September 16, 2013 10:08 PM

By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent

Americans want more renewable power and less coal and oil – but not necessarily because they want to save the planet, according to Stephen Ansolabehere.

The Harvard professor of government, who has been studying polls on public opinion and energy choice for a decade, said the U.S. public’s energy preferences are a lot more personal and less global than renewable advocates often believe.

Thumbnail image for ansolabehere.jpegThere is soot. And mercury. And other “co-pollutants” of coal and oil combustion– all of which are important to a large portion of Americans who say they want to wean society from fossil fuels.

“When it’s a question of energy, what people care about is local, immediate pollution problems, not climate change,” Ansolabehere told an Energy Policy Seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School Monday.

“Regulating co-pollutants aggressively is, by far, the most popular. People really love mercury regulation. It’s across the board. People have been waiting for that regulation for a long time,” he said.

The differences may seem irrelevant to the bottom line of public support for renewables; “Americans want a different energy future. They want a lot more solar and wind, and a lot less coal and oil,” he said.

But the motivations for that opinion do make a difference in what policies get public support, according to Ansolabehere. For example, he said a reliable 45 to 55 percent of Americans support a cap-and-trade approach to regulating carbon, in which excessive greenhouse gas polluters would be able to buy emission allowances from more efficient industries. But a larger 75 to 80 percent of Americans prefer a straight regulation limiting carbon emissions, even though economists argue the cap and trade gives more leeway to business and involves less control by government.

That may be because residents living near polluting power plants or factories want the other pollutants curbed as well, and they are not sure a cap-and-trade would do that.
Environmentalists should take that lesson when they advocate for policies on the argument that it will help reduce climate change, he noted.

“You’re not going to get public support for a climate policy” without considering local pollution, he said. “You can’t win on climate policy alone right now. You have to sell it in terms of those other things.” Some support for renewables comes from a mistaken impression they will be much less costly than fossil fuels, he added. But he acknowledged that “most of us don’t know where our power comes from.”

Ansolabehere said ten years ago when he became involved with regular MIT/Harvard energy surveys, oil was the public’s most preferred energy fuel. Now it is the least.

State Sen. Mike Barrett, who has pushed for a tax on carbon, was at the forum and said Ansolabehere’s conclusions point to a tough sell in Massachusetts. The Lexington Democrat said with only a few coal-burning power plants and reasonably clean air in the state, it may be difficult to convince voters to oppose carbon dioxide emissions just to reduce climate change.

“Ultimately,” he said, “we will all have to accept a personal responsibility for climate change.”


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Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years. He was a national roving reporter, foreign bureau chief, war correspondent and an environmental reporter for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He has reported from six continents and 50 states. He is now senior journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches and continues to report on environmental issues.

He earned a master's degree in Environmental Sustainability in 2015 from Harvard Extension School.

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