New research from the UK Energy Research Council has found that political arguments about energy policy are leading to public disengagement.
Dr Catherine Happer from the University of Glasgow, who conducted the face to face research project with 100 members of the public, told Central Lobby:
“Scientists need to take over and clarify the issues around energy security.
“It would be on stronger ground with an audience who feel they are more credible than politicians.”
The report concluded that there is an urgent need for a more effective approach to the communication of public statements about energy security, contextualised by scientific arguments about causes and risks.
The politicisation of energy issues adds to public confusion and disengagement.
“In contrast to climate change, most people are completely unfamiliar with the term energy security,” Dr Happer said.
“Once the term is explained to them, most people are vaguely aware of the key issues around it, particularly the debate about renewables and nuclear power.
“We got a sense of a vague understanding and familiarity, but not the specifics about the message, the idea that we might be running out of these resources.”
In 2011, UKERC commissioned researchers from the Glasgow University Media Group and Chatham House to study audience beliefs and behaviour in relation to climate change and energy security.
The aim of the study was to examine the specific triggers for changes in patterns of understanding and attitude, and the conditions under which these lead to changes in behaviour.
The project involved exposing members of the public to plausible yet extreme scenarios, using TV and radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and online content set in the future.
These included a mass flood in Bangladesh, severe nationwide floods and widespread blackouts across the UK, partly as a result of shortages of natural gas. The broadcasts and articles were put together with the help of professional journalists to be as authentic as possible.
Using group discussion, the researchers examined information sources that are typically used by the public, the extent to which they are trustworthy and credible, and the potential of different types of information to produce changes in behaviour.
Dr Happer told Central Lobby:
“A lot of people said they worked out what was going on from stories about other things, such as going to war in Iraq being about oil, or the gas disputes with Russia.
“When we talked to them about it, there was a sense of ‘why are we not being told this is an important issues, why is the media so fudged on this and the politicians are not telling us what is at stake?’.
“In the follow-up discussions six months later, the participants raised a lot of related issues, such as the big debate over wind farms, bits about shale gas and fracking, wind power and ‘green taxes’ driving up energy bills.”
Dr Happer added:
“There is a mix of responses to renewables. Wind power is top of the list for most people for obvious reasons; it is talked about all the time.
“They were generally quite supportive of renewables though also sympathetic to some of the arguments about blotting the landscape. Overall people don’t feel they are efficient enough yet, but overall supportive.
“When we came back six months later, once people started to pay more attention to the coverage, which is very divided, doubt was being created.
“They started to read all of this coverage, the seeds of doubt were growing the more they read about it.
“People started to question their own opinions and quite often they were much more positive after the initial session.
“Some of the news coverage of energy security is very cynical, aggressive stuff. The participants began to question their previous positive responses.
“The media is sowing doubt and uncertainty and people not knowing where to sit with it.”
The report concluded that the majority of participants were concerned that the broader message – energy security – was not clearly communicated.
In order to achieve current energy and climate change policy goals, the buy-in of the public is necessary.
To achieve this there is a need to understand how public attitudes are formed, and how attitudes relate to behavioural commitments and, ultimately, the potential for change.