Energy and Public Communication Conference
Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, July 24-25, 2019
Report on the Energy and Public Communication Conference
Danielle Endres, Professor, Communication,University of Utah
How can we best communicate about the climate crisis and the impending energy transition? What frames—apocalyptic, hope, solution-oriented, fear, crisis—work best for public audiences? Is communication enough to foster the radical energy transition that is needed? Do we need top-down or bottom-up communication strategies to address energy transition and climate change? What role does communication play in the structural, institutional, and behavioral changes needed to respond to the climate crisis and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement? These were just some of the questions that participants at the Energy and Public Communication Conference grappled with on July 24-25, 2019 in Manchester, UK. That this conference happened during a record-breaking heat wave in the UK is unfortunately appropriate given the exigency of addressing energy production and consumption in the face of a changing climate serving as an undergirding motivation for many participants.
The Energy and Public Communication Conference—supported by the Communicating Material Cultures of Energy Project and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council—brought together a broad spectrum of participants including academics, museum curators, filmmakers, writers, civil servants, activists, utilities employees, and other energy practitioners to focus specifically on questions surrounding how to communicate the material cultures of energy. Dr. Hiroki Shin (Science Museum of London & Birbeck College) and Dr. Heather Chappells (University of British Colombia) organized this broadly transdisciplinary and trans-sector conference to forefront the role of communication in energy transition. The conference was designed to develop networks across energy communicators, foster sustained knowledge production and best practices in energy communication, and create future directions for collaboration across sectors.
The conference was highlighted by two excellent, albeit quite different, keynote addresses: one a scholar of energy communication and one an environmental policy practitioner. First, Dr. Brian Cozen, an assistant professor at California State University Fresno, kicked off the conference with a brilliant introduction to the field of energy communication, highlighting points relevant to advancing both theory and practice. Drawing from Dr. James W. Carey’s theory of communication, Dr. Cozen presented energy communication as both transmission and ritual. In other words, we often think of communication as simply a means to transmit desired information to audiences. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Take the example of trying to tell publics that we need to hasten our transition away from fossil fuels in order to address the climate crisis. Anyone who has worked with publics on energy transition knows there are values, beliefs, and behaviors that may prevent the successful transmission of this message for some parts of the audience. Here is where the ritual view of communication comes into play. In addition to being a medium of transmission, communication is also a window into cultural values/beliefs and, importantly, a process for creating social transformation through presenting new cultural values and practices. Communication, like energy, is not simply transmitted through various media—or power lines—but, as rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke noted, is a “terministic screen” that selects, reflects, and deflects reality. Dr. Cozen’s keynote showed how research on energy communication has shifted from instrumental responses to particular crises—oil spills, nuclear disasters, and the like—to a communication as ritual approach focused on examining the everydayness of energy in cultural assumptions and actions, central components to realizing any social transformation. He unpacked this through a variety of critical analyses of contemporary forms of energy communication, such as energy-focused museum exhibits and a popular television program.
Mark Atherton, Director of Environment for Greater Manchester, offered a practical counterpoint to Dr. Cozen in his keynote focused on how the Greater Manchester Authority has sought to communicate its climate reduction goals to publics. He spoke about how the Manchester mayor had promised to meet CO2 emission reduction targets by 2038 instead of 2050 and how this required his office to quickly develop a set of strategies to not only achieve these goals but also to engage publics in the process. His presentation offered several valuable takeaway points, most important of which was that top-down forms of communication and engagement with publics don’t work well. This lesson learned mirrored Dr. Cozen’s caution about the transmission model of communication. While self-identifying as “not a communication person,” Atherton’s keynote displayed a keen understanding of key elements of communication research and practice, including designing messages based on context, audience, and situation; the importance of accurate information; the public as not a monolithic audience but instead made of multiple publics with different backgrounds and connections to energy; and that communication is central to any sort of attempted behavioral or social change.
While the keynote addresses set the stage for conversations at the nexus of theory and practice, the remainder of the conference sessions highlighted a variety of on-the-ground communication strategies including: museum presentations, games, creative writing exercises, films, apps, urban planning and design projects, local and national government plans, and more. It was through these examples that a series of questions and themes emerged. In addition to the questions posed at the beginning of this report, participants asked:
How do we measure the effectiveness of communication?
Might communication be a means to depoliticize? To disempower rather than empower?
What drives action? Awareness? Information? Rituals and habits?
Do people need to see themselves in the narrative for it to have impact in terms of social and personal change?
In a time when people are demanding simple answers on climate change, how can we communicate the complexity?
What do people know about the energy crisis? How do we identify the gaps in knowledge? How do we empower people to be the difference?
To what extent might we be obstructing sustainable change by speaking of energy communication vs. change/sustainability communication, or the success of specific projects vs. building an ecosystem of sustainable communications?
How can we support the formation of energy saving practices?
What are the barriers to participation in communication; or, how do we break down the barriers to communication?
Who is currently included or omitted from energy communication efforts? And how do we promote inclusivity in energy communication, such as by using new media technologies?
What can energy communicators – collectively – do to assist and promote the energy transition as a societal goal?
How can communication mediate conflict in energy policy (e.g. nuclear, fracking, etc.)
In addition to raising questions for future collaboration and conversation, the conference presentations and conversations centered on some key themes, as highlighted by Dr. Chappells in her closing comments, including:
Overall, this conference offered an excellent starting point for future collaborations and conversations about energy communication. Personally speaking, this was the best conference I attended this year. The mix of academics and practitioners working across sectors and disciplines to address the coming energy transition was inspiring. I came away from the conference with a renewed sense of hope that the ingenuity, collaboration, and passion needed to address the climate crisis through changes in our energy systems already exists. Building on these projects and collaborations can make a difference in transforming our material cultures of energy.
The importance of inclusive participation and engagement by publics and other stakeholders in the energy transition and energy communication
The crucial role of culture, values, emotions, and belief systems in energy communication
The many sites and spaces available for a variety of forms of energy communication
The venues or form of communication that can enable and constrain different outcomes and practices
The importance of both every day and extraordinary energy communication practices