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Should We Switch The Language of Climate Crisis Away From “Renewables?”

Do we need an alternative model that categorizes energy generation systems according to their overall effect or alternative energies as good investments?

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Bill Gates says that addressing climate change means reinventing the fundamental way our lives are run, which ultimately means the entire global economy. Chad Frischmann offers 100 solutions to reverse global warming. An article in Wired declares that the “roughest head-knocking has been between the energy wonks who think we should use whatever power sources necessary to eliminate emissions — nuclear, biofuels, carbon-capture — and those who think renewable energy is the only answer.” Yeah, we do like to argue about the best approaches to solve anthropogenic climate warming, don’t we?

The common ground among scientists, academics, and advocates who care about climate change points to a series of common sense agreements.

  • Make polluting expensive, and it would cut the amount of greenhouse gases people spew.
  • Design more efficient ways to make and consume more energy without emitting more carbon.
  • Look to wind and solar as the lowest-cost energy options.
  • Electricity is the best way to tap into low-carbon energy.
  • Solving electric storage and transmission demand gaps will be a relief.
  • Governments should be spending more money researching the most challenging problems that stand in the way of weaning ourselves off carbon.

But so much of the progress in moving us away from carbon is bogged down in the rhetoric — which language of climate crisis do we favor? While it’s probably difficult to ask everyone to stop protecting the terms that give us comfort, is there a way in which we can change the jargon around climate action so that we can move forward?

language of climate crisis

Switch from ‘Renewable’ to ‘Actual Measurable Impacts of each Technology’

Abandoning the term “renewable energy” may help the fight against climate change, say Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen in an article in the journal Energy Policy. While it might seem somewhat futile to try to dramatically transform discourse that is so deeply ingrained within a field, the authors say that we must acknowledge the collective global failure in mitigating climate change alongside the institutionalized concepts that seem to have played a role in that failure.

The researchers analyzed the history of the concept of renewable energy, and many examples of problematic issues regarding its use emerged. With an institutional theory framework that focuses on problems inherent with the vocabulary of climate change rather than the science itself, the authors discuss how specific energy generation methods commonly described as “renewable” can hide the complexities of alternative policy options. The authors’ argument centers on the great diversity of renewable energy sources, leading to the conclusion that lumping all renewable technologies together can limit the more valuable comparisons of the benefits and disadvantages of different energy generation methods in a variety of situations.

Harjanne, a doctoral researcher at Aalto University School of Business in Finland, acknowledges that climate change is “the most pressing issue of our time. Rather than focusing on renewables, we should be looking at the actual measurable impacts of each technology.” The report suggests that climate change language should be used that describes low carbon content in the energy generating process and the lowest possible levels of combustion as the 2 key favorable factors for any technology.

Their report outlines 4 problems that arise with the language of climate crisis.

  1. Renewable energy is often associated strongly with sustainability. Sustainable energy enables societal development that is largely, even if not entirely, decoupled from increasing environmental degradation for the foreseeable future. The energy sources labeled as renewable come with pros and cons that depend on their scale and their role in the energy system.
  2. The concept of renewable energy includes very different types of energy sources. The energy densities, practical siting requirements, and physical processes of different forms of renewable energy vary greatly.
  3. Conceptualizing certain forms of energy as renewable needs to lead to favorable policy outcomes. The effectiveness of policy in curbing carbon emissions and meeting the 3 dimensions of energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability must be consistent across reporting.
  4. Renewable energy has become ingrained in climate policy but loose definitions may serve to do little more than improve public image or promote particular technologies. Climate policy is a complex, issue-based field. “Renewable energy” and its positive associations have permitted politicians and lobbyists to get away with what the authors term “bait-and-switch schemes” that may hinder emission reductions or even increase or cause other undesirable environmental impacts.

The authors conclude that using “renewable energy” to frame carbon mitigation is an incoherent and misleading concept to use as a basis for policy development. They suggest that it would be best to conceptualize energy sources based on their carbon emissions and whether they are based on combustion or not.

language of climate crisis

It’s Time for People to Hear a Different Climate Crisis Message

Douglas Rushkoff — that media scholar and futurist — states in Medium that we’ve won a bit of the the climate communications battle, as the rich and powerful now accept the reality of climate change and are actively betting on it happening. He outlines how futurists are being called upon by corporate clients to describe the coming global climate crisis “in stirring detail.” But the downside to such acceptance is that these global movers and shakers are so convinced “we’re losing the war” that they fail to see that this single climate crisis scenario of devastation and chaos can be averted.

Indeed, Rushkoff feels that this “mentality is self-perpetuating. The more we invest in the inevitability of climate disaster, the more assuredly we bring it on and the more devastating a future we are creating for ourselves.”

He argues that, if we’re going to get business on our side — “after which government is sure to follow” — it’s time to describe the most likely future scenario to avert climate change, or, at the least, to mitigate its effects. “Slow it down. Build more resilience. We have to show that the world is on board and ready to do and pay for what is necessary to keep the planet livable for the vast majority of species,” he advises.

Such an approach will take a new language of climate crisis. Like many of us, Rushkoff says that it’s time for people “to hear a different message.” What does Rushkoff say should be part of the new version of climate messaging?

  • Climate change is about to be defeated.
  • If you don’t get in on climate remediation now, on the ground floor, you’ll miss the opportunity. For example, this is your chance to invest in organics and to sell short on Monsanto and Big Agra.
  • This is the time to go all in on solar, wind, and geothermal.

Always the futurist, Rushkoff envisions that once the rich and powerful drink the new climate change investment Kool-Aid, big money will start to pour into the climate action movement. And that’s when “Wall Street starts lobbying for the Green New Deal,” he predicts. Net-zero greenhouse emissions will not be “a pipe dream, but a plausible, positive, attainable goal.”

Images copyright free from Pixabay

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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