Peak Oil Perceptions

By Bill Moore

Posted: 17 Aug 2011

The American Journal of Public Health recently published the results of a survey conducted by a trio of PhD’s who wanted to know how respondents felt about “peak oil,” wondering if re-framing the issue in the light of its potential impact on public health would help raise awareness. Despite its serious ramifications, they found, for example, that between 2005 through 2010, “national agenda-setting news outlets” were virtual mum on the topic. The New York Times published four articles; Business Week, five; The Economist, four; and the Washington Post just three. Obviously the mainstream media just isn’t discussing it, nor are politicians, for that matter. And when it is discussed, it’s usually dismissed as some sort of conspiracy theory.

“The economic stress caused by peak petroleum,” they write, “ including loss of personal income, unemployment, a decline in consumer confidence, and the increased cost of goods and services, is also likely to negatively affect public health and well-being. Those most vulnerable to these impacts will be young children, the elderly, people with chronic conditions, and people living in poverty.”

While they acknowledge that petroleum depletion may also have some positive implications, including “likely decreased automobile use and increased rates of walking, biking, and public transportation... the public health community cannot afford to simply react to the advent of peak petroleum; we must start to anticipate, prepare for, and co-manage the likely health threats.”

To re-frame the issue, the researchers, Matthew Nisbet, Edward Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz, did not ask respondents their views on peak oil, which is understood to refer to the point at which demand exceeds production. They were concerned that given the low level of public understanding of the problem, they would have gotten a high degree of “don’t know” responses.

Instead, they framed the issue in the light of the possible impact of higher energy prices over the next five years. They asked, for example, “Some energy experts predict that oil prices will soon begin to rise dramatically higher, possibly tripling in price within 5 years. How likely do you think this is?”

Next they asked, “If oil prices were to triple over the next 5 years, how harmful or helpful to the US economy would it be?” They followed up with, “If oil prices were to triple over the next 5 years, how harmful or helpful to the health of Americans would it be?” The available responses to these last two questions were very harmful, somewhat harmful, somewhat helpful, very helpful, don’t know.

Besides asking them about future oil prices, they also assessed each respondent’s attitude towards climate change, creating six segments: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive. They also asked the 1001 respondents to classify themselves along the political spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and here is were things start to turn bizarre.

76% of the respondents saw oil prices tripling in the next five years with 24% seeing it as “very likely” and 52% as “somewhat likely.” Within this larger grouping, 43% of those who were alarmed about climate change and those who were “dismissive” both felt that oil price spikes were very likely to occur in the next five years.

On the question of how harmful such spikes would be to America, 87% said it would be very harmful (65%) or somewhat harmful (22%). But within the ideological segments, the researchers found that it was the very conservative and the somewhat conservative who were “more likely to anticipate economic harm than self-identifying moderates or liberals. Those dismissive of climate change were the most likely to anticipate very harmful economic effects (75%).”

They found the same level of apprehension expressed by conservatives in terms of the public health impact of skyrocketing oil prices.

“In terms of ideology, those who were ‘very conservative’ and ‘moderate’ respondents were significantly more likely to anticipate human health harms than the ‘very liberal,’ ‘somewhat liberal,’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ respondents.”

Since two of the researchers are specialists in public communications, they think that this re-framing will not only be useful in helping people better grasp the implications of peak oil but also climate change.

“[Su]ggesting a frame such as public health, which resonates with people’s broadly shared values, is particularly useful because the frame can help people ground their understanding of an issue in the context of their previously existing, carefully considered, and deeply held belief systems and motivations.”

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