Controversies & Cleantech: We Can Move Forward With Strategizing

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Controversies over the power and place of cleantech are all too common. What efforts can we as cleantech activists take to achieve a gestalt where people across demographic groups and ideologies find common ground? What can we do to stop the dissension and create collaboration?  How can we make clear the benefits of renewable energy and the cleantech?

We can start by stepping back and recognizing that a cleantech reality was unthinkable just a few decades ago. For many people, it still seems more like science fiction than fact, infusing a hesitancy to buy in.

Let’s look at the big and really important issue of the climate crisis. All climate scientists — people who specialize and spend a lifetime studying climate — agree that climate change is anthropogenic, or caused by humans. NASA is a reliable source across ideological groups, and they say it is so. That’s a “settled” issue.

Since President Biden’s election, Democrats have boasted that the transition from fossil fuels is good for the environment and workers, as it will mitigate the climate crisis while offering good-paying jobs to millions of people. But not everyone agrees. What will happen to fossil fuel workers in a shift to a low-carbon economy? NPR reports that many highly skilled fossil fuel industry workers worry that their pay, which sometimes reaches six figures as the pinnacle of blue collar jobs, might be lost. So that’s an “open” issue.

How do we move as the common discourse around cleantech from “open” to “settled” issues?

Diana E. Hess wants us to look to the “authentic issues of the day that are open” and help audiences reconcile their interpretations of difficult issues so controversies take on a “settled” status. This perspective is pertinent to us in climate activism, as we want our audiences to be receptive to the ways that energy sources affect our health, environment, and economies.

Hess, who’s the author of Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion and The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, led a Media Education Lab webinar this week called “Teaching the Controversies,” hosted by Renee Hobbs. Sometimes issues are “settled,” but then a “process of tipping” occurs, says Hess, in which what might have been seen as an accepted position at a particular moment in time is no longer so clearly delineated.

How do these new ways of thinking about controversies come about? We know from lots of studies about how people learn that:

  • difficult conceptual content is a constant element of controversies
  • specific skills of inquiry are needed to decode issues of evidence
  • people can engage in controversial discussions in civil ways
  • engaging in discussions about one controversy creates pathways so that individuals are more amenable, ready, and able to discuss other controversies

Because there are various and competing answers to “open” questions, we in the cleantech media world want our readers to look to multiple sources of information and to engage in inquiry that leads to thoughtful conclusions. We can do so through nonpartisan apolitical inquiry and deliberations. As result, we can create pathways to “settled” and credible answers to many cleantech questions.

Google Ad Team Prohibits Climate Denial Monetization: A Settled Issue

Let’s look first at a “settled” issue. A growing number of concerns have come to the attention of the Google powers-that-be, due to ads that run alongside or promote inaccurate claims about climate change. Advertisers have said they don’t want their ads to appear next to this content, nor do publishers and creators want ads promoting these claims to appear on their pages or videos.

As a result, there’s a new monetization policy in place for Google advertisers, publishers, and YouTube creators. It prohibit ads for and monetization of content that contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change. This includes content referring to climate change as a hoax or a scam, claims denying that long-term trends show the global climate is warming, and claims denying that greenhouse gas emissions or human activity contribute to climate change.

When evaluating content against this new policy, Google promises to look carefully at the context in which claims are made, differentiating between content that states a false claim as fact versus content that reports on or discusses that claim. They will continue to allow ads and monetization on other climate-related topics, including public debates on climate policy, the varying impacts of climate change, new research, and more.

To create this policy and its parameters, Google consulted authoritative sources on the topic of climate science, including experts who have contributed to United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports. They say they’ll draw upon a combination of automated tools and human review to enforce this policy against violating publisher content, Google-served ads, and YouTube videos that are monetizing via YouTube’s Partner Program. The new policy will begin next month, with a companion goal to promote sustainability and confront climate change head-on.

What’s important to analyze about the new Google policy?

  • They’re looking beyond their own opinions and to well-established scientific consensus.
  • Reviewing long-term trends is another way of saying that patterns form the foundation of evidence.
  • Contextual consideration of claims is important, as it examines the objectivity of claims and the data that support those claims.
  • Areas of commonly-accepted public debate about the climate crisis are still “open” and will continue to be allowed.

Digging into the “Open” Questions within Cleantech

Research, documentation, and evidence can move our thinking about a topic. Let’s look at some of the controversies in cleantech; afterward, we’ll examine how we might move them from “open” to “settled.”

Human right to a clean and sustainable environment: The UN Human Rights Council voted 43 to 0 on a resolution on the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. It encourages States to adopt appropriate policies, including with respect to biodiversity and ecosystems, to support the resolution. Such a question was controversial at a moment in time but was deliberated until it was clear that there was a “settled” and acceptable answer.

Clean electricity: Sure — it’s among the top 3 priorities for 2021-2025 across all sectors of surveyed participants in a study conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Settled.”

Energy storage, zero-carbon fuels, and making industrial processes sustainable: These are all among common areas of agreement about the future needs of cleantech R&D. There’s no argument or negotiation that’s necessary — it’s a done deal. So, in the WEF microcosm of utility, energy sector, cleantech, and investment constituents, this is a “settled” issue.

Electric cars are worse in the long run for the environment than gas-powered cars: The issue is “settled” — No, electric cars, even with supply chain emissions, are still better for the environment. It’s a “settled” issue — so why do we continue to see it in media stories about the controversies of cleantech?

Carbon capture, storage, and digital tools: Nope– these aren’t so readily accepted as cleantech tools. Yet Tesla CEO Elon Musk once again endorsed the idea of a federal carbon tax at the company’s 2021 annual shareholder meeting on Thursday. Musk’s view may someday be solidified but, for right now, it’s part of a moment in time that is malleable and changing. Context is important, as he continues on by saying that there are 3 parts to a “sustainable future:”

  • solar and wind power
  • batteries for energy storage
  • electric vehicles of every kind including cars, boats and airplanes

Ending fossil fuel reliance: 330 scientists petitioned US President Joe Biden this week. With a letter exclaiming “the utmost alarm about the state of our climate system,” they begged President Biden to declare a climate emergency and a conclusion to a nationwide fossil fuel-based energy system. “When scientists across the U.S. are imploring the president to get the country off fossil fuels,” said Dr. Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, “it’s time to listen.” That pathway, then, is “open” and part of what should become a longer series of discussions, negotiations, and policy decisions.

The letter outlined 3 necessary steps:

  • a full ban on any new fossil fuel leasing and extraction on public lands and waters
  • no future permits for related infrastructure
  • ending fossil fuel exports and subsidies. Those steps may find agreement in from a lot of clean energy advocates; however, many in the petrochemical industry disagree heartily.

Pathways to Productive Discussions about Cleantech Controversies

Political polarization today is at levels that are much more divisive than in the past, especially in the US. People demonize difference so that we tend to live around people who agree with us more now than ever. Red, blue, or purple communities are common reference points in the US. Polarization is wreaking havoc on democratic discussions, and people have come to dislike each other in what is sometimes called “affective polarization.” That means that someone with a different point of view is interpreted as “bad” and unreliable. Such individuals may have a protective cognitive identity, which the refers to the tendency of culturally diverse individuals to selectively credit and dismiss evidence in patterns. Those patterns reflect the beliefs that predominate in their group and may be part of misinformation campaigns.

On issues that provoke identity-protective cognition, like the move from a petrochemical energy economy to predominance of renewables and cleantech, the most culturally polarized are the least adept at avoiding climate science misconceptions. Such individuals are more likely to accept misinformation and resist the correction of it when it is identity-affirming rather than identity-threatening.

To counteract these dynamics, we in the cleantech world must do more than provide our audiences with correct information. We must protect science communication from toxic social meanings, argues Hess. She continues that an ideologically homogeneous environment isn’t without access, however.

We can approach our differences in ways that seem to be naturally occurring and make substantive progress. These are areas we need to keep in mind.

  • Controversial discussions aren’t spontaneous — we need to prepare our audiences ahead of time so they have the tools and background information to discuss issues in complex ways. That prep, according to Hess, becomes a “great equalizer.”
  • Explicit scaffolding allows audiences to articulate a point of view, with a claim and warrants (what your opinion is and why), so having opinions don’t shut down discussions.
  • Careful decisions about the ethical issues must be part of the way we inform our audiences. We must look at complex dimensions of the criteria we share, the parameters of these issues, and the authentic elements of the issues that are salient with our audiences.
  • When audiences work within a creation space, there are conversations that emerge about where sources arise, what circumstances and cultures bring to the controversies, and how relationships can create understandings beyond prior knowledge and demonization. So we need to think about ways to reach our audience that allows them to apply what we’re sharing in their own local communities, thus moving beyond a NIMBY perspective (not in my backyard) to one that is personally meaning-making.
  • Scaffolding from simple issues through to protocols can move into inquiry and become pathways to discuss cleantech controversies. Adding complexity and innovative approaches can help to assuage human tendency to avoid change.
  • Media literacy can be a place of deconstruction, so that we become aware of the visual, video, and audio influences we have everyday in our lives that frame the way we know our worlds.

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Carolyn Fortuna

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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