When Americans Think About Energy, The Environment Matters As Much As Affordability

Americans aren’t the consequence-free energy hogs you thought they were.

When Americans Think About Energy, The Environment Matters As Much As Affordability
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The American political atmosphere might be polarized when it comes to climate change, but new evidence suggests that the public is more passionate about energy’s impact on the environment than one might think.


A new survey from the University of Michigan Energy Institute found that 60% of respondents worried “a great deal” or a “fair amount” about the environmental impact of energy use. By comparison, 55% worried a great deal or fair amount about energy affordability. The two concerns, researchers say, were basically equivalent.

“That was an eye opener for us,” says professor John DeCicco. “I wouldn’t have guessed that we would have gotten, statistically speaking, an equally strong response.”

The survey, which relied on a representative sample of 500 households across the United States in fall of 2013, was a first for the school. The university’s Institute for Social Research had been issuing a quarterly survey on economics since the 1940s, but 2013 was the first year researchers tacked on 18 questions about energy and the environment.

The researchers also asked survey respondents how energy use might impact their lives: “Which one of the following is affected the most by the energy people use in everyday life: air, water, global warming, or personal health?”

A little less than half the respondents answered “air,” and in second place came global warming. Oddly, those with higher incomes and property values listed air as the largest impact, even more than those with lower incomes who were more likely to live next to heavily polluting power plants.

In addition, respondents answered an open-ended question asking them which source of energy affected the environment the most. More than a third gave gasoline, oil, or petroleum as an answer, and coal ranked second. Still, some 13% of people answered “electricity,” which doesn’t get at the fuel source. “By and large, people don’t necessarily know where their electricity comes from,” DeCicco says, though clearly they do know that power plants spew pollutants into the atmosphere.


Still, DeCicco cites the survey’s open-ended approach as one of its primary strengths. “We avoided reading people a list of different fuels. We avoided using adjectives like ‘renewable,'” he said. “We felt there was a gap in terms of a very neutral type of survey that wasn’t trying to chase down consumers’ views on issues of the day or Technology X versus Technology Y.”

As a result, DeCicco feels that he and his team were able to measure Americans’ basic knowledge of energy issues in a more objective way than prior single issue-driven surveys. But the true test will be whether concern for the environment holds up over time. We’ll find out when DeCicco publishes results from another round of survey questions gathered this quarter.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.