Yearning for Change
By Bill Moore
Democrats and Republicans might be divided over many issues, including their respective views on the condition of the environment, but the second annual Yale Environmental Survey reveals surprising unanimity when it comes to the nation's dependence on imported oil and what we need to do about it.
Simply put, Americans are ready for change.
Yale Law professor Dan Esty oversaw the survey on behalf of the University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The Global Strategy Group, a professional, independent polling organization that conducted the survey, contacted 1000 people from diverse geographic and political backgrounds, with eye-opening results.
92% of respondents, who identified themselves as either Republicans, Democrats or Independents, considered dependence on oil imports a serious problem, and 68% of those say it's a 'very' serious problem, beating out concerns over jobs and the economy (90%), the high price of gasoline (89%), air pollution (78%) and global warming (68%), as well as other environmentally-related concerns.
What separates the Yale survey, which was conducted in May 2005 and released in June, from other similar surveys is its specific focus on a core topic related to the environment. In this year's case, it is alternative energy.
"Our view is that a lot of the environmental polling work that's been done to date is sort of off the side of people's polls that have other main agendas, and we wanted to make sure the environment is front and center. We wanted to get beneath the surface and dig into the details and get a cleaner, sharper picture of American attitudes towards the environment".
The survey comes at a time when the United States Congress is again wrestling with an energy bill that has just passed both the House and the Senate, and is now headed to the President's desk to be signed. What it shows is that while the American people are ready to explore new directions, the Congress isn't. Instead, they have jointly authored a bill that breaks very little new ground in any meaningful terms, though there are some nuggets of hope among its 1,735 pages.
"After all of the efforts that have gone into thinking about energy policy in Washington, we come up with a set of initiatives that are really more of the same", Esty commented. "And it seems to me that the country is at a moment needing something new and different.
"What we were surprised to find in the poll is that is the attitude of the American people. In fact, in a country that is so divided across so many different issues; split fifty-fifty on many things, there is an overwhelming majority that favors a new direction on energy policy. And I think that says it's time to try some new things, move in some new directions; and the fact that Washington doesn't seem to have heard that message is really too bad".
For Esty, the most stunning finding of the survey was American's attitudes towards our dependence on imported oil.
"This reflects not just a group of Democrats or left wing folks, but really in every demographic group. It's Democrats, Republicans, Independents. It's Westerners as well as Easterners, Midwest and Mountain folks and Southerners. It's women as well as men. We've got substantial majorities, overwhelming majorities that favor breaking our dependence on foreign oil. And I think that reflects the convergence of four critical factors", he said.
He sees those factors including a decades-old environmental concern over fossil fuels causing local air pollution. Now coming to the forefront is also the concern that those same fossil fuels are contributing to global climate change. The third factor is the high price of oil at the pump that has people very unhappy and asking about cheaper, better ways to move our cars.
The fourth factor is a growing sense of unease with the war in Iraq and our dependence on unstable and often unsavory governments in the Middle East and our consequent entanglement in that part of the world.
However, there is less unanimity over the question of the general state of the environment, according the survey. For example, when asked to rate the overall quality of the environment in the United States, 33% of Republicans believed it was getting worse compared to 70% of Democrats. Women (56%) tended to be more downbeat on the environment than men (47%).
Esty believes the disparity between party affiliations stems from the politicization of the environment with both Republicans and Democrats overly exaggerating their respective views, at the expense of true and honest discourse.
"The truth is much more complicated", he comments. "Some issues we are making progress on and others we're not. In this regard, the reality has an element of what the Republicans are saying but also an element of what the Democrats are saying.
"I think what we've lost in our community and in our society, in general, is an effort to pull together and work arm and arm on these very hard issues and try to move this society forward".
What Esty believes is happening is that concerns over peace, security and instability in the Middle East and consequent oil price fluctuations are over-riding concerns for the environment.
"I think what we've got here is a real opportunity, a platform for change that those in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, could build on but it appears they're going to".
Time To Pressure Detroit
Just as there is remarkable unanimity on the question of oil imports, there is equally strong agreement that the government needs to apply pressure on Detroit to build more fuel efficient vehicles.
"More than ninety percent of the people, reflecting every demographic group, (are) saying the time has come for better fuel economy and better gas mileage for cars and trucks. And again, this cuts across Democrats, Republicans and Independents, men and women. Even SUV owners by an overwhelming margin want to see their vehicles get better gas mileage".
The survey gave respondents some twenty-plus choices of how to reduce oil dependence and 93% answered that the government needs to require automakers build cars that get better gas mileage. 89% want to require the auto industry to make more fuel efficient cars. 90% said build more solar power facilities, while 89% said build more wind farms, which tied with increase funding for renewable energy research.
Further down on the list of "best solutions" were promoting a hydrogen economy (71%) and giving tax credits to people who buy high-mileage hybrid vehicles (70%).
Among least favorite options for reducing dependence on imported oil was charging people a tax on every mile they drove. 91% thought that was a bad or 'very' bad idea. In fact, any choice with the word "tax" in it was roundly rejected by respondents.
Even opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploitation and building more nuclear power plants was opposed by the majority of respondents. The most favored of the less-popular solutions was building power plants that use biomass like wood waste, landfill gas, and trash to generate power.
"What people want to see is a real emphasis on new technology", Esty said. "These people are very excited about trying to explore the potential for solar power, for more use of wind turbines, for increased use of biofuels. And I think an increased recognition is out there that we don't know for sure which of these energy options is really going to pay off. But what's clear is that the public would like to explore them, build out those technologies, see which ones become economical, and recognize it gives us the potential to address a whole set of questions, regardless of which particular source of power emerges as the most cost efficient".
The Fall of Environmentalist
The one finding of the survey that disturbed Esty the most was the deterioration of support for the concept of environmentalism.
"When you ask people if they support the goals environmentalists pursue -- clean air, fresh water -- you get a very strong majority, 75% plus that say they share those goals and want to see them pursued more aggressively. They don't think the government is doing enough in this regard.
"But when you ask … do you consider yourself an environmentalist?… there was a day not too long ago, let's say about 1990, when you would have had maybe 60, 70, 80 percent public describe themselves as environmentalists. But I think over recent years that term has been demonized (and) has been the subject of a tremendous amount of pounding from right wing talk radio shows and from others. And I think the impact has been that the term "environmentalist" has taken on a negative cast in many peoples' eyes.
"So while you still see a strong majority of the public still supporting the goals, a number of them do not associate anymore with that term".
HR 6 -- Supply Side Vs. Demand
Esty personally believes that the now approved energy bill learns too heavily on the supply side with its emphasis on conventional energy sources, including oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear. While he agrees that in the short term, we need more locally produced energy, he believes that we stand at a critical juncture in our nation's history that demands we explore new alternatives.
"That's what could have been done, but appears not to be done in this particular piece of legislation".
What he thinks needs to be done is a greater emphasis be placed on controlling the demand side of the energy equation through improve energy efficiency and conservation. He also believes that while the Senate version of the bill showed more vision, he thinks the House version was simply out-of-date and out-of-touch with both pace of technological change and the will of the American people.
"The world has changed and the House (version) doesn't reflect that and it's a shame because these kind of energy bills are hard to assemble and only come along every five, six or even seven or eight years. This was a once in a decade opportunity to really push us in a new direction and we appear very close to missing that opportunity".
Esty isn't totally pessimistic about the energy bill, noting that there will be other opportunities to advance a more sustainable energy agenda in the coming months and years.
His immediate goal is to have the survey help shape the policy debate, if not at the federal level, then at the local and state level. He noted that in his community of New Haven, Connecticut, the city council just passed an ordinance letting owners of hybrid electric cars to park free.
"That's pretty big deal and a huge incentive to move to hybrid vehicles, and to do something good for the environment".
"I think there are lots of ways to step out on these issues at the local level, obviously even more at the state level".
He cited California and Connecticut -- as well as other states -- that have taken a leadership role in adopting measures to control greenhouse gas emissions. As more communities and states follow suit, these issues will "percolate" up to the federal level and "there will be action there".
"The way I look at it right now, in the policy domain related to the environment, it's an interesting question: Who's leading at what time? In some cases, at some times, the federal government is out front and pulling along the state and local governments. At least today and on the issue of climate change, the states and municipalities are quite far out in front, and I might add, so are the businesses… way ahead of the federal government. It's going to take some catching up on the part of those in Washington, but I think it will eventually happen."
Esty pointed to the just announced Asian-Pacific coalition that includes the United States, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia that is proposing to address climate change through technology rather than regulatory limits to carbon production. He sees this as a promising move by the Bush Administration to show some initiative in tackling what is a growing concern both outside the U.S. and increasingly within the nation with a strong majority (68%) now agreeing it is a serious problem.
"That's a positive thing", he concluded.
Be sure to listen to the complete 25-minute interview in MP3 audio format.