February 14, 2012
By Matt Palmer
I really enjoyed reading the blogpost linked above from UBC Professor George Hoberg. There are some great points for discussion, and it got me thinking about a number of issues.
I do not like spending a lot of time debating climate change. First of all, I don’t feel a need for debate – the climate is changing, let’s move on. Secondly, people are going to continue to vehemently disagree about the science, leaving us spending a lot of time arguing, and not moving to things we can agree on. Climate change is an outcome of how we use energy, or said another way, the industrial processes we use to create energy and to power transportation cause pollution. We should all be able to agree that polluting or destroying the environment is a bad thing. Next, we should all be able to agree that being better stewards of our resources, and operating with the goal of doing the least harm makes sense.
Arguing about climate change, which has become a very polarized debate, is keeping us from focusing on how we use energy, and more specifically how we are going to provide energy for nine billion people in forty years. And, how are we going to do that in a way that does least harm to the environment, including carbon emissions.
In his blog essay, Professor Hoberg seems to justify the Climate Advocate using exaggerated and inflammatory rhetoric to inspire action because “speaking truth to power” has not been effective.
In contrast, the climate advocate is trying to maximize political leverage in an effort to foster systemic transformation of the energy system. The logic of political action and movement building is different from the logic of policy efficiency. The advocate works to strategically frame problems and solutions that work politically, not those that best adhere to the standards of analytical rigor. Frequently, this involves exaggerated claims that aggravate the analyst.
Exaggerated claims, calling the oil sands a “carbon bomb” for example, are designed to scare and inflame people’s emotions, thus motivating them into action. Fear has not been successful though in motivating the greater society.
Other misleading information about the recent Keystone XL pipeline had activists claiming that building the pipeline keeps us from investing in alternative energy. This claim is misleading because it uses the premise that we burn oil for electricity, and we don’t. The claim presupposes that the services and commodities we get from oil are comparable to other fuel sources like wind, solar, or nuclear. However, we use wind, solar, nuclear, and coal to harness electricity. Oil is transformed into a myriad of products from transportation fuels to petrochemicals that are the feedstock for very important products like medicine, plastics, and even products that are necessary to build things like wind turbines and solar panels.
The more likely fuel that one could argue is preventing greater investment in alternative energy electricity based systems is cheap and abundant coal. And, a strong coal lobby in the US.
With regards to transportation fuels, we must begin the process of transitioning to other fuel or power systems, but moving to global scale is going to take time, and it will take an immense amount of natural resources to build new cars, planes etc.. It is not a simple switch.
By “strategically framing problems and solutions that work politically” environmental advocates are increasing the polarization, and I would argue the same against the other side. We need to face a hard reality that harnessing any fuel source whether it’s fossil fuels or alternatives comes with difficult problems.
With fossil fuels some of the main problems are pollution, land disruption, and that they are diminishing resource. With alternative energy systems we have some big technological issues that still have not been solved like storage, reliability, or understanding the impacts of harnessing things like wind and solar on a global scale. First generation bio-fuels are a huge debacle, causing major disruptions in the global food supply.
Fossil fuels are valuable because of their energy density, power density, scalability and ease of use. Alternative energy sources suffer from a lack of these things, and as a result shifting to these new systems will need inputs of vast amounts of natural resources (i.e. steel, concrete, rare earth metals, etc.) to build capacity and meet demand.
Giving justification to environmental advocates to juice the narrative they use to inspire action is wrong. Good people and organizations are jeopardizing their credibility when they shift to such tactics. Conversely, the oil industry needs to stop minimizing the risk of development. They need to be transparent about the risks, and come to the table demonstrating actions and plans to deal with impacts. Credibility is critical.
Analytic rigor is also important. We need to move away from the tactics of denial of impacts, or using fear to motivate. The rhetoric keeps us from constructive conversation and working to consensus. Consensus will not be reached by resorting to name calling, and insults.
Where we can have success is through increasing our energy literacy, and talking about energy from a system’s perspective, the life cycle costs of energy. Working to understand why we use energy in the first place, why we use oil, will help structure a conversation that delves into how energy fulfills and supports our values and beliefs. This is the crux of the issue. It won’t matter what sources of energy we transition to if we don’t change how we use energy, and we can’t do that if we don’t have a hard look at why we use energy.
So much of the debate is around energy sources, supplies, and blaming energy producers – not that they don’t need to shoulder some blame, but demand drives the system. Demand is rising partly because people do not understand where there energy comes from. There is a disconnect on how people see and understand energy.
This disconnect gets exacerbated when environmental advocates, energy companies, and governments engage in adversarial campaigns where rhetoric and strategy have greater value than integrity and truth.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. As long as interest groups work from a strategy of maximizing political opportunities, then we all lose. When our actions do not match our values and beliefs, then we are no longer authentic.
Maybe this is a starting place. Finding a way back to authenticity. Having our values and beliefs motivate our actions.