Clean Energy in the Here and Now

Clean Energy in the Here and Now

Blog post by: Cara Pike and Tzeporah Berman 

If there is one story that fossil fuel companies and the government representatives they fund don’t want North Americans to hear is that the transition away from dirty, carbon intensive energy sources is already underway and delivering benefits to communities and individuals.

Whether it is the Keystone XL pipeline project in the United States and the many pipelines being proposed that would crisscross Canada to deliver heavy crude from the tar sands; the development of coal export terminals; or efforts to expand shale gas drilling – the dominant frame in play has been that fossil fuel projects are inevitable, regardless of the hurdles, such as public opposition, landowner or indigenous rights, and environmental risks.

What we hear again and again, is that fossil fuels must and will make their way to market so we can all have great jobs, can get where we need to go, and feed our kids. By eliminating a sense of choice in the debate, or providing false ones (For example, how would you like your heavy crude oil delivered? Via pipeline, rail or tanker?); fossil fuel interests suppress a critical element needed for change – a shared sense that another way forward is not only possible but perhaps preferable.

Polls show that Americans and Canadians love energy efficiency and renewables and that support goes far beyond the traditional environmental base. This is good news as the public now largely associates these issues with the potential for job creation and cost savings. One challenge, however, is that most people still don’t see these solutions as being available in the here and now, despite the progress that has been made in many jurisdictions to advance efficiency, wind, etc. Solutions to most, exist off in the fuzzy “clean energy future” and lack a sense of urgency compelling them forward.

Without a clear sense of where we are in the transition away from fossil fuels and what can be done to drive the desirable shift, most people feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Yes, access to clean energy is great but in the meantime, the money is still being made from the dirty stuff so what are we going to do? For example, Canadians tend to greatly over-estimate the importance of the tar sands in the economy and their lives in the short term, even if they want less dependence on the resource. Ohioans in the meantime, support an ‘all of the above energy strategy’ as  coal and renewables are both popular, yet given the role coal plays in the state, the promise of renewables seems particularly far away.

Fortunately, seeing is believing. When people experience the emergence of solutions in their communities, (i.e. the increased visibility of wind turbines in Iowa), there is an even greater sense that efficiency and renewables can create jobs and save money, and less of a concern that they are not available in the here and now.

It is also essential that the organizations, indigenous leaders and opinion leaders at the forefront of the campaigns to stop the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure begin to talk and campaign as loudly about what they are saying ‘yes’ to as what they are saying ‘no’ to. This is not easy to do. Part of the way fossil fuel interests control the debate is by proposing tangible projects that are all too often countered with complex policies or this vision of a far away clean energy future. Shifting to a low carbon economy in a timeframe necessary to achieve a climate safe does require complex policy shifts and no single project is perfect or going to address the complex problems we are facing. At the same time, projects like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations solar homes initiative in the heart of the tar sands or Bold Nebraska’s solar barn on Keystone pipeline route capture imagination and provide tangible examples of what else is possible. 

Countering the fossil fuel industry’s inevitability frame requires showing these solutions are happening now and deliver tangible benefits. Let’s start proposing light rail transit instead of oil trains – moving people instead of oil, reducing emissions, danger and increasing quality of life. Geothermal instead of fracking, the electrificiation of our ports and the export of wind turbine components instead of coal. 

While highlighting the emergence of low-carbon solutions and their importance is critical, however, just focusing on the economic benefits is not enough. In many regions jobs in renewables and efficiency are not yet on par with the fossil fuel sector and the economics, while improving, are still in flux. Making the case based on energy security has its downsides as well given most people are not aware of whether their state or province is an energy exporter or importer. Concern over energy independence can also inadvertently build support for the ‘all of the above energy’ development option.

People are, however, starting to wonder about the increase in extreme weather events and what should be done to deal with them. This presents an opportunity to advance a solutions narrative that clearly ties extreme weather events to climate change and the need to advance progress on efficiency and renewables – not just because of access to good middle income jobs – but also because these options help reduce risk, and improve health and community livability. What becomes inevitable in the narrative is the shift away from fossil fuels as we address climate risk before the costs are too high and damages to great to manage.

Many jurisdictions are operating in this framework already such as California, British Columbia, and Ontario; and cities from Vancouver, the “greenest city in the world” to Baltimore and Miami. Governments, communities, organizations, and households need to aggressively communicate about the progress they are making to reduce carbon and increase their resiliency despite the many challenges that remain, because sharing what works helps others make progress as well.  Seeing is believing so the more decision makers and citizens alike are exposed to the benefits of efficiency and renewable energy projects, the more these solutions are seen as practical in the present, versus off in the illusive clean energy future.

image via flickr (cc) Black Rock Solar