Bolstering public support for state-level renewable energy policies (MIT News)

We put faith in the belief that citizen engagement in policy questions can lead to better results. And if people voice their opinions, policymakers will listen. New political science research from MIT lends some solid data and interesting details to where and how this plays out in state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS).

MIT News reports:

For the past three years, MIT Associate Professor Christopher Warshaw of the Department of Political Science and Leah Stokes SM ’15, PhD ’15, now an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, have been examining the interaction between public opinion and renewable energy policymaking. First, is there evidence that public opinion and energy policy align within a particular state? And second, what determines that public opinion? For example, can the design of a given RPS policy or how it’s presented to the public — that is, how it’s portrayed or framed — increase or decrease support for the policy?

Now, an analysis by Warshaw and Stokes finds that state legislators are, in fact, broadly responsive to public opinion in this policy arena. And based on data from a public opinion survey, the researchers offer practical advice on how to bolster public support for renewable policies.

Their study highlights how support is more sensitive to some types of messages than others, which can mean the difference between RPS making it to law or heading back to the drawing board. Surveys show that even in the most fossil-fuel dominated states, public support hovers near or even above 50%, so there is hope.

If you're a political / policy junkie, be sure to read the full article.  But if you're in TL;DR mode, here's a few takeaways:

  • Support takes hit when even small increases in energy cost are proposed; a projected $2 monthly increase in individual electricity bills cut RPS policy support by 6%. 
  • Unsurprisingly, more jobs strongly builds support; several thousand new jobs garnered a 7% increase in support for the RPS policy 
  • Cleaner air also boosted support, on the same order of magnitude as the jobs bump.
  • Climate change benefits didn't move the needle much either way. The researchers' hunch is that most people have an entrenched opnion about whether renewables and climate change are connected, so campaigns don't matter.
  • Finally, opinions of partisan thought-leaders really matter. Many people take their cues from trusted members within their political circle.

“So emphasizing either job creation or air quality benefits could cause eight of the 10 states where a majority now opposes RPS bills — and where RPS policies largely do not exist — to flip to a majority in support,” says Stokes. 

How have you seen this play out in energy or environmental campaigns where you live? What seems to work for building support, or acts as a barrier to that support?