Friday, August 12, 2011

Public Receptive to Peak Oil Debate and Policy Ideas - Survey

This is a guest post from Denis Tegg.

It's a common misconception that only "greenies" and "doomsters" are concerned about peak oil. This view perhaps explains why politicians and the mainstream media have marginalised or ignored the issue. However a recent US survey of public opinion reveals that, in fact, those Americans who identify themselves as "very conservative" politically or who are "strongly dismissive" of climate change are among those most concerned that rising fuel prices are harmful to the economy and public health.

Overall nearly 2/3rds -- or 65% -- of all respondents to the US survey said that if oil prices triple it would be "very harmful" to the economy, and 44% said it would be "very harmful" to public health.

These are the key findings of a study published online this week at the American Journal of Public Health.

Here is the breakdown by idealogy - note: those who identified themselves as "very conservative" were 20% more concerned than those who said they are "very liberal"

and here is the breakdown by views on climate change - ( strong concern about peak oil from those who are dismissive of climate change is not an endorsement many would wish for, but it indicates that when peak oil is couched in immediate economic terms, then climate sceptics are almost as worried about oil prices as those who are alarmed about climate change )

New Zealand Poll
The US survey findings aligns closely with a poll carried out by WWF in New Zealand in August 2010. In that poll 72% of New Zealanders believe it is the government's task to plan ahead, and invest now in public transport and alternative fuels before the price of oil rises. The NZ survey did not break down opinion among “liberals” and “conservatives” but it seems likely that ideological results would be similar here. Further polling and focus group surveys would be useful.

Latent Unease
For some time I have sensed a general feeling of unease in the public about oil prices, particularly since the latest spike began in late 2010, so soon after the 2007 -- 08 oil shock. There is a sense that this is not "normal", but for most people they cannot quite put their finger on the reasons for fuel prices rising and being so volatile. This latent sense of unease is confirmed in the US study's conclusions where they say -
"although Americans are unlikely to be aware of the concept of peak petroleum, the level of expert agreement on the issue, or the potentially significant impacts on society, the public does possess a latent sense of an impending energy problem"

What are the takeout messages from the US and New Zealand opinion surveys?

To me they are --
1   there is a broad consensus across the political divide that peak oil/oil price shocks are dangerous and damaging to people's well-being and the economy

2    to a far greater extent than previously thought "middle New Zealand" as well as those identifying themselves “far left" and the "far right" are open to engagement and debate on peak oil and its implications, from both the media and politicians.

3   there is sufficient concern to indicate that the public are already receptive to the major political parties proposing bold policies to lower our dependency on imported oil and as to how we might transition to alternative sources.

Will politicians and media have the courage?

probably not.  As Dave Allen colourfully puts it -
"In a country run by responsible adults, these prudent warnings based on the best available science -- would be blaring from every political and cultural orifice. In a country run by amoral, narcissistic, opportunists, they are whispered at the fringes – in the hushed politeness of power-point presentations, on fringe websites, in meagerly-read books, and among small groups of alarmed citizens."

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