Climate change is a defining environmental challenge for the 21st century, while societal reliance on carbon-intensive energy is a major driver of climate change. As such, it is essential to re-evaluate and re-imagine our energy systems as we create new social futures. Much of the research and thinking about energy and social futures is being done by engineers and economists. This produces a range of models that focus on technological innovation and market mechanisms as drivers of new energy futures. But these models often ignore the social and political forces that support or constrain various energy futures. Furthermore, these models fail to account for socio-economic and political inequalities that determine who has the power to envision and implement new social futures, and which communities are subjected to the social futures that are envisioned by others.
In October, 2018, the Climate Change and Energy Futures workshop was held at the Nexus Centre, Memorial University to create a transdisciplinary and international space for “thinking futures” related to climate change and energy systems1,2. The overall goals of the workshop were to clarify key concepts and develop inter-disciplinary theoretical frameworks and methodological perspectives related to climate change and energy futures. Transdisciplinary and international contributions focused on the social challenges, possibilities and trade-offs involved in pursuing fossil fuels, nuclear power, hydro-electric, and emerging renewable energies, such as geothermal and wind power. The workshop was co-organized by Mark CJ Stoddart (Memorial University), John McLevey (University of Waterloo), John Sandlos (Memorial University), Vanessa Schweizer (University of Waterloo), and Catherine Mei Ling Wong (University of Luxembourg).
The workshop discussion was organized around four related themes:
Climate change and energy futures: Mihai Sarbu (University of Ottawa) introduced theoretical perspectives for excavating the cultural roots of intersecting ecological crises. Howard Ramos (Dalhousie University, Canada) examined the potentials and challenges to transforming the large-scale issue of global climate into everyday social action at the local level. Andreas Klinke (Memorial University - Grenfell Campus) presented theoretical tools for better understanding how different levels of environmental governance (from the international to the local) can be connect connected in more dynamic, responsive ways in order to support social-ecological transformation. Kari Norgaard (University of Oregon) drew on her research with Indigenous communities in California and Oregon to raise vital issues about who has the power to create new social futures related to climate change and energy systems, and the potentially disastrous impacts when these social futures are imposed on Indigenous communities.
Fossil fuels and energy futures: Lokes Brooksbank (James Cook University) provided an overview of his research on oil company-community engagement and conflict over natural gas development in Papua New Guinea. He noted that there is often a mis-match between the formal mechanisms of community engagement used by large corporations like ExxonMobil and pre-existing norms and forms of governance found in Indigenous communities. Angela Carter (University of Waterloo) compared Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, arguing that deep dependence on the oil sector in both provinces poses significant barriers to engaging in the work of decarbonization and envisioning post-oil social futures. David Tindall (University of British Columbia) shared his research on climate change policy networks, which are made up of policy-makers, scientific experts, civil society and corporate actors. Policy network actors’ social network connectivity to specific policy network “blocs” strongly shapes their views about the Alberta oil sands and prospects for challenging and transforming Canada’s oil dependence. Mark Stoddart (Memorial University) compared the ways that oil sector actors envision energy futures in Newfoundland and Labrador, Norway, and Scotland. The Norwegian case is the most oriented around a “transformation” social future, which sees climate change as a significant problem that demands a substantial reorientation and transformation of the oil sector.
Challenges and opportunities of renewable energy transitions: Cole Atlin (University of Waterloo) examined the ongoing controversy over the Site C Hydroelectric Dam in British Columbia. Despite being promoted as a climate solution, this case illustrates that renewable energy megaprojects can carry significant social justice and ecological costs when they are imposed on downstream Indigenous and settler communities. Ricarda Scheele (University of Stuttgart) took a deep dive into the concept of “plausibility” as it is related to the development, interpretations, and applications of scenarios among policy-makers and practitioners. Vanessa Schweizer (University of Waterloo) analysed the Canadian energy as a subsystem of global energy systems. She highlighted how our embeddedness in global energy systems constrains which pathways for low-carbon transitions are seen as feasible. Karl Bennediktsson (University of Iceland) explored the multiple social-natural imaginaries that are evolving and coming into conflict in Iceland. Large-scale renewable energy projects fit into a particular social-ecological imaginary that is in friction with a range of alternative social-natural imaginaries for Iceland.
Civil society and the political sphere in creating energy futures: Jude Kurniawan (University of Waterloo) discussed the potential for social network analysis methodologies to analyze and “harmonize” the different scenarios for energy futures that circulate within the public and political spheres. Catherine Mei Ling Wong (University of Luxembourg) examined the different interpretations of climate change risk and solutions among policy-makers and industry elites in Australia, China and the United Kindgom. Her work finds that elite interpretations of risk privilege the short-term management of political risk, rather than managing the longer-term risks of dramatic environmental change. Pradip Swarnakar (Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management) presented research on climate policy networks in Australia, where policy makers often adopt contradictory approaches to climate change –recognizing the threats that it poses while continuing to pursue fossil-fuel intensive development that exacerbates the problem. Tuomas Ylä Anttila (University of Helsinki) compared climate policy networks in Australia and Finland, finding emerging points of difference within business sectors, as well as emerging alliances among trade unions and NGOs, which potentially provide fertile ground for low-carbon futures to take root.
The workshop also included two community speakers. Kathleen Parewick talked about how academics can become better partners for policy and practice communities and more strategically leverage their research to support social change. Vick Allen addressed the ongoing controversy over the Muskrat Falls hydro mega-project in Labrador, which has been promoted as a climate solution for NL. By connecting the downstream impacts of Muskrat Falls to community, family, and personal relationships with the land, she conveyed the profound social and personal costs that Muskrat Falls is having for Indigenous communities in the region.
Four key themes emerged from the presentations and discussion that prompt us to rethink how we approach research and policy around climate change and energy futures:
- “Transformation” is the keyword. It is important to identify key points of intervention for envisioning and implementing new low-carbon energy futures. Energy futures are processes of transformation involving a range of social actors, so it is vital to make use of “many ways in” to discussions about energy futures with a diverse range of partners and allies.
- Research and policy analysis needs to bridge global and local scales. The scale of the problems related to climate and energy futures are often understood as global, yet the scale of social meaning, place belonging, and sites of social action are local. For example, local resistance against energy projects is often understood as more about local issues than it is about climate change. Workshop presentations and discussion traced global-local flows of cultural imaginaries, politics and power.
- Bridging research and policy requires identification of specific leverage points. This includes generating new modes of interdisciplinary research on energy futures that move beyond dialogue across distinct fields to developing new collaborative projects, as well as collaboratively developed transdisciplinary theoretical frameworks. This also includes increasing the flow of communication and engagement between more theoretically sophisticated and more applied forms of discussion and analysis. Workshop presentations and discussion called on scholars to clarify and solidify the unique strategic locations and roles for environmental social scientists in engaging with decision-makers and community members around climate change and energy futures in ways that make use of specific levers for social action and social change.
- Work on climate change and energy futures is not about predicting the future. Social futures research is not a “magic 8-ball” that only provides optimistic or pessimistic scenarios. Rather, workshop participants noted that social futures research needs to provoke key questions such as: Energy futures for whom? Who gets to envision and enact energy futures? Who are energy futures enacted upon? These questions raise issues of social power, inequality and social justice related to climate change and energy futures. Presentations and discussion highlighted the need to further open up the intellectual and political work of thinking futures.
The workshop highlighted the value of interdisciplinary environmental social science for understanding the social dynamics of climate change and energy futures. The four key themes of the workshop provide valuable guideposts for further research and policy discussion about how to address climate change and move towards social-ecological wellbeing.
The full report for the Climate Change and Energy Futures workshop, is available at:
- Appadurai, A. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. Rass. Ital. Sociol. 14, 649–650 (2013).
- Urry, J. What is the Future? (John Wiley & Sons, 2016).