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Pitch Renewables Projects for Fairness and the Greater Good, Communications Study Advises

Though most Canadians welcome the shift to a clean energy future, they don’t always support the individual renewable energy projects that are urgently needed to achieve that transition. A study has found that in order to engage successfully, climate advocates should use narratives that emphasize the shared public interest rather than individual or private gain.

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) measured [pdf] perceptions of fairness and acceptability of the energy transition, including the federal government’s plan to achieve zero emissions in Canada’s electricity systems by 2035. The group’s spring, 2022 study, based on an 1,800-person sample, compared two distinct approaches: a self-centred “intrapersonal” frame (“What will it mean for me?”), and a collective “interpersonal” approach (“What will it mean for us and the planet?”).

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Both narratives increased acceptability relative to a control group, the researchers found. But the collective frame had lower scores for unfairness, while the intrapersonal frame scored higher.

That finding underscored fairness—to others, to future generations, and to nature—as an important theme for renewable energy advocacy, CCNB’s director of climate change and energy solutions, Dr. Louise Comeau, told a recent webinar. She said focus group participants favoured retraining of affected workers (“fair transition”), energy efficiency programs, and help for harder-hit lower-income households.

Conventional announce-and-defend strategies, often used by corporations and governments, provoke distrust and resistance, Comeau said. Instead, participants said they favoured “access and standing in decision-making processes” and varying degrees of power and influence to determine the outcome. Decision-making processes must be fair and impartial, with access to funding and neutral expert advice for citizens. The need for institutional trust based on transparency, input, and other factors emerged as a strong theme in this and other similar research.

Study participants also said communities affected by projects must share in the benefits through job creation, community sponsorships, lower power rates, improved energy security, environmental benefits, and a sense of partnership and pride.

Comeau said Canadians are open to interprovincial transmission projects as a “necessary evil” so long as health and aesthetic issues are addressed and their own energy security and sovereignty is not threatened.

The report included a three-paragraph sample script “as a good starting point for framing electricity-focused communications and engagement efforts.” Study authors advised advocates to avoid absolutes, for instance, talking about “one solution” rather than “the solution”. Campaigners would also benefit from avoiding specific numbers—which can trigger debate—in favour of broad comparatives, like asserting that renewables are less expensive than fossil generation and nuclear.

And the study said there’s no need to explain the basics of climate change, since most people already have that context. Communicators can avoid direct climate references completely, replacing them with simple statements like: “Electricity made by burning, coal, oil, and natural gas pollutes the air and makes weather extreme.”

The study advises advocates to avoid “sounding like a politician”, by steering clear of simplistic optimism and staying rooted in on-the-ground realities. But with many participants voicing relatively neutral or “soft” responses that were slightly positive or negative, the study pointed to the “opportunity to influence public opinion through fair engagement and policy design, and effective communications.”