Wednesday, May 9, 2001

A Los Angeles Times poll, released last week, shows that when it comes to the environment, the public thinks in cliches — if at all.

The media have discovered that the environment is a great way to bash President George Bush. Thus, the headline in a news story on the survey read: “Ecology beats economy in poll: Bush policy criticized.”

Based partially on the way questions were phrased (and in part on entrenched ignorance), the poll delivered the desired results.

By 41 percent to 38 percent, respondents thought Bush is doing too little to protect the environment.

They opposed the administration’s call to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge by 55 percent to 34 percent, and disagreed with its decision not to impose new and stringent standards on carbon dioxide emissions by power plants, by roughly the same margin.

The problem with such surveys is that the alternative presented is always generate more power and grow the economy, or preserve the environment from rape and degradation, including strip-mining your grandmother’s backyard.

The public generally lacks the input to make sound judgments here. Reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Yeah, that sounds good. Why? Do they know that animals produce C02 every time they exhale? The connection between these emissions and so-called global warming is very much in dispute.

The Times poll produced glaring inconsistencies. A majority said protecting the environment is very important. But when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation, only 13 percent chose the environment, compared to the economy and jobs (27 percent), crime and drugs (15 percent), and education (15 percent).

Respondents indicated that global warming is a real danger, yet they rated it below pollution and air quality as the most serious environmental concern. And after shaking their heads over Bush’s policies on every environmental issue mentioned, respondents approved of his handling of the environment by 41 percent to 38 percent. Well, that makes sense.

What the public doesn’t know about ecology would fill that mythical hole in the ozone layer. Those surveyed blame Bush for not asking Congress to give him the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions by utilities under the Kyoto Treaty.

Are they aware that, according to the Department of Energy, implementation of the standards would raise the cost of electricity by 21 percent over the next four years? Do they understand that no one really knows if the Earth’s surface is heating up (ground measurements indicate some warming in recent years, satellite surveys show none), or if this is happening why, or what it means?

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell notes the Artic Wildlife Refuge, which Bush supposedly desires to despoil, isn’t pristine wilderness (where polar bear and caribou roam), but includes settlements and military installations? Proposed oil production would be confined to less than 6,000 of the reserve’s 19 million acres.

That’s how much caribou-calving ground would be disturbed to get an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil (equal to 30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia) out of the ground. Oil production in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay hasn’t caused any major environmental problems.

Armed with that information, would respondents to the poll reach a different conclusion on (as the survey phrased it) damaging “the environment in an unspoiled part of the country” to expand the oil supply?

A few more facts of which the vast majority is unaware: Our dependence on foreign oil has increased from 36 percent in the early ‘70s to 60 percent today. The DOE estimates that over the next 20 years, our demand for oil will increase 33 percent.

According to another poll, cited in The Wall Street Journal, 57 percent of Californians believe there are no power shortages in the state. They may discover otherwise this summer, when demand for electricity will be running 10 percent ahead of production during peak hours. Rolling brownouts, here we come.

When the environment is considered in the abstract, with few facts, it’s one thing. When it’s your electric bill, your air-conditioning in mid-August, your job — it’s quite another matter.

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