America faces crucial energy-policy decisions. Should we drill into petroleum
reserves in Alaska to increase our domestic supply of oil? Should we reduce
our reliance on oil, and, if so, how? Should we subsidize the development of
alternative fuel sources, such as hydrogen and ethanol, or should we build more
nuclear power plants? Should we invest in clean-coal technologies, wind farms,
or solar power? Should we promote energy efficiency, or seek to reduce consumption?
How should we react to global warming? Should we ratify the Kyoto Protocol?
Above all, how do we balance our needs for energy and economic growth with the
responsibility of stewardship over the earth?
Making these decisions wisely will require an informed public. Few other policy
areas, excepting perhaps ballistic-missile defense, hinge so heavily on our
knowledge of science and technology. Making sound energy and environmental decisions
demands a citizenry that is not just guided by a general philosophy but informed
about specific facts.
How well-informed are we about energy and the environment? To answer that question,
the Manhattan Institute commissioned Zogby International to ask 1,000 Americans
nineteen questions on issues ranging from Saudi oil to global warming, and then
asked me to assess the accuracy of those beliefs. The survey was conducted in
September 2006. Zogby International followed up in February of this year by
querying another random sample of Americans on five of the original questions.
The purpose of the follow-up was to see whether public opinion and understanding
of certain issues had changed, particularly because of the high profile given
to renewable energy research by the president in his 2007 State of the Union
address and by newly empowered congressional Democrats.
In the main sections of this report, I argue that most of the beliefs revealed
by the poll are not supported by the facts. In the concluding sections, I consider
the policy implications of these misunderstandings and recommend some basic
In preparing this report, I drew extensively on the work of two individuals.
One, Peter Huber, is a colleague at the Manhattan Institutes Center for
Energy and the Environment. Peter has produced two critically acclaimed books
on these topics: Hard Green (1999) and The Bottomless Well (2005).
The other source to whom I am indebted, Mark Mills, is a longtime friend of
the Manhattan Institute. A physicist by training, Mark coauthored The Bottomless
Well with Peter. Mark is a former staff consultant to the White House Science
Office. As the sole author of this work, however, I should stress that any imperfections
in it are my own.
I invite the reader to gauge his or her own energy literacy by taking the following
multiple-choice quiz, based on the MI/Zogby survey. The main text of this document
considers and explains the answers in detail, proceeding question by question.