Thursday, 20 December 2018

It's not fact-based narratives that are missing in the energy debate: It's the will to bring unusual suspects together in the same space...by Cristina Chapman

Over the years, I’ve sat in many conversations about how we continue to meet rising demand for energy, while tackling climate change and managing the impact on the environment. I’ve heard from bosses getting energy into the heart of people’s homes, people facing the prospect of energy being extracted from beneath them, analysts working out how we get renewables to power the future, and many others.

The role of a professional communicator is not to participate in these conversations but to facilitate them. Our most important skill is listening, to what people want and need to know; who they want to talk to; what they have to say; and how they say it. Only by listening can we bring the right people together to improve the discussions to find better solutions.

As we spend most of our time absorbing what other people have to say, our insight is shaped by many perspectives. We learn a lot and we develop a comprehensive overview. Every now and then, we are asked to share it.

Last month was one such occasion. I was invited to speak at the UK launch of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2018 World Energy Outlook about what it meant for engaging with people outside the energy industry. The IEA crunches the world’s energy data and each year explains what’s driving demand, how we’re meeting it, what markets are emerging and how we’re performing against carbon emission targets.

On the face of it the World Energy Outlook is bleak. Upward population growth. Upward demand across the world. Upward CO2 emissions. Slow renewables growth.

On that drizzly November morning in London as the UK’s population of 69 million buzzed through their daily routines, just 80 people heard the CEO of The Committee on Climate Change Chris Stark call for ‘everything to happen everywhere across everything’.

Against this outlook, as an advisory board member of the CIPR's Energy Leadership Platform and the British Geological Survey's strategic communications manager for energy decarbonisation, I was asked to share my insight into how we develop sensible, clear and concise fact-based narratives about where we are and where we are going.

As I looked out across the crowd of the usual suspects in that safe London lecture theatre, I took a deep breath and told them they were asking the wrong question. Fact-based narratives are not lacking. Nor is the ability to explain them in a concise, clear and sensible way. What’s missing is the appetite to bring together people unlike one other into a single conversation.

That morning, I championed the value of every community member, business, scientist and public official taking part in the energy conversation. Those against all activity in the underground environment. Those against the pursuit of fossil fuels. Those who look to the sun for the answer. Those who look to technology. Those who know we can’t do without oil and gas. Those who know we need the underground to scale up renewables. Those who know that everything we depend upon either comes out of the ground or grows in it.

Each narrative is clear and concise. Each perspective borne from knowledge and experience. Every position a valid part of the discussion and solution. If everything must happen everywhere across everything to solve climate change, then everyone must take part in the conversation to get the solutions working.

Our single biggest learning from engaging with people on our UK Geoenergy Observatories proposal (research facilities that will answer vital questions about how the subsurface can help to deliver a cleaner, future energy mix) is that so few forums exist in which the conversation about our resources reflects the complexity of the problem. Where they exist, none are inclusive.

It was late in our engagement programme that this penny dropped. We were one of the few, perhaps only, organisations providing an open forum in which anyone who wanted to contribute to the energy and climate change debate could do so.

Understandably people were frustrated. They had an important contribution and no way to make it heard. Conversation was, therefore, drowning in a good versus evil rhetoric. Discussion was short-circuiting in adversarial dialogue.

Then we showed up, in standard-issue BGS blue t-shirts with tea, biscuits and graphics. We showed up again. And again. And again. We met a diverse crowd. With diverse views. We saw the challenge from every angle. The economic bodies vested with sustainable growth. The innovators solving tomorrow’s problems. The educators making the next generation work-ready. The industry drivers keeping the wheels turning. The community representatives taking care of life today.

The conversation people wanted to have moved way beyond the science of managing the subsurface through to politics, economics, ethics, morals and values. We stayed on the right side of the line. We are experts in geoscience and have a statutory duty to provide independent evidence to everyone – whether you’re in government, industry, academia or the public. So, we explained the boundaries of our expertise, facilitated debate, provided input on the science wherever appropriate, and signposted people to researchers, regulators, decision-makers, policy-makers or industry where questions were not ours to answer.

So very many geoscientists are excited by the UK Geoenergy Observatories as an opportunity for people to learn about the underground environment: Understanding that it feeds us, clothes us, cures us and keeps us warm, safe and dry. It’s hard to dismiss the rationale that because we demand so much of the underground, we must take much better care of it. They hold great optimism that here is a chance to demystify the underground, shifting perception from the stuff of ancient myths and legends to images created by great data, scale and state-of-the-art modelling. Their enthusiasm for the potential knowledge gained is infectious: from how reservoirs affect the rocks to how quickly aquifers replenish.

However, as is so often the case when you open a conversation to impart what you know, what you discover is so much more valuable.

Through the scores of opportunities we've created for people to find out about the importance of geoscience in meeting our future energy needs, tackling energy poverty, addressing climate change and improving environmental management, we’ve begun to understand how to change the energy conversation.

It sets a challenge for us all – for every public body, academic institution, industry player and community member. We will only find workable solutions when we include everyone who wants to be part of the conversation. It enables us to begin to understand one other. To develop trust. To generate genuine and honest two-way dialogue.

This means that, however incongruous and difficult it seems, the suits, scientists, number-crunchers, and policy-makers must sit alongside the nannies, farmers, engineers, teachers, landowners, industry executives and campaigners who want to be heard. Not just once but as the norm. Trust is only gained by putting yourself forward time and again. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s not cheap. But urgent action from ‘everyone, everywhere, across everything’ to tackle climate change requires new solutions. To turn our energy options from black and white to shades of green, we must put long-term gain ahead of short-term cost.

As our friends at the IEA reminded us last month, the solution to climate change must start in the developed world. Perhaps, the very resource, skill and ingenuity that turned Britain into the birthplace of the industrial revolution is the same alchemy that can put the UK at the forefront of the environmental revolution. Global action on climate change starts at home with a better fireside chat about how we keep the embers glowing and the trees growing.

Cristina Chapman is the UK Geoenergy Observatories communications manager at the BGS and Advisory Board Member for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Energy Leadership Platform.

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