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.

Peak Oil: Threats to the Economy and to Public Health

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.