It has become commonplace to note that, as a country, we seem to be more divided than ever – divided on politics, education, rural-urban living, religion, you name it. But topics relating to the ways we generate energy and the extent to which we should protect the environment in the process might be assumed to be at or near the top of that list of divisive issues. But that’s not really the case. Based on some new research, American public opinion is showing an unexpected convergence on the topic of “green energy,” or forms of generating electricity that are seen as less harmful to the environment. As detailed in a ScienceDaily release, the research study (Horne & Kennedy, 2018) shows that conservatives and liberals both believe that solar power and other forms of renewable energy are smart choices and help in promoting self-sufficiency. The main reasons, however, within each group still differ.
Attitudes about energy generation can matter in many kinds of litigation. As the green energy sector continues to expand, land use or nuisance litigation stemming from large-scale solar, hydro, or wind farm operations, for example, is becoming more common. Beyond these newer trends, these attitudes can also apply to the more common cases involving royalty, environmental legacy, or personal injury involving the “old” fuel sources like oil, gas, and coal. On any case where there’s a role for attitudes about energy generation, environmental protection, or even consumer choice, the convergence of liberal and conservative views on green energy could be significant. In this post, I’ll take a look at the survey as well as a couple of implications.
What Does the Research Say?
The research comes from Christine Horne, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, and Emily Kennedy, a former WSU sociology professor now at the University of British Columbia. They conducted at-home interviews with liberal and conservative residents of Washington State, and supplemented that with a larger national survey. In both the individual interviews as well as the national survey, they found common support for green energy, but for different reasons. The authors write, “Our qualitative data suggest that Democrats support renewables, in part because they value self-sufficiency, but primarily because of their moral commitment to communion. In contrast, Republicans support renewable energy primarily because they see it as a vehicle for self-sufficiency and frugality.”
These results are consistent with the trend in earlier research. For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found 83 percent of conservative Republicans and 97 percent of liberal Democrats favor solar farms. The research has also shown parallel levels of support for renewable energy in liberal and conservative states.
What Does This Say About Common Ground?
The results provide a useful and practical example of common ground on an issue. That common ground on green energy is the point of personal self-sufficiency. As Professor Horne notes, “Marketing renewable energy as a way to be more self-sufficient is a message that would appeal to both liberals and conservatives.” Beyond that, however, the reasons differ. For conservatives, what is most important is that they’re smart choices financially, and promote national energy independence. For example, one conservative interviewed in the study reported associating solar panels with someone who is smart, frugal and self-sufficient. When asked follow-up questions about the environment, the individual responded, “I think if people thought to put solar panels on their roof, they would not think that was helping the environment at all. They would think that was helping them financially, because they’re not paying a power bill.”
What is most important for liberals, on the other hand, is that green energy provides clean forms of energy that are good for the environment. When asked why she wants to reduce her personal environmental impact, a liberal interviewee responded, “Because I enjoy being out in nature, I think everyone else should be able to enjoy it. I think our kids, and our kids’ kids and everyone should have the same benefits…that we are afforded right now.”
So it is frugality and independence on the conservative end, and community and environmental preservation on the other hand. Both are able to meet in the middle, however, in seeing green energy as a smart personal choice for the future.
What Do New Energy Attitudes Mean for Old Energy?
One takeaway from the survey is that it provides an important reminder regarding the more traditionally dominant sources of energy in this country: Oil, natural gas, and coal. That reminder is that green energy is no longer a fringe or a fad. It is not conceived of as too expensive or impractical to be an important part of the country’s energy solution in the immediate future. As people get used to seeing panels and turbines, the forms of energy that have up to this point been dominant start to appear old.
I remember a couple of years ago when a young associate was brought in on a coal case. “Does anyone actually still use coal?” he naively asked, adding, “When I think of coal, I think of England and Charles Dickens…” We’re not there yet, or even close: Around a third of the country’s electricity is generated from coal. But that young lawyer’s disconnect could be seen as a bellwether for future attitudes. Add in the research results, and confidence and support for alternative sources of energy is increasingly the norm.