I attended two climate change lectures recently. One lecture was titled “Clean and Cheap: How Americans Think About Energy in an Age of Global Warming” on 9/17/15 at MIT with David Konisky, Indiana University and the other was “Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals in the Climate Debate” on 9/24/15 at Tufts with Matthew Nisbet, Northeastern.
Konisky and his research partner, Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard, based their work on more than ten years of polling data on the electrical energy future consumers and voters want. They found that 70-80% want to reduce fossil fuel use and increase renewables and that this is stable over time, that people consider local environmental harm more than economic cost when making energy decisions, and that attitudes are not driven by their consideration of global harm from greenhouse gas pollution.
Nisbet sees the climate change debate as a wicked problem, one we cannot end but merely manage with so many different ways to approach that it serves as a mirror for our own values. He identifies three kinds of public intellectual stances among current climate activists:
ecological activists: a problem of globalization and capitalism with Nature as the ultimate measure; smart growth reformers: climate as market failure, Nature can be stretched; and ecomodernists: climate is an energy and innovation problem, Nature is more resilient than we think.
Nisbet’s slides and related reading list from this lecture are available at
I wonder what the polling information and public intellectual position would be if we prefaced these discussions with the actual USA energy context:
energy generation for everything, including transportation, has plateaued at or below 100 quads btus per year for the last 20 years and we get useful work or exergy out of less than 40% of the energy we count in that 100 quads or less, “rejecting” about 60% of the energy we produce.
Here are my rough notes from both presentations:
Clean and Cheap: How Americans Think About Energy in an Age of Global Warming
David Konisky, Indiana University
Americans want to reduce fossil fuels increase renewables, a stable opinion over time [since at least the first oil crisis, his research looks at polling data from last decade]
Perception of enviro harm stronger (local not global) than economic cost, true for all energy sources
Attitudes not driven by climate change
Concern about local enviro impact and enviro costs help explain support for EPA regs rather than other measures [cap and trade, carbon tax]
Global warming did not correlate with attitudes for/against nukes
10+ year public opinion project: what future do consumers and voters want? (Electricity only)
70-80% want renewables and this is stable over time
Very few want all of the above or less energy used overall
People consider costs and harms not the energy source itself – economic costs and social costs
In polls people think that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels from 2002 on and that renewables create little enviro harm
People have relative harm about right but don’t have relative costs of renewables correct.
Once you determine how people feel about their perceptions of harms and costs, you have explained 90% of their attitudes. Energy is not a political party question. Weight of harm (local) is much more important than cost (2-3x), in opinion. Global warming is close to zero although it is beginning to come into play.
People don’t care and won’t pay for climate change so that is not the lever.
People support regulatory cap at 75-80%
Cap and trade 45-55%
Carbon tax 25-55%
Most supportive of least efficient method possibly because it affects them locally and because people do not see the link with cap and trade or carbon tax
Climate change is not enough
To reduce carbon go after co-pollutants such as soot and mercury, privilege local over global because that’s what people care about.
People generally have the harms correct but not costs
Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals in the Climate Debate
Matthew Nisbet, Northeastern
Shift from enviro, economic threat to a public health threat now with a moral framing (the Pope)
Perception is affected by framing or context
About a quarter of the population are stuck in their opinion, 2/3 of that quarter alarmed and 1/3 dismissive.
Dismissives are angered by the national security frame but have a high risk perception that feeds into the energy security frame
Design to Win (2007) Nathan Cummings Foundation – carbon price needed and we have the technology needed
Matthew Nisbet’s 2013 Shorenstein Center (Harvard) paper on McKibben
Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual and Activist
Why We Disagree about Climate Change by Mike Hulme – it’s a wicked problem, one we cannot end but merely manage with many different ways to approach it and serves as a mirror for our own values
Climate justice arises around 2010 – a market problem not solvable through the current market nor through technology
Andrew Revkin argues for energy access, people’s energy, for human development
Politics of the Earth – book on how people look at environmental issues (by John Dryzek)
Nisbet identifies three kinds of climate activists – ecological activists: a problem of globalization and capitalism with Nature as the ultimate measure; smart growth reformers – climate as market failure, Nature can be stretched; ecomodernists – climate is an energy and innovation problem, Nature is more resilient than we think: Ecomodernist Manifesto
Now working on a book about public intellectuals on wider social issues
We need more synthesis and synergy across the disciplines
www.climateshiftproject.org – all his work
I know Matthew and his work is expanding beyond climate change to the role of public intellectuals in society on a wide variety of issues. Should be interesting.