Two years ago, my family battled unsuccessfully with our condo board to install a community EV charger. Last year, we received permission to hire an electrician so we could place a 220 volt outlet in our carport. This year, our nearby city garage is home to 4 EV chargers. Renewable energy infrastructure for EV, solar, and wind power is quickly becoming commonplace, yet renewable energy misinformation and miscommunication continues across select media channels. What tools can we use to switch back-channel narratives to the promise and inevitability of renewable energy?
An early 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 77% of people in the US agreed that it’s more important to develop alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, than to produce more coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
But conservative Republicans, who represent that party’s majority, were evenly divided over whether to prioritize alternative energy (49%) or expand fossil fuel production (49%). That’s a problem.
In June, 2020, the Attorney General of Minnesota, Keith Ellison sued ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries for misleading the public over climate change. The lawsuit claims that “previously unknown internal documents confirm that the defendant well understood the devastating effects that their products would cause to the climate.” These 3 organizations are some of the biggest miscommunicators ever about renewal energy.
- ExxonMobil has a 2-decade-long campaign to stymie government efforts to address climate change. By ExxonMobil’s own accounting, it gave $690,000 to 8 climate science denier groups in 2019. In addition, it continued to fund federal lawmakers who oppose a carbon tax, despite its supposed longtime support for the idea. 40% of the nearly $1 million it contributed to US congressional incumbent campaigns during the 2019-20 election cycle was directed to 115 of the 150 climate science deniers still in office.
- The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry. API claims that the use of natural gas is enough to reduce CO2 emissions, and that we should recognize “the many benefits that oil and natural gas provide our nation.” Its direct lobbying on behalf of the oil and gas industry includes numerous disinformation ads and expenditures amounting to over $98 million since 1998, according to data collected by OpenSecrets.
- Koch Family Foundations spent $145,555,197 directly financing 90 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions like renewable energy options from 1997-2018.
With powerful organizations still posing serious questions, it’s hard for some audiences to accept renewable energy as viable for everyday routines, less expensive than fossil fuels, healthier for human life, and essential for the longevity of the planet. We continue to hear a lot of hype about the financial magnitude of a Green New Deal, for example, but there’s little talk about averted costs. Why don’t we hear about economic savings inherent with renewable energy?
Strategies to Empower People to Embrace Renewable Energy
A pattern of discourse that yields uncertainty about renewable energy confuses many people and undermines science. Mis- and mal-information have contributed to a dangerous erosion of trust in facts and experts. How do we persuade individuals who have been taught to believe in fossil fuels as an integral part of everyday life to embrace renewables?
Karin Kirk, a writer and academic, wrote in Scientific American about her efforts to persuade people to accept science communication. She curated a list of persuasive techniques as she talked to Montana voters prior to the 2020 elections. “How do you break it to a rural voter in a major coal state that coal is never coming back?” she mused. “What tactics can one use to tiptoe through a conversation with a staunchly religious person to make the point that, in fact, humans are responsible for warming the climate?” She came away believing it’s possible to build a broad coalition, rather than alienating those with differing views and priorities.
Let’s apply her list to renewable energy discussions with a naysayer audience in mind, shall we?
Listen and keep listening. You know that wind and solar offer a decentralized model, in which smaller generating stations, spread across a large area, work together to provide power. But when people with whom you’re chatting are dismayed about capital costs, siting, and transmission issues, let them talk. Nod and wait your turn politely to acknowledge that, as we look ahead to our clean energy future, a key piece of the puzzle is building the transmission system that will carry utility-scale renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed.
Say out loud the topics on which you agree. The huge drop-off in demand, for both electricity and transportation fuels, has pushed oil and gas prices to historic lows and left fossil fuel companies struggling to find storage space for huge gluts of product. Or some types of renewable energy are preferable to others — wind and solar have fewer downsides than do biomass or hydropower.
Share your findings, but only as they relate to those places of agreement. Demand for electric vehicles has never been higher, with the number of plug-in EVs on the road expected to reach 7 million by 2025. However, consumers and commercial fleets alike are calling for significant improvements in battery performance and charging infrastructure.
Create commonality over the shared goal of ethical politicians and the idea that no one wants more pollution. Fossil fuel money in politics has played a substantial role in the climate crisis and energy policy, and consensus is forming that they’re the single most important reason climate action has been stalled for decades in the US. Plus broader awareness of supply chain issues for machines, particularly across climate and environmental groups, means greater innovation and less pollution in the coming decades.
Rally around solutions. The total amount of energy used in the US – everything from lighting and heating homes to cooking meals, fueling factories, driving cars and powering smartphones – was 100.45 quadrillion Btu in 2019, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that renewable energy collectively represents our best hope in the fight against climate change. NASA points to a 2-pronged approach: 1) mitigation, or reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and 2) adaptation, or modifying existing practices to work around the climate change already in the pipeline.
Change lanes to avoid roadblocks. Instead of talking about climate change, point out how restarting the economy after covid-19 could embrace green technologies. Note that a majority of respondents — 62% — polled right before the 2020 US election said they would be more likely to or would only vote for a candidate who supports “providing a multi-trillion-dollar federal economic stimulus that prioritizes investments in clean energy infrastructure.”
Offer a vision of a common goal that’s appealing to both of you. As of October 19, 2020, the combined annual green power use of EPA’s Top 100 Partners amounts to more than 61 billion kilowatt-hours, which is equivalent to the annual electricity use of nearly 5.6 million average American homes. Wouldn’t it be great to see more major companies joining in?
Accept that persuasion is a long-term project. Complexity arises when countries around the world set threshold percentages of total energy that must be derived from renewable sources — achieving these targets requires transforming our energy systems at a rate and scale that is unprecedented in human history. Policy and decisions regarding the transformation of our energy system cannot focus just on renewable energy targets but must also consider interactions with other targets like land use, deforestation rates, and biodiversity loss for a sustainable future.
Kirk reflects on the deliberations and patience it takes to convince uncertain audiences about science.
“It’s rare for someone to change their mind in the course of a single conversation. But repeated, positive interactions can help chip away scientific myths and nudge someone toward an updated view. In the wake of the most turbulent election of our lifetimes, there’s never been a better time to use our scientific and communication skills to foster common ground for the common good.”
What persuasive strategies do you use to help others to understand and embrace scientific data, especially about renewable energy?
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