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Communicating Energy

The energy system can be a complex and polarizing subject. Historically, communications surrounding energy topics have primarily been left to scientists in the form of scientific papers, lengthy reports and analytical coverage. As the world transitions towards a clean energy future, clear communication around energy topics is needed to ensure the general public is aware and knowledgeable about the impacts of the energy system, and so that they are adequately equipped with the tools to communicate their community’s needs and priorities in decision-making processes.

Contributors

Jane Burchill

Communications Manager, The Gaia Project

Student Energy

Reviewers

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What is Communicating Energy?

The energy system can be a complex and polarizing subject. Historically, communications surrounding energy topics have primarily been left to scientists in the form of scientific papers, lengthy reports and analytical coverage. As the world transitions towards a clean energy future, clear communication around energy topics is needed to ensure the general public is aware and knowledgeable about the impacts of the energy system, and so that they are adequately equipped with the tools to communicate their community’s needs and priorities in decision-making processes.

Another issue in the energy sector and scientific sector at large is the reliability of information. For example, in Canada, 52% of people trust the media “most of the time” according to a 2019 survey, meaning almost half of Canadians do not have great trust in what they see in the media 1. This has led to controversy around critical issues such as climate change, renewable energy and other important global issues, slowing the necessary progress needed to create a sustainable future.

Context

When studying energy systems, too often we get caught up in the science and data and forget how the information will be communicated. It is not often a top priority in a project, when realistically if your findings are not communicated correctly, your findings will not make a difference. 

How do we talk about the transition to a low-carbon economy without it sounding like a threat to the livelihoods – and sense of identity – of all those who work in energy-intensive industries and the communities they support? Effective climate action requires inclusive dialogue, strong community support networks, and building trust between people and groups with opposing short-term interests. Climate Outreach, who specializes in climate and energy communication, claims that the problem of people feeling isolated and polarized is slowing the transition but can be avoided with tips included in the Case Study and Taking Action sections below.

Case study

A prime example is the Located in the province of Alberta, Canada there are the largest deposits of oil sands found around the world. Almost 100% of people in Alberta are connected to the oil sands through their own work or family and friends as shown in a 2018 survey. Climate Outreach completed a study on communication strategies surrounding a transition to a low carbon future. The participants repeatedly expressed the feeling that the oil and gas industry – and, by extension, their own lives – were under attack or undervalued. Some Albertans felt a sense of loyalty to their community which drove them to side with the oil and gas industry and dismiss climate change. 

This study also tested different terms that are generally used in communications around energy transitions. Talking about a “just” transition did not sit well as “just” has a social justice connotation.  Many participants “showed a resistance to the idea of government handouts, and saw climate change as an emerging, rather than front-and centre, challenge.” 2

Other communication suggestions developed from the study:

  • Use “diversification” instead of “transition” while stressing future opportunities 
  • Use language to avoid blame
  • Start from a place of recognition and gratitude

Dive deeper

Recent blog posts about Communicating Energy

External resources

How can we speed up the transition to a low carbon economy with energy systems? Effective communication cannot be undervalued! A career and educational path in science communications needs to be viewed as just as important as research and development. Matching a science degree with a communications certificate or program can be a great way to help this energy transition.

Some final tips on communicating energy and climate topics which come from the Handbook for IPCC Authors 3:

  • Be a confident communicator
  • Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas
  • Connect with what matters to your audience
  • Tell a human story
  • Lead with what you know
  • Use the most effective visual communications (ie: relevant, realistic images)
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