"Energy: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" is one of a series of unbiased, nonpartisan guides that help the public wrestle with and work through difficult issues. These guides are especially useful in advance of the election, to help voters cut through campaign spin and media bias, so that they are able to reasonably judge the platforms put forth by candidates.

Energy: A Citizen's Solutions Guide

Allison Rizzolo - Senior Communications Associate, | Public Agenda

 Can you tell us a bit about the Citizen’s Energy Solutions Guide and why it was developed?

“Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide”(available for download here: http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/csg-energy) is one of a series of unbiased, nonpartisan guides that help the public wrestle with and work through difficult issues. These guides are especially useful in advance of the election, to help voters cut through campaign spin and media bias, so that they are able to reasonably judge the platforms put forth by candidates.

They also serve a broader purpose, helping to expand and advance public thinking and enabling citizens to move from arguments and gridlock toward solutions on critical yet divisive issues. The issues Public Agenda covers in the Citizens’ Solutions Guides include not only energy, but also the federal budget, health care, immigration, K-12 education, and the economy and jobs.

The guides provide citizens with critical information and also examine 3 or more real policy choices related to the problem at hand, from all sides of the political spectrum. We include an analysis of pros, cons and tradeoffs inherent in each choice. This helps people move out of an either/or frame of thinking and acknowledge and accept that there is no magic bullet. We hope this helps citizens arrive at a place where they can reasonably judge a policy option after having understood the multiple complexities and tradeoffs and support the candidates that best represent their interests and wishes.

We chose to produce a guide on energy because, while it may not be one of the top 3 issues on voters’ minds as they head to the polls, it is a critical and urgent public problem. We think it is important that citizens have the tools and resources they need to grapple with the complex facets of this fast-moving issue, outside of the often manipulative chatter of overly-partisan politics.

Why is energy such a difficult choice for the public to wrestle with?

Energy is a complex and multi-faceted issue. It’s so difficult to wrestle with because we’re dealing with three very important and inter-related variables: economics, environmental impacts and energy security. Sometimes, when we give to one, we take from another. For example, increasing our domestic energy supply is good for energy security and can be good for the economy, by increasing jobs and bringing down cost. But the cost to the environment, as far as endangering land and wildlife conservation, or polluting oceans and our drinking supply, could be high. Any option we pursue will have tradeoffs; we’re going to have to seriously weigh and determine what cons we’re willing to accept as a society before we have any hope of moving forward on energy policy.

What knowledge is the public missing and what do they need to know?

Research from Public Agenda in 2009 (“The Energy Learning Curve,” available here: http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/energy-learning-curve) indicated that the public may have a startling lack of knowledge when it comes to our energy reality. For example, nearly 40 percent could not name a fossil fuel, just over half could not name a renewable energy source, and many were unsure of what contributes to global warming and what doesn’t. We would be interested to see if the public’s knowledge has advanced at all in the intervening years, though many familiar with the issue are pessimistic.

At the same time, it’s critical to understand that knowledge alone will not solve the problem, and also that the public does not need to become experts or scientists in order to decide what we need to do to confront our energy challenges. People need to overcome wishful thinking or denial and accept the far-reaching changes in habits and lifestyles that a significant shift in energy policy would create.

To do that, they need more than just facts—they also need tools, resources and conditions that help them understand and confront the tradeoffs. These tools and conditions need to be amenable to helping citizens move from gridlock, argument and confusion toward common ground and solutions, and should generate thoughtful and deliberative dialogue and problem solving, instead of debate and repetitive venting.

What are some of our choices in solutions to our energy crisis?

Public Agenda’s “Energy: A Citizen’s Solutions Guide” presents three choices for potential policy strategy on our energy crisis. These are:

  • Focusing on environmental protection by moving away from fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy sources.
  • Producing more fuel domestically, especially oil and natural gas, which we’ve increased of late, to support our economy and improve our energy security.
  • Move toward a more energy-efficient society, both in personal practice and through governmental action.

Our energy choices are not limited to these three, and the choices we present are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Still, it’s important to start thinking about the underlying values of our choices—protecting the environment, using energy more efficiently, making energy affordable for the government and the public, decreasing our nation’s dependence on foreign sources of oil—how they affect each other, and where we’re willing to make tradeoffs as we move forward.

Why can't we just move to renewable energy?

It sounds like a great solution for a lot of different people—renewable energy sources won’t run out, they won’t damage the environment, and, if we produce enough domestically, they’ll address the issue of energy security. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not that simple. We are a long way off—decades—from producing renewable energy at prices that are affordable and in quantities that will make much of an impact on our reliance on fossil fuels. Renewable sources like wind and sun aren’t available 24/7, and we haven’t resolved issues around battery life. We’ll have to rely on other sources—oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear—for back-up until we do. Our energy grid isn’t ready to convert renewable energy to electricity and will need major modernization. Furthermore, preparing for renewable energy as a major part of our energy supply—investing in technology, modernizing the grid, building power plants—will be an enormous financial undertaking.

Does the feedback you have indicate if any of these roads to a solution stand out as being the most popular?

While the public seems to enter the conversation about solutions to our energy crisis from different starting points, and views it with different lenses, a study we released in 2009—The Energy Learning Curve—suggested there were areas of strong consensus when it came to some possible solutions. For example, over 8 in 10 people agreed that investing in alternative energy will create many new jobs and supported investment in fuel-efficient railways.  Over 7 in 10 wanted to reward businesses that reduce carbon emissions and penalize those that don’t. Seven in 10 also supported tax rebates to individuals and businesses that reduce energy use.

By contrast, majorities opposed measures that would force change by increasing the cost of driving, such as setting a "floor" on gasoline prices, congestion pricing and higher gas taxes—even if the gas tax were used to achieve energy security.

There seems to be support for increasing efficiency, decreasing emissions and pursuing alternative energy paths, though Americans still seem to not want their transportation independence impeded. We have not done an update to the 2009 study, but recent polls from Gallup seem to suggest that similar sentiment remains. There are divisions along party lines, and figuring out how to break through the gridlock caused by these ideological divisions will be one of our challenges. We intend for “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” to be a tool in doing so.

Fracking has been covered prominently in the news, quite negatively. Are there benefits of fracking?

Our current energy outlook has really been transformed in recent years, due to a surge in the domestic production of oil and gas, derived mainly through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. For the first time in 13 years, the U.S. imported less than 50 percent of the oil we used in 2010, and shale gas (the natural gas derived from shale rock through fracking) now accounts for 37 percent of U.S. natural gas production—up from 2 percent in 2000. This increase in production has driven the price of natural gas down, and some experts say it could help drive economic growth.

As we mentioned earlier, it will be decades before we can efficiently produce enough renewable energy at a reasonable cost and in substantial amounts, and we need a solid contingency plan. We also need to make sure we don’t overburden our already straining economy. Furthermore, energy security is a serious concern: economists say that a spike in oil prices caused by a confrontation with Iran is the biggest current threat to our economy. The U.S. possesses significant amounts of fossil fuels; developing them could help us on a number of fronts.

At the same time, fracking could have very serious implications when it comes to our environment and our health—critics say it unearths naturally occurring carcinogens and radioactive elements, which then contaminate our water supply. We can’t afford to tread lightly here, and citizens will need information, tools and resources to help them weigh the choices and decide what policies they are willing to support.

What does our country need to do before we can determine the solutions to our energy crisis?

It’s all too evident that our country has reached an impasse on a number of issues, including energy policy. We will need to work through our political and ideological divisions and explore the values that we all share in order to move from gridlock on these issues toward solution.

To some, this may seem like a hopeless task, but while the challenges are certainly significant and the hurdles extensive, we don’t believe that they're insurmountable.  First, citizens are ready; they are sick and tired of partisan dysfunction, heated arguments that lead to nowhere and stalemates that kick issues down the road to burden future generations. Furthermore, we have seen many examples, through our public engagement work, of the ability of the public to grapple with and build common ground around issues that were previously seen as impossibly divisive.

What we need to create forward momentum and facilitate this kind of collaborative problem solving are committed leadership and the right tools and conditions. We need to be able to grapple with choices and overcome wishful thinking when it comes to solutions. We need to acknowledge that there is no magic bullet and that any course we choose will have downsides. We will need to do this both as individuals and on a larger scale, in dialogue and collaboration with others. Ultimately, we will have to transcend partisan bickering and reach a compromise on what tradeoffs are acceptable to us as a society.

We hope that “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” will provide citizens with a resource to connect the issue of energy to their everyday lives, realize its urgency, and start working through the tradeoffs, either on their own or in dialogue with others. But we’ll also need strong and committed leadership that provides conditions amenable to problem solving—not glossed over by campaign hype or political spin—around the energy crisis. Our leaders also need to be willing to compromise, based on the will of the nation’s citizenry, in order to help move us forward on this critical issue.

When do you think the talking will stop and the action start – will the next election make a difference?

The policy agenda is crowded, and it’s hard to predict when an important issue will gain traction. Certainly energy is one of the issues that deserve serious attention and action in the months and years ahead. The question is how do we create the conditions where that becomes possible? 

It's not necessarily a matter of stopping the talk; it may well be more a matter of creating the right kind of talk, the kind that drives leaders and the public toward solutions rather than just circulating arguments that never get resolved. One of the keys to creating some forward momentum is transforming useless partisan bickering into actual problem-solving dialogue that builds common ground and ways of moving forward on the core energy challenges we face. 

One key to this is connecting the dots for the public between our energy challenges and the issues they are struggling with in their daily lives: employment, the cost of living, their quality of life, their nation's security, and so on. Another is helping the public see that even though there is no easy answer, that there are in fact answers, it is not an unsolvable problem. Another is to help build some common ground among citizens for actions that could be taken, and then to connect those aspirations to the leadership debate. 

Of course, the election will shade our dialogue about energy and other issues, and certain issues will become more talked about than others (and more politicized as well). Ultimately, however, real, collaborative problem solving around energy will have to happen outside the frame of campaign and electoral politics—politics that may hinder momentum instead of progressing it. Regardless of who emerges victorious from the election, in order to solve this problem, we need leaders, in both the executive and legislative branch, as well as in state and local governments, who are able and willing to find common ground and advance policies and practices that move us forward as a nation.


Allison Rizzolo – Senior Communications Associate, Public Agenda

Allison develops the communications strategy and coordinates media outreach for Public Agenda. She directs social media for the organization and manages Public Agenda’s blog and newsletter.  Allison writes frequently on issues including higher education and K-12 education reform, teacher engagement, the federal budget, public engagement and improving our country's democratic processes.

Allison also contributes to various programs for Public Agenda. She is deeply involved in the organization's work with Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers on Evaluation Reform and is a frequent presenter, at conferences and workshops, of the materials. She is producing the 2012 Citizens' Solutions Guides-- nonpartisan voter issue guides for the federal election. Allison is a co-author of “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” and author of “Immigration: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide,” available in September 2012.

Allison is also a co-author of the forthcoming book, Teachers Taking Charge: Engaging Teachers in Designing Evaluation Systems, to be published by Jossey-Bass in early 2013.

Prior to becoming Senior Communications Associate, Allison was a member of Public Agenda's web and communications team for several years. Allison also taught advanced-level Spanish and is a graduate of Tufts University, where she studied International Relations and Anthropology. A social media professional, Allison has managed several blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Follow her at @AllisonRizz.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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