Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Minding the (partisan) gap: partisan divisions in support for nuclear

Via NEI's twitter feed comes this story of a new Gallup poll on energy and environmental issues similar to that released by Pew which I dissected a few weeks ago.

Image via Gallup
For the most part, the trends are indeed quite similar - especially in the respect that public opinion on the issue of nuclear energy appears to be quite "sticky," consistently polling at a slight majority of Americans favoring its continued use (and even expansion). Unsurprisingly, support for the expanded use of nuclear energy is riven by partisan divides, with much broader numbers of Republicans favoring its expansion over Democrats.

Indeed, this partisan fissure is consistent with Pew's prior polling, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters strongly favoring measures including more stringent environmental regulations and more funding for alternative sources such as wind and solar, with much weaker support for the development of new nuclear or fossil fuel exploration. (Interestingly, support for new nuclear among Democrats is weaker than that of opening up federal lands for oil exploration.)

The Republican side naturally shows the inverse, with Republicans generally favoring policies to expand energy supplies (with the relative strength of support for opening up additional land for oil exploration as Democrats show for conservation and regulatory measures). A notable difference in this poll is much stronger support among Republicans for expanding nuclear energy, being the second-favorite choice among Republicans and Republican-leaners at 64% of respondents favoring, compared to 54% in the similar Pew poll.
% in favor
National AdultsRepublicansDemocrats
Setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry 705485
Spending more government money on developing solar and wind power 695184
Spending government money to develop alternate sources of fuel for automobiles 665181
Imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions/other greenhouse gases655082
Opening up land owned by the federal government for oil exploration658449
More strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations644780
Setting higher auto emissions standards for automobiles624976
Expanding the use of nuclear energy526441

Getting back to the issue of "stickiness" in public opinion, while support for expanding nuclear has been steadily growing among Republicans since the early 2000s, among Democrats support appears to be stuck around 40%, after briefly spiking around 2006 (incidentally, around the time of Al Gore's most famous work, An Inconvenient Truth was released).

Given the need to develop new domestic sources of energy and the general drive to phase out dirtier sources like coal, it provokes a nagging question - why such a stark partisan divide over one of the largest clean energy sources in the U.S. by share of electricity (around 20%)? Indeed, it's one thing to expect broad divisions overall (given the relative weight individuals assign to factors such as economics, waste management, safety, and so forth). And indeed, some of the split will be driven by familiarity with energy sources overall (i.e., the feasibility, not to mention practicality of providing electricity from intermittent sources at the caprice of nature). An of course, splits along other lines are perhaps more obvious manifestations of priorities - take the split over fossil exploration. But what explains nuclear?

One explanation (which I will cover in a follow-on post) is the influence of cultural factors - specifically, cultural factors which influence risk perception. There is an entire field of study devoted to this, such as the Cultural Cognition Project at the Yale Law School. Ultimately what it boils down to is that how individuals perceive risk and respond to new information is dramatically influenced by their value systems. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same patterns of values which tend to divide liberals and conservatives also tend to divide across issues such as the perceived risk of nuclear energy production (along with related issues, such as nuclear waste management).

However, this can cut both ways as well, a matter which should be of key interest to those committed to action on global climate change. A teaser for next time - one particularly interesting finding is those of value persuasions typically found in conservatives that if expanded use of nuclear energy is presented as a necessary solution to global climate change, these individuals become more open to evidence of the risks of climate change, as compared to greater regulatory control over industrial activity - precisely due to the issues of concordance of values. Food for thought.