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

Climate Change: Making Anxiety an Asset

Complex problems and anxious people are a bad combination. And right now that sums up the nation's political agenda for the rest of the year: health care, climate change, immigration and the economy all have the public both confused and scared. But at least when it comes to climate change and energy, the debate doesn't have to play out as badly as it has for health care. Properly channeled, anxiety can be an asset.

We're not talking about scaring people into going along with the government's plans, as arguably happened with the "war on terrorism." Neither are we talking about mustering an army of the anxious to block anything that's proposed, as seems to be happening on health care. That is a Marxist strategy, and we mean Groucho, not Karl. Groucho famously vowed "Whatever it is, I'm against it ." But that didn't even turn into good policy for fictitious Huxley College.

There's plenty of anxiety out there on energy -- along with a vast span of misinformation and lack of knowledge -- but for clever coalition-builders (which we hope includes the leaders at the United Nations summit this week), there's also a lot to work with.

When our organization, Public Agenda, conducted its Energy Learning Curve survey of Americans, we found they fell naturally into four broad categories: the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent) and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).

The Anxious don't know much about energy issues, but they know enough to be worried. Almost all of this group worries "a lot" about the cost of energy (91 percent); They report higher levels of worry than the other groups on scarcity and on increased worldwide demand for oil. Global warming is a lesser concern, but even here 69 percent say it's real and 54 percent say they worry "a lot" about it.

The Greens are the most knowledgeable. They rarely give "don't know" answers, and they're the only group that said that drilling offshore in Alaska would not eliminate our need for foreign oil (79 percent, compared with 43 percent overall). Next to the Anxious group, they are the most concerned about the United States' dependence on foreign oil and on global warming. They also engage in many energy-saving behaviors, and they're already convinced that sacrifices will be needed to solve energy problems.

The Disengaged are, well, disengaged. They don't know very much about the problem, but then again they're not that worried about it either. Not only do they rate poorly on the knowledge questions in the survey, but they have higher "don't know" responses. Twenty-two percent, for example, have no view about the existence or causes of global warming.

Climate Change Doubters actually know quite a bit about energy issues, but they're just not buying the idea of global warming, caused by humans. Their energy approach favors drilling for oil and building more nuclear power plants. When asked to choose between protecting the environment and economic growth, for example, the Doubters choose growth by an overwhelming 80 percent. They oppose any measure that might increase taxes or direct costs to the consumer.

One thing ought to leap right out from this breakdown is that none of these groups is a majority by itself. And if you subscribe to the Willie Sutton philosophy of life (Why do you rob banks? Because that's where the money is), you can easily see that the one group that matters most are the Anxious. They're the largest single block -- 4 out of every 10 Americans -- and they could go either way.

The other is that the defining characteristic of the Anxious is that they are so worried about so many things that they make Buster on Arrested Development look relaxed. A lot of environmentalists seem convinced that the key to success in this debate is making everyone else as concerned about climate change as they are. That's actually no help in persuading the Anxious; they're already worried about it and convinced it's real. But they're also worried about everything else. Nine in 10 worry "a lot" about increases in fuel prices, and three-quarters think oil prices will rise because of scarcity. Making sure there's enough energy to go around, and at a price that people can afford, are even more important to this group.

The good news is that there's room for coalition-building. People can approach a problem from entirely different perspectives and still end up at the same place. The Anxious are actually strongly supportive of alternative energy, ranging from ethanol to solar, and they strongly favor conservation over exploration. So do the Greens. But the rationales are different -- Greens favor alternative energy because it's clean; the Anxious favor it because they want to stretch the supply.

Someone with a much different approach to governing than Groucho Marx, Lyndon Johnson, once said that if you can't walk into a room and know who's for you and who's against you, you don't belong in politics. Our organization does a lot of citizen engagement, and we've found a slightly tweaked version of that quote very helpful in thinking about it, namely, that you have the address the concerns people bring into the room with them. You can try to tell them not to worry, or to worry about something else, but unless they believe you're addressing what they were worried about in the first place, you're not going to get past it.

Anxiety isn't always bad. It can be a great motivator. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter so much whether you're worried about climate change or nervous about imported oil, the key point is that this country is way too reliant on fossil fuels , and developing alternatives and ramping up efficiency handily addresses both problems.