Splitting Atoms

American Attitudes toward Nuclear Power/ Part III of American Attitudes toward Energy

I recently watched an interview on the Colbert Report where Stephen spoke with Michael Shellenberger, a co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute. about a book which he recently co-authored (eponymously named Break Through). Shellenberger and his colleagues are focused on making clean energy affordable through technology innovation to deal with both global warming and energy poverty (rather than making dirty energy more expensive).  They argue that rather than abandoning our dated technology (à la Dr. Frankenstein),  we should  “love our monsters,” and modernize them for current conditions. Colbert extended the Frankenstein metaphor to Three Mile Island and nuclear power, and Shellenberger agreed that nuclear energy could be a positive in creating clean, affordable energy. Shellenberger also appears in a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, featuring environmentalists, scientists, and energy experts who have shifted from being ardently anti-nuclear to strongly pro–nuclear energy.

Having grown up ten miles from Three Mile Island, I have complicated views about nuclear energy.  (My family evacuated to NYC, where we watched the menacing TMI Tower II on the news and wondered exactly what it was spewing). Apparently, American public opinion is mixed on the issue as well, because results vary greatly according to survey questions.

When asked to rate the impact of a series of energy sources on the environment in a Harris Interactive poll from September 2012, Americans deem nuclear energy the most harmful energy source in terms of environmental impact (48%), followed by clean coal (34%), natural gas (23%), biomass (12%, with 61% not at all sure), hydropower (8%), wind (5%) and solar (4%).

Yet when asked separately about nuclear energy as an alternative source of electricity to fossil fuels, Americans seem to favor the continuing operation of existing nuclear power plants, if question wording includes the benefits of reducing energy dependence and providing electricity.  Longer-term trends show that this support dropped in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but seemed to rebound in recent surveys.  At any rate, Americans are decisively less enthusiastic about building new nuclear plants. Continue reading

Ten Years On: American Public Opinion on the War in Iraq

By Craig Kafura, senior program officer, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Wednesday, Dan Drezner referenced the 2012 Chicago Council Survey in his post on the effects of the Iraq war on American foreign policy:

Here’s the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights.

Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States.

His full post is definitely worth reading. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that the legacy of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) appears to be strongly shaping the American public’s views of international engagement. While we didn’t delve too deeply into that relationship in Foreign Policy in the New Millennium, the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war provides a good opportunity to do so. This post is the first in a series on the war in Iraq and the seeming impacts it has had on American public opinion.

First, most Americans do not think much has been gained from the war. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey, as well as long- term trends from ABC News/Washington Post, show a majority of Americans say that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (see figure 1). There was only a brief period from April 2003 up to the summer of 2004 when more favored than opposed the war. From then until December 2004 the public was divided; after December,  the war never mustered majority support.

Figure 1: Was the Iraq War Worth It?

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What the Frack? Americans Don’t Seem To Know Much about Hydraulic Fracturing

By Dina Smeltz

Public Favors Offshore Drilling (If  Negatives Are Not Emphasized)  

Today’s post is Part II in our series on American attitudes toward various energy options.

Polls have generally shown majority support for offshore drilling, despite a dip in support following the Gulf oil spill in 2010. By March 2012, a Pew survey found that 65 percent said they favor “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in US waters” to address America’s energy supply, similar to the levels reported in their 2008 and 2009 polls (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Pew Poll

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It’s Not Easy Being Green

President Obama will be in Chicago’s western suburbs to promote his energy policies on Friday at Argonne National Laboratory.  The Administration’s energy strategy has evolved over time, viewing the production of natural gas and nuclear energy as a transitional stage in shifting away from dependence on fossil fuels to reliance on cleaner energy sources.  As new supplies of oil and natural gas have been developed, particularly through fracking, the gains have also had positive knock-on effects for job growth and economic improvement.  Analysts say that within a decade, the US could not only become energy independent, but also a net energy exporter. While this is good news for the goals of energy independence and economic growth, opponents of fracking are trying to raise concern about the environmental risks associated with the process.

As far as American public opinion is concerned, reducing energy dependence is a top priority. While a majority of Americans across the political spectrum favor measures that emphasize the development of alternative energy and energy conservation, they are not willing to personally pay increased taxes to encourage the use of alternative energy.  Moreover, there has a been shift in opinion toward emphasizing energy production over environmental protection. As often happens, question wording plays a role in how people react to energy options.  And this highlights the potential for various messages from different interest groups to affect opinion.

[Polling trends other than Chicago Council surveys can be found at pollingreport.com.]

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South Korean Public Opinion Following North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test

By Karl Friedhoff, Program Officer, Public Opinion Studies Center, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies

North Korea’s third nuclear test brought the traditional condemnations, but a newer feature of the media coverage was the lack of reaction of the South Korean public. However, this reaction is not new—in the National Assembly election in April and December’s presidential election less than 5 percent said that issues related to North Korea were the deciding factor in their vote despite missile launches that occurred around the same time. Some have taken this lack of reaction as a signal that the South Korean public does not take such provocations seriously. However, analysis of South Korean public opinion shows that this is not the case.


South-North relations not seen as national priority

Public reaction has been muted because South-North relations have not been an important issue to South Koreans over the past year (Figure 1). Instead, the focus has been on South Korea’s considerable domestic challenges—household debt, wealth disparity, and economic growth have topped the bill. A failed missile launch in April produced only a slight bump in the perceived importance of South-North relations and a successful launch in December produced no bump whatsoever. Following the February 2013 nuclear test there was a 7 percentage point bump from January, but recent history suggests that this will not last. Continue reading