Friday, July 14, 2006

Pre-Summit Poll

The leaders of the G8 group of nations meet this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, and energy is a key theme of the summit. That seems appropriate, given the venue and in light of the apparently successful IPO of roughly 20% of Rosneft, the state oil company that absorbed most of Yukos last year. In advance of the summit, the BBC commissioned a poll of residents of 19 countries for their thoughts on energy, and the results are interesting. Large majorities across the globe see energy as a major economic, geopolitical and environmental concern, but as the Beeb points out, their agreement ends with the diagnosis; preferred solutions diverge widely, especially on the subject of higher energy taxes.

Worries about energy's role in climate change and other environmental issues topped the list with 81%, and are probably connected to the strong support (80%) for incentives to promote renewable energy. Unsurprisingly, attitudes toward nuclear power were very country-specific, with support strongest in the US and Asia and weakest in Europe and the former Soviet bloc.

The disparities on increasing energy taxes, which comes closest to a pocketbook issue of anything that was asked, likely reflect a reality not addressed in this poll or its methodology: where do energy and the environment rank among all the things the respondents care about? If people are more worried about jobs, families, and personal safety, will they really demand higher energy taxes? Has energy reached that over-arching point of dominant public focus, as it did in the 1970s? You can't tell from this survey, but the resilience of economic growth to higher energy prices, and the miniscule demand response to those prices, suggest not.

So what message should the G8 emissaries take away from the BBC poll? Maybe it's the one inferred by the Director of the Program on international Policy Attitudes, one of the organizations that designed the poll, who said, "...the way the world is producing and using energy is not viable. People around the world will be looking to the G8 leaders to address this issue and show a readiness to support significant new steps." In fact, the G8 Gleneagles Agreement was a good start on that. Perhaps the best thing the G8 could do this time around would be to concentrate on the geopolitical problems that have heaped enormous risk premia on the prices of oil and competing forms of energy. It's hard to focus our efforts on an enormous, gradual problem such as climate change, when everyone is fretting about terrorism, a widening conflict in the Middle East, Korean missiles and Iranian nukes.

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