Does Delay Mean Disaster for the Climate Bill? Depends

11/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, beset by the health care battle among other problems, says he's thinking about putting off action on the huge climate change bill. Much as we hate to say it, and speaking as people who've been trying to educate the public on energy, it may not be such a bad idea.

We admit, we have mixed feelings about this ourselves. As a nation, we need to make decisions about energy and global warming, and we need to make them soon. Critics rightly point out that delay could derail the Copenhagen climate conference in December (although the Obama administration is making noises that those talks may drag into 2010 as well). But before you jump all over us, consider this fact from Public Agenda's Energy Learning Curve survey: four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel.

It gets worse: half can't name a renewable energy source. More than half say nuclear power contributes to global warming, and three in 10 say the same about solar power. Solar, the poster child for green technology!

When the public's knowledge levels are this low, the risk of fear mongering, misinformation and pandering is very high- - as the health care town halls have proven.

The problem with energy as an issue is that it's boring, complicated and affects everyone. If most Americans don't understand energy, don't take time to learn more about it and are touchy about changes in how they use it, building public support for legislation becomes tremendously difficult - and tremendously important.

In addition, this is hugely complicated legislation. With cap-and-trade, we're talking about creating the biggest commodities market in history. Very few people can explain cap-and-trade in a sentence (and that's leaving aside the argument over whether it will work).

Lack of knowledge is not a crime, and we would be the last people to argue that the public should be excluded from this debate because they've haven't done enough reading on the topic. Despite the statistics we've cited, we're convinced the public can grapple with these issues. Under the right conditions, people can and do work through complicated problems. We've seen it happen in civic engagement projects around the country.

There's also cause for optimism: our Energy Learning Curve survey found an openness to change, plus broad consensus on more than a dozen ideas for changing our energy future, including alternative energy, conservation and green jobs. There's a lot of public support for lawmakers to build on...if leaders do the heavy lifting involved.

If policymakers just put off the climate change bill out of exhaustion and obsession with health care, then more time leads to more stalemate, or worse. If political leaders use the time to actually build public support, explaining the options and the reasons to act, they might actually come out ahead. Delay can be fatal, but only if it's another word for denial.