Voter Knowledge on Energy Issues

After looking at the economic implications of nuclear energy, we can see that there is a lot that is preferable about nuclear energy. However, living in a democracy means that policy and regulation will be based heavily in public perception of issues. In order for politicians to be elected or re-elected, they must serve the interests of their constituents in some kind of degree even if the constituent’s interests are uninformed. However, how informed are voters when it comes to energy issues?

To examine what voters could know about energy policy, several polls taken in the United States are helpful. The first one is explained in Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book, Energy, the Environment, and Public Opinion:

In 1977, when a Roper survey asked people whether they thought that solar, wind, and other power sources could realistically replace foreign oil within the next 5 years, 52% said they thought solar power could do it, and 16% thought that wind power could. These people had listened to too many exaggerated claims about the coming utopia; they were seriously mistaken.

Clearly, this forecast did not come true. Half of Americans polled got it completely wrong on solar power, and around a sixth of Americans got it wrong on wind power. Eric Smith goes on with data showing what percentage of Americans got energy policy questions correctly, which is seen in the figure below.

Smith_Eric_Energy_Environment_Public_Opinion_PG101

The most correctly answered question was whether or not Exxon housed its headquarters in the United States in 1978 and 1986. The most incorrectly answered questions were “what percentage of our oil do you think we now import?” in 1990 and 1991 and “What percentage of the nation’s electric power is currently supplied by nuclear power plants?” in 1979 and 1986. No questions got above an 80%, but got as low as 5%.

Energy policy is a difficult area of policy to know a lot about for many people. It is a combination of a lot of science, economics, and politics, which are all areas that the average American citizen struggles with. Eric Smith explains this complication with energy policy:

Consider, for instance, the news attention given to Newt Gingrich. Numerous stories about him appeared every day for weeks after the Republicans startled the nation by gaining House and Senate majorities in 1994. Even after the initial surge of attention subsided, Gingrich was in the news most days of every week through 1995 and 1996. Yet by May 1996, only half the public could supply his name when asked, “Who is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?” Given examples like these, we can hardly expect energy policy, which receives much less attention, to be well understood- especially the more complicated, technical aspects that are necessary for making informed choices.

Since energy policy is not always specifically focused on by the media, it is most likely that voters don’t have many venues to actually get to know much about energy policy. Furthermore, since there are many scientifically technical elements to energy policy, it should be looked at how Americans do with science topics. In 2005, the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers asked 1,200 Americans about genetically modified foods. When asked if regular, non-GMO, tomatoes have genes, 60% answered that non-GMO tomatoes do not have genes. 58% thought that if you were to combine catfish genes with a tomato, the tomato would taste more “fishy”.

Americans clearly do not know enough about politics or science in order to have a coherent opinion on energy policy. However, American’s, and particularly Coloradan’s, opinion on energy policy is essential for understanding if nuclear energy is feasible politically.

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