How Do Americans View the Risks of a Major Spike in Oil Prices?

Gasoline prices have never been higher this time of the year, reports the Associated Press. At $3.53 a gallon, prices are already up 25 cents since Jan. 1. And experts say they could reach a record $4.25 a gallon by late April.  A 25-cent jump in gasoline prices, if sustained over a year, would cost the economy about $35 billion, according to the AP.  

World oil prices are the highest they have been since last June.  Continuing tension with Iran may limit supply.  And a recovering U.S. economy that creates more demand may further drive up the price of oil, reports the AP.  

All of this points to a likely record price for gasoline this summer, a trend that is sure to affect Americans, not to mention deeply impact the presidential campaign.

Yet how do Americans perceive the societal risks of volatile and record high oil and gasoline prices?  Are they aware of the impacts not just on the economy but also to the public health system?  And how does ideology and views of climate change shape risk perceptions?

The answers are somewhat surprising, as we discovered in a study we published last year at the American Journal of Public Health.  Liberals in particular tend to have a blind spot to the risks of a spike in oil and gas prices.  Below, I repost the blog summary I wrote on that study with links to more information--Matthew Nisbet.

Peak Oil: Threats to the Economy and to Public Health

A strong majority of Americans say it is likely that oil prices will triple in the coming five years and that such a tripling would be harmful both to the economy and to public health. Conservatives and those dismissive of climate change are among the most concerned by the threat of a major spike in oil prices, suggesting that a broad cross section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialogue about ways to manage the risks associated with peak petroleum.

Those are among the key findings of a forthcoming study published online this week at the American Journal of Public Health. I co-authored the study with Edward Maibach of George Mason University and Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University.

In this post I summarize the study, provide supplementary graphs, and discuss several implications.  You can read a PDF of the study at the Climate Shift Project web site and download the supplementary graphs.

As the editors of the special issue of the American Journal of Public Health review, estimates on when society passes “peak” production of petroleum have put the peak as early as the first decade and as late as the third decade of this century.The associated instability in gas and energy prices is likely to lead to a loss of personal income, unemployment, a decline in consumer confidence, and an overall increased cost of goods and services. The associated public health impacts include an increase in the cost of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals; a rise in the cost of transportation for patients, health care providers, and medical suppliers; an increase in the operating costs of hospitals and health care facilities; and a rise in the cost of food, home heating, and cooling.

As we review in our study, like climate change, experts and their organizations must plan for and mobilize societal actions that mitigate (i.e. delay) the advent of peak petroleum while also pursuing adaptation strategies that protect the public against negative economic and health consequences when peak petroleum does occur.

In addition, there is a pressing need to launch public engagement initiatives that partner members of the public with experts and officials in establishing long-term policy planning at the local, regional and national levels. Coverage by legacy news organizations -- along with newer digital and non-profit news providers -- will be a central part of the communication infrastructure that society needs to respond to the threats posed by peak petroleum.

Just as is the case on climate change, each of these efforts need to be informed by careful audience research that assesses where different segments of the public currently stand in terms of awareness and perceptions of the issue.  Unfortunately, to date, there has been very limited research in this area.

Measuring Risk Perceptions Associated with Peak Petroleum

To address this gap, between December 24, 2009 and January 3, 2010, we conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,001 American adults using KnowledgePanel, an online panel operated by Knowledge Networks.  Recruited nationally using random-digit dialing (RDD) telephone methodology, KnowledgePanel is representative of the U.S. population.

At the time of the start of the survey in December 2009, gas prices nationally were at a relative low of $2.60-a-gallon.  The beginning of the year had seen even lower prices at $1.85-a-gallon.  Memory of high gas prices, however, likely remained salient as June 2008 had seen a surge to more than $4 nationally, with gas prices receiving heavy focus during the presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Given to date the minimal news attention to the expert debate over peak petroleum, respondents were not asked directly about the specific topic, but were instead asked about their reactions to several possible scenarios related to peak petroleum.  The perceived likelihood of experiencing the price consequences of peak petroleum within the next five years was measured with a statement followed by a question:

Some energy experts predict that oil prices will soon begin to rise dramatically higher, possibly tripling in price within five years.  How likely do you think this is?

Response options were: very unlikely; somewhat unlikely; somewhat likely; and very likely.

Following this question, we then prompted respondents to consider the potential economic consequences of peak petroleum – and then switching context – the public health consequences.  Specifically, we asked:

If oil prices were to triple over the next five years, how harmful or helpful to the U.S. economy would it be?”

If oil prices were to triple over the next five years, how harmful or helpful to the health of Americans would it be?”

Response options to these two questions were: very harmful; somewhat harmful; somewhat helpful; very helpful; don’t know.

A Strong Majority of Conservatives Believe that a Tripling of Oil Prices Would Lead to Very Harmful Impacts

At the time of our survey in January 2010, approximately 3 out of 4 Americans said that oil prices were either "very likely" (24%) or "somewhat likely" (52%) to triple over the next five years.  Nearly 2/3 --or 65%-- of these respondents said that if oil prices were to triple, it would be "very harmful" to the economy and 44% said it would be "very harmful" to the health of Americans.

Let's take a look at how these perceptions varied by ideological background. The graph below shows that in January 2010, approximately 33% of Americans self-identified as conservative compared to 21% of Americans who self-identified as liberal and 41% who identified as moderates.

Given that past research shows that the strongly ideological on the left and the right are typically among the most public affairs attentive, it is not surprising in the graph below that approximately 1/3 of these tail-end ideological groups say it is "very likely" that oil prices will triple over the next 5 years.

However, when asked about the severity of the economic impacts associated with a major spike in oil prices, there is more than a 20% difference in risk perceptions between strong liberals and strong conservatives with risk perceptions correlated in the conservative direction.

There are a number of possible reasons that conservatives exhibit stronger risk perceptions relative to the economic impacts of a major spike in oil prices. These include a difference in worldview that tends to prioritize economic issues over other concerns; differences in professional and geographic background that translate into a stronger sensitivity to oil prices; and politically-like minded opinion-leaders and media sources that may place a stronger emphasis on gas prices and oil dependency.

More research is needed to better understand the latent predispositions, background factors, and communication processes that account for the difference in risk perceptions between liberals and conservatives on the issue and how this understanding then translates into effectively engaging decision-makers and the public on energy policy.

Though the difference between conservatives and liberals is not as pronounced, 53% of strongly conservative Americans believe that a major spike in oil prices would be "very harmful" to health.  Several of the same factors that account for the difference in risk perceptions on economic impacts also likely play a role on the health dimension.

In addition, from past research we have conducted, we know that concerns over public health tend to transcend ideological background and offer an important opening for engaging the public on the risks of climate change and the health benefits that accrue from action on the issue. In the current study, we see this relationship similarly holding up for peak petroleum, as I discuss in the next section.

A Majority of Americans Who Dismiss Climate Change Believe that a Tripling in Oil Prices Would Lead to Very Harmful Impacts

Using an audience segmentation methodology developed by Maibach and Leiserowitz, we also examined risk perceptions across segments of the public with uniquely different views on climate change.  These six unique audience segments displayed below ranged from those "Alarmed" by climate change to those "Dismissive" of the problem.

In the graph below, those Alarmed by climate change are the most likely to believe that a tripling of oil prices is very likely, but those Dismissive of climate change are second among the six audience segments in this regard.

Of perhaps even greater interest, 75% of those respondents Dismissive of climate change believe that a tripling in oil prices would be very harmful to the economy, an almost 20% difference in comparison to those Alarmed by climate change.

Those Dismissive of climate change also hold strong risk perceptions related to the health impacts of a major spike in oil prices with 52% of Dismissives indicating such an event would be "very harmful" to public health.

More research is needed to better understand the factors accounting for these findings showing that those Alarmed by climate change tend to be less sensitive to the economic risks of peak petroleum while those Dismissive of climate change hold greater sensitivity.  Some of the same factors shaping the difference between liberals and conservatives also likely play a role in explaining these findings.  Indeed there is a correlation between ideology and the audience segments on climate change but this relationship explains only a part of the variance.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Below is how we conclude the article at the American Journal of Public Health.  You can read the full study here.

...A significant proportion of American adults––at least half––appear open to considering the possibility that our health is vulnerable to major shifts in energy prices. Moreover, this belief was widely shared among people of different political ideologies and was strongly held even among individuals otherwise dismissive of the issue of climate change. This latter finding is particularly intriguing because it suggests that a broad cross section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialogue about ways to manage the risks that experts associate with peak petroleum.

At the time of our survey, news coverage, polls, and public statements indicated that the American people and policymakers, especially political conservatives, were strongly concerned about the economy, jobs, and health insurance reform.8 This context may partly explain why conservatives in our survey perceived a higher risk of the economic impacts of a spike in oil prices than other respondents. Yet our survey findings suggest that a broad cross section of the public––including people from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum––were more receptive than we had expected to the idea that a significant increase in energy costs could lead to greater health risks....

...Although Americans are unlikely to be aware of the concept of peak petroleum, the level of expert agreement on the issue, or the potentially significant impacts of peak petroleum on society, the public does possess a latent sense of a pending energy problem and is concerned about the potential consequences of this problem for public health.

These are not highly salient, deeply held, or emotionally laden reactions; rather, they are more akin to latent public sentiment.  However, if organizations, agencies, and institutions pursue well-coordinated and well designed engagement initiatives, then these latent predispositions could evolve into highly salient, deeply held, and informed public concerns.

In addition to the influence of engagement strategies, public concern over energy prices and future awareness of peak petroleum are likely to vary over time because of events like economic downturns, the price of gas, political focusing events, and disasters such as the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of our survey, the price of gasoline was a relatively low $2.60 per gallon, but gas prices currently are more than $4 per gallon nationally. Constant changes in relevant contextual factors point to the need for continuing survey research and monitoring to track and query the public on a regular basis.

Moreover, our measures of the likelihood of the tripling of energy prices over the next 5 years and concern over health impacts do not measure whether the public perceives or accepts the ‘‘long emergency’’of peak petroleum, including the changes to daily life and social organization predicted by some experts. As public engagement initiatives to address peak petroleum are pursued, careful measures should be developed to map this more complex understanding across segments of the public.

Although the issue of peak petroleum maybe relatively new to the wider public health field, there is an important need to launch public engagement initiatives that partner members of the public with experts and officials in establishing long-term policy planning––a goal directly in line with past community based participatory research (CBPR) initiatives in public health....

...CBPR and associated public engagement methods may also prove valuable in helping public health officials make better decisions about some inherently uncertain choices that must be made relative to peak petroleum. For example, climate change, energy scarcity, the built environment, and food security are all interconnected; should public health officials address these factors (or even communicate about them) as an integrated whole, or should they be addressed independently? How does long-term public engagement planning differ from the short-term emergency communication that would follow an acute crisis related to dramatic changes in the price of petroleum?

Investment in audience research and participatory engagement will have financial, human resource, and opportunity costs, yet these costs are quite modest compared with the risks they are intended to help manage and the benefits that can accrue. We hope that this special issue of the American Journal of Public Health, along with other efforts on the part of the public health community, will catalyze additional research and engagement initiatives to address peak petroleum.


Nisbet MC, Maibach E, & Leiserowitz A (2011). Framing Peak Petroleum as a Public Health Problem: Audience Research and Participatory Engagement in the United States. American journal of public health PMID: 21778500


Between December 2009 and January 2010, we conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of US adults (n=1001; response rate=52.9%) to explore perceptions of risks associated with peak petroleum. We asked respondents to assess the likelihood that oil prices would triple over the next 5 years and then to estimate the economic and health consequences of that event. Nearly half (48%) indicated that oil prices were likely to triple, causing harm to human health; an additional 16% said dramatic price increases were unlikely but would harm health if they did occur. A large minority (44%) said sharp increases in oil prices would be "very harmful" to health.  Respondents who self-identified as very conservative (53%) and those who were strongly dismissive of climate change (52%) were the respondents most likely to perceive very harmful health consequences. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print July 21, 2011: e1-e7. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300230)


This study was supported with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Investigators Program, the 11th Hour Project, and the Surdna Foundation.

See Also:

Study: Re-Framing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

Report on Conveying the Public Health Implications of Climate Change<

* Reposted from Age of Engagement.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

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The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

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The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

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How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

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Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.