06/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Do All Roads Lead to Copenhagen?

When environmental and energy policymakers gather in December in Copenhagen to discuss a new international agreement to combat climate change, their goal will be clear: reduce human beings' reliance on fossil fuels. The respected journal Nature upped the ante this week, reporting that the world has to cut back even more drastically than many experts believed if it's going to avoid severe climate change. "It is not too late yet -- but we may be very close," the magazine said as part of its "Road to Copenhagen" feature.

The Obama administration says it's ready to go to Denmark. According to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "The United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad."

But is the American public ready to follow along as well?

Maybe. If the country's leaders play their cards right. According to the Energy Learning Curve survey, conducted by Public Agenda in association with the recent PBS energy special Planet Forward, there is broad public support for a wide range of proposals offering incentives for more alternative energy, energy efficiency, and cutting back gasoline use. And despite the conventional wisdom that Americans only care about energy when gas prices are high, the survey also showed that three-quarters of Americans say the U.S. will need to find alternative sources of energy even if gas prices drop. What's more, the vast majority of Americans believe more emphasis on alternative energy can be good for the economy: 86 percent think investing in alternative energy will create many new jobs, and 45 percent believe this strongly.

But the survey also suggests that continually invoking climate change as the chief or only rationale for a new energy policy could be a mistake. It's crucial for President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and others who want progress in Copenhagen to recognize that the American public's concerns on energy are driven much more by prices and by dependence on foreign oil than by fear of climate change. An overwhelming nine in 10 Americans (89 percent) say they worry about the cost of gas and fuel. Even more important is the intensity of that concern, with 57 percent saying they worry "a lot." Eight in 10 (83 percent) worry that the U.S. economy is too dependent on oil, with 47 percent saying they worry "a lot."

But while seven in 10 (71 percent) say they worry about global warming, only 32 percent say they worry "a lot." That's 25 points behind price. It isn't that climate change is off the public' s radar, but it's fair to say that it's a much smaller blip than other worries.

This has major implications for advancing energy policy, and actually implementing any of the compelling ideas for alternative energy and energy efficiency that are daily emerging from nearly every sector of American society. Scientists and environmentalists have invested enormous energy trying to put global warming on the top of the public's agenda. So far, for most Americans, it still isn't.

But it's still possible to make progress. Many of our energy options have promise no matter what you're worried about -- climate change, imported oil, or making sure that the American economy isn't whacked upside the head when oil prices start climbing again. When it comes to building support for a new energy policy, political leaders should consider building on the concerns that already worry the public, rather than trying to talk the public into worrying about something else.

There's plenty of room to maneuver here. As a starting point, and even though climate change isn't the public's A-number-one worry:

  • 84 percent of Americans support more investment in fuel-efficient railways (47 percent strongly)
  • 81 percent support tax rebates to individuals who reduce energy use (44 percent strongly)
  • 79 percent, support tax rebates to businesses (41 percent strongly) who reduce energy use
  • 78 percent want higher gas-mileage requirements for cars (50 percent strongly)
  • 74 percent say developers should be required to build more energy-efficient homes (32 percent strongly
  • 73 percent support tax credits to purchasers of hybrid automobiles (38 percent strongly)
  • 72 percent want to reward businesses that reduce carbon emissions and penalize those that don't (37 percent strongly)
  • 71 percent agree that more tax money should be spent on public transportation (33 percent strongly)
  • 68 percent want the nation to take steps to gain energy independence even if it raises energy costs (24 percent strongly)

Granted, most Americans are still strongly opposed to taxing gasoline and other measures that would make it even more difficult for cash-strapped workers to get to their jobs each day. But there is a huge opening here if leaders can see it and take it. And one key step may be showing the public how ideas like these can help us become more energy self-reliant and less likely to held hostage to high oil and natural gas prices in the future.

At this point, it's up in the air whether the American public's "road to Copenhagen" is going to be a hero's journey, or something more like the slapstick Bob Hope-and-Bing-Crosby road movies of the 1940s. When it comes to energy policy, it would be better if the country's leadership didn't have to take as many detours and side trips as Bob and Bing. But at least in terms of marshaling public opinion, there may be more than one way to get to Copenhagen. For a lot of Americans who aren't quite on board yet, pointing to the dangers of climate change may not be the shortest route to actually avoiding them.