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Understanding perspectives on energy and climate: Results of Stanford Energy Week workshop

1 April 2019

From the jet fuel for your trip home for Christmas, to the plastic for your lunch Tupperware or the electricity that powers your computer, energy is needed to drive about everything humans do in the global economy. Globally, we consume 567 EJ of energy per year, 85% of which comes from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with the remainder coming from renewable energy (i.e. hydropower, biomass, geothermal, wind and solar energy). Unfortunately, fossil fuels emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when combusted, causing warming of the earth’s surface and destabilizing the global climate system. Thus, society faces a duel challenge of transitioning its energy system towards carbon-free energy sources while simultaneously ensuring that the cost of the transition and cost of energy do not destabilize the wider economy. This delicate balance has led some to describe the energy and climate quandary a “wicked problem”, since (one reason being) those causing the problem are the ones tasked with fixing it.

Because of its widespread importance, energy decisions are commingled within broader, multivariate socioeconomic, environmental, and political issues. Consider the pipeline debate in Alberta, Canada, where oil-sands derived bitumen crude is a key driver of the Albertan (and by association, Canadian) economy. Due to a mixture of environmental laws, land rights, and legal wranglings, Alberta is unable to build pipelines to sell its product. This has been to the delight of environmentalists, indigenous leaders, and political leaders in provinces like British Columbia (where environmental issues are better represented) who are campaigning against pipeline expansions from the oil sands on the basis of climate and other damages (e.g., pipeline spills). However, as a result of this failure to build pipelines, Alberta has been selling its crude to the US at a steep discount, bringing significant economic consequences to the economy. Those employed by the Alberta oil and gas industry feel their livelihoods threatened, and many recently participated in a “United we Roll” truck convoy, protesting environmental legislation of federal and provincial governments.

Clearly, the way different groups perceive the nuances of the energy-climate debate will vary significantly depending on their situation. A nice analogy for these different perspectives people hold is the gesalt demonstrations (e.g., Figure 1). The important point is not which perspective is right or wrong, but that different perspectives exist based on the pattern of lines on the paper.

Figure 1: Rabbit or duck?

The importance of perception in energy and climate policy is manifested in the so-called Thomas Theorem which states: “if you believe things are real, they are real in their consequence”. In other words, because the hard landscape of information is interpreted in different ways by different groups of people, different people perceive fundamentally different realities on specific topics. Much like people’s perceptions have been organized into so-called “political tribes”, perceptions can also be organized into “energy tribes” based on patterns in interpretations of energy and climate issues. In order to explore these patterns and key drivers of perception in energy and climate, the Stanford Energy Club held a energy and communications workshop during the annual Stanford Energy Week conference. Hosted by myself and Chris Nelder, host of the Energy Transition Show podcast, the workshop engaged participants on a range of energy and climate related questions, and attempted to categorize them into distinct energy tribes based on their answers. In this article, we will present the results of the workshop and attempt to draw some conclusions about how perceptions of the energy-climate debate are manifested at Stanford and in the wider Bay Area energy community

The workshop was designed around the notion that different people will associate with different energy ‘tribes’, and that their association with a tribe will prescribe their views on energy and climate. These tribes were based on a 1977 paper by the United States Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), titled “Solar Energy in America’s Future” (Table 1). The three tribes we looked at and named the Growthers, Transitionistas, and Lifeboaters, respectively, are defined by the degree to which they view the status quo as unsustainable and requiring change. ERDA describes these differences using a model of concentric shells: “Near the periphery are those aspects of society which are relatively changeable… At an intermediate level are… not so easily altered… At the core of the society is a relatively unchanging, largely unconscious, but inferable basic paradigm”. Growthers, therefore, see changes are only required at the periphery, while Transitionistas envision action at the intermediate level, and Lifeboaters believe change is required at society’s very core.

Table 1: Energy tribes according to ERDA 1977

To test for the existence of these “energy tribes” and determine the “energy tribe” distribution of the Stanford, Silicon Valley area, we employed a set of surveys. The goal of these surveys was to see if people’s association with the energy tribes predicts their views on energy and climate and if people of the same tribe have consistent views on issues. In the first survey, participants were asked to answer 11 high level questions on the energy transition, climate impacts, and societal challenges before being briefed on the attributes of the different tribes. These questions were designed to comprehensively cover a range of issues spanning technology, policy, energy scarcity, and the connection between energy and the economy (see Table 2). Table 2 also includes the “energy tribe” keys. These keys correspond to the expected positions of the respective energy tribes, based on the definitions provided by ERDA 1977. The second survey was distributed after participants were briefed on the attributes of the various tribes. In the second survey, participants were asked to self-identify with the “energy tribe” they most closely align with.

A total of 25 people participated in the workshop, with 4 people declining to identify their energy tribe and 1 person identifying with 2 tribes. We illustrate their responses to the first round of questions in Table 2, along with our key of the tribes most likely to answer each question in the affirmative.

Table 2: Survey questions, energy tribe keys, and fraction of "true” responses

Next, further analysis was conducted by assigning a score to each participant based on the proportion of their responses matching the answer for each tribe. The participant was then binned into a tribe based on which tribal score was highest. We contrast these results with the participants’ tribal self-identification in Figure 2. As Figure 2 indicates, the majority of respondents can be identified as Growthers based on their survey responses. However, this does not square up with participants’ perceptions of their own views, with 71% of respondents identifying as Transitionistas. The difference between survey results and self-identification is significant, indicating a fundamental difference between how people view their positions on energy and climate and how we classify different positions into categories.

We present several possible hypotheses for this discrepancy. The first possibility is that participants possessed different energy tribe “keys”, i.e. they perceived these tribes to be fundamentally different from the way we defined them. Beyond the content of our introductory explanations, it’s possible that some were opposed to the idea of being labelled a Growther or a Lifeboater, but I don’t think that this would account for such a large discrepancy in results. In a similar vein, some participants could have been turned off by all three of the energy tribes we propositioned. In other words, we could be missing a “fourth” energy tribe. From conversations with workshop participants following energy week, I got this impression. The people I spoke with described themselves as somewhat aligned with the Growthers and Lifeboaters. They are more on-board with incumbent technologies because they don’t perceive climate as a sufficient threat to merit a full transition to renewables. Rather than climate, they are more concerned about energy security, and are somewhat pessimistic about our ability to provide for future generations, similar to the Lifeboaters. The existence of this fourth group is an interesting observation, but it is unlikely that it exists in numbers much larger than those I spoke with after the workshop.

The third possibility has more to do with our methodology - each question was weighed equally while calculating the participants’ scores; however, it is likely that participants assigned greater weight to certain issues than others In other words, people will identify with a tribe based only on a subset of issues, as opposed to the full set. Future surveys of this sort should therefore consider the importance that participants give to each question, therefore ensuring that a more nuanced view of participants’ energy tribes is presented.

Figure 2: Results of survey-based identification and participant self-identification

Much has been made in the political sciences of groups sorting into ‘political tribes’ based on differences in the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits. Within the context of energy and climate, sorting into these tribes helps describe how differences in policy may thus arise from fundamentally different perceptions of our energy and climate reality, and that visions of a sustainable and prosperous energy future are significantly different across tribes. While Growthers might envision a sustainable energy future as one driven by cheap, carbon-free energy and continued economic growth, Lifeboaters do not envision a sustainable future without a fundamental reorientation of our political and economic system. Transitionistas, treading a ‘middle path’ of sorts, tend to believe that reforming our energy system need not necessarily include a fundamental reorientation of our society.

Our results from the workshop indicate that the majority of participants, almost exclusively drawn from Stanford and the Bay Area, align themselves with the Transitionista vision of the future, where they believe that achieving a sustainable future can come from steady, incremental reform of the energy sector alone. However, their views might actually be more closely aligned with those of the Growthers, with an equal emphasis on large-scale, supply-side solutions such as increased nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration. Therefore, even though different tribes might have fundamentally different visions of reality and the energy future, there can be common ground found on specific policy issues that could accelerate solving the energy-climate problem.

Jeff Rutherford is a PhD student in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering.

Thanks to Arnav Mariwala and Chris Nelder for helpful edits and comments on this article.