Call to arms issued to scientists over energy policy

17 Dec 2012

Time is right for scientists to take the lead voice on energy policy – and prevent it from descending into chaos.

In the wake of the publication of the Energy Bill, experts are today calling on the scientific community to take a more decisive lead in the debate on energy policy, to avoid the issue becoming mired in party politics and controversy, as has happened with climate change.

The call follows the publication today of new UKERC research which indicates that news coverage of renewables and related energy issues is already creating uncertainty and confusion, leading to cynicism and disengagement, and that four out of five people have never even heard the term ‘energy security’, and have no idea what it means. Its publication, amid spiralling energy bills, public disagreements between the Coalition partners over wind farms and the Chancellor’s recently announced gas strategy, is timely.

The research, launched today at Chatham House in London, has been produced by social scientists and experts from the Glasgow University Media Group and Chatham House. It was funded by the UK Energy Research Centre, which identified a need to carry out research in this area and funded the project as an integral part of its research programme.  It examines the conditions under which people form beliefs and commit to behaviour change, in relation to two issues – climate change, and energy security.

The researchers used innovative method; all-day focus groups, instead of the usual 1-2 hour sessions, and the creation of an ‘information environment’, exposing people to authentic TV and radio broadcasts produced by working news journalists.

These examined three imagined future scenarios – a mass flood in Bangladesh, the UK’s worst-ever flood disaster, and a UK gas shortage resulting in a power loss for 20 million people across the UK. Follow up interviews were held six months after the initial focus groups, to see whether individuals’ participation had resulted in any long-term changes in attitudes and behaviour.

When it came to climate change, almost six out of ten respondents got their information from TV news, with one in five citing the Internet (but mainly as a secondary source and as a means of verifying information from other sources).

Scientists, academics and researchers were named as the group most trusted as a source of reliable information; however, people overwhelmingly viewed climate change science as too confusing for them to understand, and too inconsistent. There was a feeling that the issue had dropped off the media agenda, and was no longer important. People reported feeling disengaged and powerless, a key reason for this being distrust of politicians, who were perceived as sending out inaccurate information.

Energy security was a term which was largely unfamiliar. Fewer than one in five respondents knew the phrase and had a fairly accurate idea of what it meant, while the same percentage were unaware of the term and reported that it was something they had never given any thought to. The link between the issue of energy security and renewables was not always made. However, 94% believed that action should be taken to secure the future energy supply, even though most were not sure what options might be available.

Catherine Happer, Research Associate at the Glasgow University Media Group and one of the report’s authors, comments: "The confusion and scepticism we uncovered in relation to the legitimacy of the scientific arguments and the inconsistency of climate change predictions are a direct consequence of the number of voices and opinions engaging in the media debate. Climate change, largely as a result of a dip in media coverage, is no longer seen as the priority it once was."

"However, when it came to energy participants were more open to new information and the discussions seemed to have more of an impact on them. This appeared to be related to the fact that it was a new issue for them, still crystallising in their minds, and that their attitudes were still at the point of being formed."

"The launch of the Energy Bill has been described as setting the direction of the electricity sector for a generation. This represents a real opportunity for the scientific and research community to show leadership and clarity on the issues around energy security, so as to avoid a repeat of what happened in relation to climate change. If you look at the public information campaigns around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, these were seen to be led by evidence rather than politics or the media, and were highly effective in terms of influencing public attitudes and behaviour."

Download the full report.

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Notes to Editors:

The report 'Climate change and energy security: assessing the impact of information and its delivery on attitudes and behaviour' can be downloaded from the UKERC website and was written by: Catherine Happer, Research Associate, Glasgow University Media Group; Greg Philo, Professor of Communications and Social Change and Director of the Glasgow University Media Group; Antony Froggatt, Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resource Governance, Chatham House. December 2012.

For further information, please contact Lindsay Wright, Head of Communications, UK Energy Research Centre, 020 7594 2669 lindsay.wright@ukerc.ac.uk, or Charlotte Knight, Communications Officer, UK Energy Research Centre, 020 7594 1573 charlotte.knight@ukerc.ac.uk

About the UK Energy Research Centre

The UK Energy Research Centre, which is funded by Research Councils UK, carries out world-class research into sustainable future energy systems. It is the hub of UK energy research and the gateway between the UK and the international energy research communities. Our interdisciplinary, whole-systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy.

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