September 22, 2011

Now Can We Talk About Peak Oil?

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

It’s possible that we may all be ready to talk about peak oil now—especially if we frame it in terms of public health.

A recently published study on the public’s perception of peak oil has turned up some very interesting data about how Americans view the impact of high oil prices on public health. What’s so fascinating about the data is this: it’s not just those on the left who are worried. In fact, those most concerned about the health consequences of rising oil prices seem to be, in equal numbers, those on both the far right and far left of the political spectrum.

For the study, “Framing Peak Petroleum as a Public Health Problem: Audience Research and Participatory Engagement in the United States,” published in an AJPH supplement this month, Matthew Nisbet and co-authors surveyed 1,001 Americans about the consequences of peak petroleum, which included questions about rising prices, economic consequences, and health consequences. A majority (76%) of participants expected oil prices to triple in the next five years, and 69% said that this rise in price would be harmful to the health of Americans. (The study was conducted between December 2009 and January 2010.)

What I find most fascinating about this study is the portion regarding the ideologies of the participants. Respondents were asked to designate themselves as either very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, or very conservative. One of the intriguing findings is that the participants who said a spike in oil prices was “very likely” were the self-identified “very liberal” (30%) and the self-identified “very conservative” (35%). Those in the middle ranges of ideology were less convinced that there would be a steep rise in oil prices. When asked about the impact of rising oil prices on human health, it was the “very conservative” group that anticipated the most harmful effect, substantially more than the “very liberal” group (53% of very conservative participants thought price spikes would be very harmful to health, compared to 38% of very liberal participants). To generalize, the Americans most pessimistic about the effect of rising oil prices on health are the extreme left and the extreme right.

Another remarkable facet of this study is the climate change angle. The authors also asked participants to rate their level of concern about climate change as either “alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive.” Overall, those respondents who were “dismissive” of climate change were the most likely to anticipate harmful health effects from a spike in oil prices.

So what gives? Extreme conservatives, even the ones who dismiss climate change, are the most convinced among us of the looming threat of rising oil prices. (It’s important, I think, that the authors did not survey participants about “peak oil” per se, but rather about oil prices.) It’s those on the far right—even the climate change deniers—who most expect high oil prices to result in harmful health consequences. The authors conjecture that perhaps the conservative sector is very concerned about energy costs, and that “the public does possess a latent sense of a pending energy problem and is concerned about the potential consequences for public health. These are not highly salient, deeply held, or emotionally laden reactions; rather, they are more akin to latent pubic sentiment.”

In the study, the authors opine that now may be the time to launch public engagement in long-term policy planning around health risks associated with peak petroleum. (For a thorough discussion of peak oil adaptations, read “ Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health,” Roni Neff et al., published in the same AJPH supplement.) Personally, I wonder if that’s a conclusion that the “very liberal” among the respondents would agree with, while the “very conservative” respondents might opt for, instead of long-term policy planning around health risks, more “energy exploration,” that is, more drilling for oil, more fracking, more tar sands pipelines.

Either way, the study makes something clear—both ends of the political spectrum believe that increasing oil prices will affect public health. Those on opposite ends of the ideology may not agree on what to do about it, but both sides agree on what’s at stake—health.

One Comment

  1. a couple of years ago I did a short film about peak oil. Please take a look at the website. If the film interests you, I’m happy to send you a copy. Keep up the good work.

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