmental issues.”The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus four percentage points. Full results of the report are available at: and at

1. What grade would you give the United States overall when it comes to reducing its dependence on foreign oil?
A 5%
B 9%
C 25%
D 29%
F 25%
Don’t know 6%

2. And what grade would you give the United States when it comes to its efforts to reduce global warming?
A 10%
B 13%
C 32%
D 22%
F 14%
Don’t know 6%

3. And what grade would you give the U.S. government for keeping energy costs affordable?
A 7%
B 12%
C 31%
D 25%
F 21%
Don’t know 3%

4. And what grade would you give the U.S. government for developing alternative energy sources?
A 7%
B 14%
C 31%
D 28%
F 15%
Don’t know 5%

5. And what grade would you give the U.S. government for cooperating with other countries to reduce global warming?
A 10%
B 17%
C 29%
D 18%
F 13%
Don’t know 11%


Public Agenda,, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public’s voice into crucial policy debates.

Planet Forward,, is an innovative, viewer-driven program that debuts on the web first and then moves to television, and then moves back to the web. Hosted by Emmy Award-winning CNN veteran Frank Sesno, Planet Forward is driven by the power of ideas, as citizens make their case for what they think about the nation's energy future. Planet Forward is a co-production of the Public Affairs Project at The George Washington University and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications in collaboration with Public Agenda and Sunburst Creative Productions.
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