Communicating the need for change needs more “selling” than it gets

Being asked to give a short keynote at the New Energy & Cleantech Awards made me revisit some of my thoughts on the area, and on the introduction of new technologies generally. Here is what I hoped to say!

“We are very dependent on energy – as a species, a civilisation and a country. We all use energy to live comfortably, move about and eat – and there is imbedded energy in every product we buy – some of it expended in the UK, some elsewhere.

The UK is not the most energy intensive country, but (in 2013, where the numbers are widely published) we use about 3 tonnes of oil a person each year. We are getting more efficient at its use but only marginally so – using about 1-2% a year less than in 2012.

However, there is an increasingly persuasive body of evidence that climate change is happening. Although there is uncertainty about the exact level of change, the trajectory is unmistakeable. And although we are not sure of the exact effects, they range from various levels of unthinkable to catastrophic. Over the next 100 years (less than 4 generations) this planet will change because of what we have done and life will become more challenging

Many of us in the room have children and grandchildren. If we want them to inherit a tolerable planet we need to do two things:

1. Develop renewable energy sources to be more commercially competitive

2. Develop all technologies to be more energy efficient

We know we have to change, but we still keep on doing the same thing and the evidence says we are not having that much of an effect. It must be somebody else’s fault. But whose? Who are the culprits?

The accused

Big Business. We all believe that the energy companies are too wedded to their current business model, extracting fossil fuels from the ground and burning them to produce energy. Why are they ruining the planet? Why can't they see they have to change?

Government. We hear politicians talk a lot about this, but they never seem to do anything. Surely they could use regulations and procurement to drive the change? They seem too much under the influence of big companies. Why don't they use the power we have given them?

The Media. Why is their reporting so biased? Sometimes it feels like the big companies own them. Others have this “balanced point of view” approach that means they give equal time to climate change deniers, so the general public never get to see the argument properly. Why don't they explain to people what is happening?

But there are reasons they all behave the way they do and we need to understand them.

Their defence

Big companies employ a large number of people. They have shareholders like pensions plans (on whom even more of us are dependent). And they have learned that risk is not acceptable to many who own them. They know how to do what they currently do, but many of the options for the future are riddled with unknowns and risks that no-one understands. They also get judged in the short term, so investing too much in the future cause criticism. In many cases they look to governments to give them a lead with regulations and their own procurement.

Governments are responsible for the wishes of society. They have learned that wasting money and taking too much risk with taxpayers money is punished – by removal from office. They like starting things, but unless it delivers benefit in their guaranteed lifetime (5 years), it won't make them look good and get them re-elected. They are also very aware of how the media portray them as incompetent, or liars, or people who change their minds a lot.

The media are increasingly dependent on winning and keeping the publics attention. Newspapers are being challenged by websites, and social media as an information source is challenging all forms of journalism. Although they are capable of producing intelligent and insightful analysis of complex issues, they have learned that simple points made against politicians and big business in a polarised and controversial tone gets them an audience.

We need to understand what is driving them and help them.

Their needs

Business looks to minimise the risk in their future. They are therefore looking for opportunities to take their existing capital assets, human resources and physical assets and equip them with the technologies of the future. Companies also know that energy costs money – and over the long term, will probably cost more money – so are always on the look-out for energy efficient processes. If we treat them as adversaries, they will feel threatened and not change. We have to give them opportunities instead of the criticism and threats they often feel they get.

Governments want to do the right thing – and politicians want to be liked and re-elected!. They need to know that society wants a sustainable future. They need to know we care more about a long-term strategy for safeguarding the planet and giving us an acceptable lifestyle than about short-term financial gain. And they need to know that this can be achieved without huge long-term subsidies, job losses or diminished tax incomes. Without that voice, those who are scared of change, or think they will not profit from it, will lobby for continuation of the status quo, and we will all lose.

Journalists want stories. All societies like stories – and feel-good stories are better than controversies and put-downs. Books and films where the bad guy wins are not popular. We also like stories with lessons in them. We like stories when the underdog triumphs against adversity. We like stories that show human beings to be inherently good. We like to see good win! If we only tell them facts and pepper it with jargon and assumptions, they will not be able to use them.

Our Actions

It all comes down to us – the sort of people in this room who have come together to celebrate those who are successful in (or striving towards) the development of sources of renewable energy or technologies that are more efficient at using energy.

Unless we tell our stories to the journalists we meet and tell them in a way that is interesting, then they will never be able to report what we have achieved.

Unless we talk to those members of government who come to this sort of meeting and tell what is possible, what already works and what we know is not working, they will not be able to cut through the tsunami of “begging letters” I know they get.

And unless we share our ideas (once protected, of course) with larger companies, and work with them to bring them to market, many of them will not give the intended benefit to society that we desire.

As Pogo would say “We have met the enemy and he is us”. It was first written in 1953 about McCarthyism but most famously used in 1970 for Earth Day – and it is still true.

Communicating the need for change is hard. There is always risk involved and people are rightly apprehensive about risks. It also requires consistency and repetition. It is a bit like a sale – unless the recipient gets what they want they don't buy. So we need to understand what they need to know in a way they can use it.

For the rest of this evening, find someone you don't know – and preferably a journalist or someone from government or a big company – and tell them what you do – how is makes a great story, how it benefits society and how it makes money. And do it tomorrow somewhere else. And the day after. And the day after that! And next year, it will be easier!”

Societal Challenges Sustainability
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