underlying mechanisms that lead to climate change. In the absence of a firm
grasp of the facts, there is a wide range of cognitive biases that plague indi-
vidual assessment, and complicated technical problems are especially prone
to such biases (Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky, 1982).
In turn, basic understanding does not imply clear opinions on associ-
ated policies. A scientist or technologist steeped in technical details, for
example, might well be indifferent with regard to which specific policies
are enacted. By the same token, ignorance does not preclude strong opin-
ions. More generally, positive or negative views do not reveal the strength
of those views. Strong opinions do not necessarily translate into political
support, nor does affiliation with a political party necessarily imply support
for their party’s position on every issue. Next, general views do not always
translate into support for specific action, particularly those that will have
a direct personal or local impact. Finally, opinion need not translate into
individual actions or active political support that might move a policy
forward. It is these missing links in the chain linking public understanding
with public policy that will be explored by drawing upon public opinion
results in the areas of science and technology, energy, and the environment.
Applied to the question of energy choices and their interaction with
climate change policy, one might expect that some disconnects are severe.
Public attention to both science and technology and to environmental
issues is relatively low. Moreover, the underlying scientific evidence for
climate change that would motivate action has been contested, at least in
the United States, leading to further uncertainty. Possible solutions to the
climate problem are often of a technical nature and themselves subject to
considerable confusion. Translating those imperfect understandings into
opinions can be affected both by political affiliation and personal interests.
The environment has become a partisan issue in the United States that can
then impact perceptions and attitudes. Even the term environmentalist has
become laden with different meanings, with diverse implications for atti-
tudes and policy choices. Many environmental issues also come with their
own set of local and personal repercussions, such as siting of facilities or
impacts on individual behavior. Finally, there may still be notable differ-
ences between the public’s preferences and the choices made by their
elected representatives.
Establishing the links between understanding and policy choice has to
date been imperfect at best. Any inquiry, therefore, must rely on incom-
plete evidence. Probing these links is vital, however, to producing a richer
appreciation of how the public can influence policy debates and, equally, to
understanding how ongoing policy debates might influence the public.
Public Awareness
There is a relatively small informed audience for many policy questions.
Researchers have concluded that less than one-fifth of U.S. residents meet
202 Driving Climate Change

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