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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Public Receptive to Peak Oil Debate and Policy Ideas - Survey

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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."


jeanette Fitzsimons said...

The greatest risk of peak oil is that it will make the wholesale rush to make petroleum products from lignite and other grades of coal will become almost unstoppable, thereby doubling the climate impacts of burning a litre of fuel. We can prolong our use of "oil" for many decades. But eventually we can live - albeit very differently - without oil. We cannot live without a climate.

Denis Tegg said...

totally agreed - with one caveat - if oil's decline is soon and steep there are some who say that the way we will be forced to live differently will be brutish and harsh.

Depends where you sit on the optimism/pessimism scale I suppose.

either way the imperative for both peak oil and climate change is that we will have to learn quickly to adapt, conserve and be more efficient

Paul Bruce said...

The price of coal and other alternatives to oil like gas, deep sea oil, uranium etc, tend to raise in unison with oil, making their extraction relatively more costly too. When we go back into recession, as now, then lack of capital also means that investment in new fossil fuel extraction is less likely. Witness the reluctance of oil companies to send their drilling rigs to NZ. We are worried about environmental cost, they are worried whether they will get a return on expensive and scarce capital. The biggest danger is that National will panic and use scarce tax dollars to subsidise these irrational projects. Then it is negative in every way possible.

Martin Hanson said...

I suppose it's unrealistic to expect the Green Party to publicly acknowledge the implications of peak oil - they are just too scary for most people. Scary, that is, for those people who have been conditioned by the advertising industry - aided and abetted by politicians and the media - to think that fulfillment in life comes from consuming.
For most people, the cocoon of denial that 'suburbia' has been will become a shroud. The only people with a chance of pulling through will be those who actually prefer simpler, cooperative living to the empty pursuit of material goods.

Anonymous said...

Some of the comments belie the true nature of peak oil. It's a common falacy that switching to more electricity will be the solution. eg. coal, nuclear etc. This is simply nonsense. Oil is mobile energy on a massive scale. Nothing exists to replace that unless you have seen a 50 ton battery powered CAT truck lately. An oil price shock is when prices spike for a while. Peak oil is a perpetual price spike until demand drops. In the mean time everything goes up in price dramatically. Thats when the "issues" really start. When millions cannot afford to buy the food on offer at the local super market. Normally they don't sit around hoping for better days.... Those that can afford food won't be able to afford anything else. Companies will collapse followed by entire economies. Thank the economists. Grow grow grow. But umm resources are FINITE. In a nutshell. We about 500% over the sustainable population limit for the planet.

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