How we portray things, from cute catÂ to infrastructure, affects the way they are perceived by the public. We need to find a better way of communicating about the latter if we’re to grow a sustainable, low-carbon economy in the UK.
In the last few days, advocates of renewable energy have pointed out that for the same cost as the proposed new Hinkley Point nuclear power station, it would be possible to get the same amount of electricity from offshore wind (see Bloomberg report here). It comes after the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, electedÂ to review the Hinkley Point plans beforeÂ making a final decision about whether or not to proceed.
Others argue that nuclear power is dangerous and creates a legacy of radioactive waste whilst promoting renewables as “clean” technology.
That’s cute cat (clean, affordable renewables) vs ugly cat (dangerous, expensive nuclear).
These are just some of the arguments that crop-up time and again in the debate about how Britain should meet its future energy needs, and they’re not just limited to these two technology choices. Likewise, opponents of renewables regularly focus on problems of intermittency and so-called ‘wrong time energy.’ But it’s significantly more nuanced than this. Without civil nuclear power, for instance, we wouldn’t have the medical isotopes used to treat cancer patients.
Presentational problems prohibit progress
The problem with all this is that it impacts public perception which, in turn, can prohibit progress.
For instance, in a survey conducted for us recently by ComRes, we asked over 2,000 people about their support for a variety of energy technologies. Wind and solar power proved the most popular with nuclear and shale gas the least popular. It’s hardly surprising though when you consider the negative reporting and online commentary that surrounds the latter two – public opinion has clearly been stacked against both nuclear and shale gas in favour of renewables, despite the very positive economic and environmental benefits they can both bring.
However, renewables themselves are not immune to this either. Wind farm developments often get mired in opposition through the planning process, with claims surfacing about harm to birds and bats, low-frequency noise and sleep disruption, and landscape blight for example. Similarly, waste-to-energy plants also meet with opposition, facing claims about plumes of dark smoke and airborne pollution – particularly Dioxins and Furans, the highly toxic byproducts of incomplete combustion.
Unfortunately, as most experts agree, we need a diverse mix of energy supplies in the UK which means energy advocates of all colours and stripes being honest about the pros and cons of them all. It’s also important to be clearer about the way our regulatory framework functions to protect communities – with the planning system ensuring that inappropriate developments don’t proceed in the wrong locations, and environmental permitting rules that safeguard the natural environment.
If the way energy and sustainability professionals communicate can be tweaked, there’s a much better chance of taking the public with us on the journey toward a more sustainable, low-carbon economy.
It’s just the same with your internal improvement initiatives
Don’t think these perceptions problems are only a concern for large policy matters that are aired in public, because how you communicate to your co-workers about your internal workplace sustainability initiatives can also affect their chances of success.
Too much emphasis on cost-saving will lead some to think it’s “all about the profits” whereas, for others, too great a focus on the environmental and social benefits will prove a turn-off. And you’ll struggle to get people behind your project if it’s framed in a way that makes it look personally onerous and forced upon them rather than something that they can take ownership of and exert some personal influence over.
Likewise, however, if it’s all ‘cute cat’ and made to sound like it’ll be easy to accomplish without too much effort, then it’s also likely to fail once people realise that’s not quite true.
Ultimately, it’s honesty, transparency and inclusion in the decision-making process that wins people over.
For more on this, read this on Stakeholder Engagement.
What do you think? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you in the comments.