Op-ed for Nature: “Communication: Positive energy”

June 19, 2013 at 11:31 am
Contributed by: Chris

I’m very pleased to announce my op-ed for Nature, one of the world’s most respected international scientific journals. You can read the final version in the June 20, 2013 edition in print, or online here:

Communication: Positive energy

Nature 498, 293–295,  
By permission of Nature, an earlier version of the text of the article appears below. 

Tell a positive story

To change behavior around energy scarcity and climate change, focus on transitions and solutions, not danger and loss, says Chris Nelder.

“I’m sometimes asked if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about energy,” economist Daniel Yergin admitted in a 1979 film, whilst a professor at HarvardBusinessSchool[1]. Concerned that the US was doing little to maintain its oil production, he declared himself a pessimist. He was referring to ‘peak oil’: US oil production was in decline after its peak in 1970. The country was mired in an energy crisis, with no easy way out.

That’s still true today. But the mood is optimistic. Yergin is now one of the loudest voices telling world leaders a tale of future oil abundance. In a 2011 editorial in the Wall Street Journal he asserted that technology is continually making new volumes of oil viable, and the peak “is still not in sight.”[2]

Such messages of abundance are the norm in the media and policy circles. That predictions of rising oil production have been consistently proven wrong doesn’t dim their appeal. Oil pessimists have offered more accurate guidance, since U.S. Geological Survey and Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert first predicted peak oil in 1956. Why has their story gained no traction?

I believe the main reason is that people simply want to hear a positive message. Too often scientists and analysts invite indifference and resistance by framing energy and climate change debates in terms of danger and loss. It doesn’t help that these complex topics can only be understood with a grasp of highly technical definitions and concepts, and only prevented through arcane policy measures.

Telling an optimistic story — using the language of solutions, transitions, and resilience — is more persuasive and more likely to engender useful action. A small rural town is unlikely to build a wind farm to fight climate change, but it might support that project if it is seen as a way to create jobs and improve the local economy while empowering the community and enhancing its self-reliance.

Tales of abundance

Agencies like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the US’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), big banks and the media are constantly reassuring us that energy supply will meet future demand, and technology will bring it at an acceptable price. The boom in U.S. tight oil (shale) is touted as a “game changer”, with the U.S. purportedly poised to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in seven years.[3]

In reality it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deliver fuel at an acceptable price. Conventional oil production stopped growing at the end of 2004. From 2004 to 2012, industry investment doubled to $600 billion per year and oil prices nearly quadrupled, but average annual production only increased 4.3%. This has acted as a brake on the global economy.

The EIA’s “highly uncertain” estimate for unproved, technically recoverable (but not necessarily economically viable) tight-oil resources in the United States is 58 billion barrels — enough for only 8.6 years’ worth of US consumption[4]. And it is commonly asserted by the media and the energy industry that the United States has a 100-year supply of gas, but proven dry-gas reserves will last only 12.5 years at the 2012 rate of US consumption.

Even the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. oil industry’s main lobbying group, admits that world oil supplies “have been struggling to keep up with rising demand.”[5] In 2010, the EIA’s review of its own forecasting history found that it had badly underestimated the prices for oil, natural gas and coal for more than a decade.[6]

The IEA supposed that Middle Eastern oil supply would double between 2000 and 2030, while the Canadian tar sands, heavy oil from Venezuela and gas-to-liquids would add another 10 percent. A few years ago, biofuels were all the rage. These predictions now seem absurd.

Ethanol turned out to be an expensive way to make low-quality fuel, driving up food prices and sparking “tortilla riots” in Mexico. Production from the Canadian tar sands reached 1.6 million barrels per day in 2012, just over half what was projected in 2006. Heavy oil and coal-to-liquids have yet to scale up affordably. The “hydrogen economy”, touted in 2005 as a transformational vision, faded without an epitaph.

Such abundance stories are generally based on econometric models that chart a path to economic growth. They are not based on actual resources and make assumptions that may be biased. Many are flawed.[7]

Despite the failure of these abundance stories, we continue to love them and give credence to their current incarnations.

Scientists and economists with decades of experience within oil and gas companies and energy agencies – including Jean Laherrère of Total, Colin Campbell of BP and Texaco, Jeremy Leggett of BP, Olivier Rech of the IEA, and Michael Kumhof of the IMF – expect the global supply of liquid fuels to start to decline before 2020. Their forecasts are closer to the mark. Yet few people have heard of them, and the media generally disregard them. Meaningful public debate over energy policy has been stifled in the process.[8]

Tales of Transition

The time is long overdue for scientists to learn to tell as compelling a story about energy, climate change and resource scarcity as do advertisers or lobbyists.  For a person to relate to a story, it must be consistent with what their community believes.[9] As psychologist Dan Kahan has noted, “People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments.”[10]This explains, for example, why groups at either end of the political spectrum hold identical views on issues as disparate as same-sex marriage and climate change.

We must also adapt our communications to the fact that most thinking is automatic and doesn’t follow rational logic, as pointed out by the behavioral science Nobellist Daniel Kahneman. We trust narratives that fit our emotions, associations and experiences, rather than actively assessing the evidence. This is why in 2008 the peak oil story gained currency in the press when prices for oil and gasoline shot up – it fit our experience. When prices fell, the story faded. A Google Trends query of news headlines displays an almost perfect correlation between “peak oil”, “oil prices”, and “gasoline prices”.[11]

Similarly, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes have captured the public’s attention in a way that decades of warnings about global warming have failed to do. Hurricane Sandy emboldened New York Governor Cuomo to declare that “anyone who says there hasn’t been a dramatic change in weather patterns is in denial.” Google finds over one million articles that mention both “Hurricane Sandy” and “renewable energy.”

A story must also be positive to be amplified in the press. Accuracy has become boring in the world of link-bait journalism: editors and journalists want to publish stories that are popular. So if we want action on energy transition and combating climate change, we must offer concrete and viable solutions – no money goes to problems, only fixes – and we should advocate them in an upbeat, tractable way, tailored to particular world-views.

The mayor of the small Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, California – a right-wing, suburban, middle-class community where many people work at an Air Force base – has taken that tack in his push to make his city the first in the U.S. to produce zero net carbon emissions.

“We can’t fix [climate change] top-down, but it’s easy to fix bottom-up,” asserted Mayor Rex Parris at a recent energy conference. Instead of scaring his citizens, he has leveraged the authority of the city building and planning departments to encourage solar power. Lancaster now has the most solar production per capita of any city in California.

It has become the first city in the state to require that builders of new homes also build at least 1 kW of new solar capacity for every home they construct. The small California town of Sebastopol has followed suit, requiring solar PV systems on all new buildings, major additions and remodelings.

The bottom-up approach has also worked for the tiny right-wing, farming town of Greensburg, Kansas. After a tornado leveled it in 2007, the residents came together and “right off the bat, they started talking about green buildings,” Mayor Bob Dixson relates.

They crafted a new mission statement focused on “working together for future generations,” which required all new buildings to be LEED-certified (a ratings system for efficient and sustainable buildings). Its new 12.5-megawatt community wind farm, built through a public-private partnership, exports some of its power to other nearby towns.

The Transition Towns movement, a UK-based grassroots network of communities organized since 2005 in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability, arguably has done more to build resilience than peak oil modelers ever did. Transition towns, including places as diverse as Tucson, Arizona and Groningen, The Netherlands, create community gardens, build community solar power systems, stage river clean-up events, and generally find ways to make their localities more sustainable. The network now includes thousands of towns across the globe.

Why have these local approaches worked? People like feeling that they are part of the solution, instead of being hostage to an intangible problem. They seize on things that give them hope and optimism. Capitalizing on these feelings should be our objective.

To make real progress on energy and climate change, I believe we must champion local measures to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables, and away from personal vehicles to public transport. Instead of agitating for indirect and punitive policy mechanisms like carbon taxes, we should be advocating steps like feed-in tariffs, better rail, bicycle-friendly streets, local food production, and improving the efficiency of our built environment.[12]

Yes, rail can displace oil demand permanently and at scale. But we should highlight its lifestyle virtues: it’s a safer, cheaper, more relaxing and more productive mode of transport. Noting a shift to public transportation since the oil price spike of 2008, experts have found that commuters prefer it because it’s more enjoyable: they can work on their laptops or phones, call friends, read books, chat, or simply take a nap.[13]

Fear- and threat-based messaging about climate change and energy has not mobilized responses. Let’s learn from this and try a positive tack. As the old sales saw goes: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”


Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant based in Marin County, California. He is the author of Profit from the Peak and the co-author of Investing in Renewable EnergyHe blogs at GetREALList.com

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez9TRtXu8rQ&feature=youtu.be

[2] Daniel Yergin, “There Will Be Oil”, September 17, 2011, Wall Street Journal

[3] Chris Nelder, “U.S. will not surpass Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 2020,” November 28, 2012. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/take/us-will-not-surpass-saudi-arabias-oil-production-by-2020/268

[4] US Energy Information Administration. Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources (EIA, 2013).

[5] Jennifer Dlouhy: “What’s behind the gas price runup? Depends on whom you ask”

[6] Annual Energy Outlook Retrospective Review: Evaluation of Projections in Past Editions (1982-2009) http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/analysispaper/retrospective/retrospective_review.html

[7] David Strahan, “Monbiot Peak Oil U-Turn Based on Duff Maths,” July 30, 2012. http://www.davidstrahan.com/blog/?p=1576

[8] Scott R. Littlefield, “Security, independence, and sustainability: Imprecise language and the manipulation of energy policy in the United States,” Energy Policy, January 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.10.040

[9] American Psychological Association. Psychology and Global Climate Change (APA, 2009); available at http://go.nature.com/54yxp3

[10] Dan Kahan, “Fixing the communications failure,” Nature, January 21, 2010.

[11] http://bit.ly/15Mf9L5

[12] Chris Nelder, “The revolution will be bottom-up,” January 18, 2012. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/the-revolution-will-be-bottom-up/296

[13] CNN: Commuters give up the ‘ball and chain’


1 Comment

  1. Hi Chris,
    Interesting article and thesis! I found myself unable to leave a comment at Nature for some reason so thought I’d offer a comment here. I agree with Michael Lardelli – Aleklett’s omission from your references is significant given that – AFAIK – he is the only voice to have consistently published a critical review of ‘the numbers’ as they relate to oil production world-wide and in peer reviewed journals. In other words, his institute’s work now represents the ‘scientific’ authority or benchmark on the subject, and is a crucial authority.

    The most useful observation I found in your article is where you write:

    “We must also adapt our communications to allow for the fact that most thinking is automatic and does not follow rational logic, as the behavioural scientist and Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman points out. We trust narratives that fit our emotions, associations and experiences, rather than actively assessing the evidence. This is why the peak-oil story gained currency in the press in 2008, when prices for oil and gasoline shot up — it fitted in with our experiences. When prices fell, the story faded.”

    If I was to make a comment on why it is that the message doesn’t gain traction, I would simply point to the well known difficulty humans (and indeed all life forms) have in:
    – appreciating scarcity, or more importantly, shifting energy availability, when it is not immediately apparent to them in energetic (energy expenditure) terms
    – appreciating the situation of the ‘other’ (in this case, other human beings).

    Although Peak oil is a world-wide issue, I have come to the conclusion that the reason we have been able to ignore it in the West is (at least) two-fold:
    – we are complicit in massive exploitation by borrowing cheap $$$ from China and elsewhere in the less-developed work (which means we are taking advantage of their economic-slavery and diminished costs and standards of living and often vastly diminished energy consumption)
    – we are also borrowing from the environmental bank (by not paying for the environmental costs of fossil fuel prod’n).

    The nature of this exploitation and borrowing is such that we can almost completely ignore the price signals of diminishing energy availability (or rising costs of production) because we are not paying them personally. Of course someone is paying them – either those in the less developed world or those yet to be born! But our collective belly in the West is full, and both history and psychology have proved that is all that matters – physical satiation and emotional stability trump reason every time!

    And the really dangerous thing about oil is that the energy production profile (or ‘experience’ if you like) of oil is nothing like wood or dung – mankind’s ‘traditional’ fuels upon which most prehistory and past culture has actually been built – which requires a degree of, often personal, energy expenditure to gather, harvest, prepare etc and even then has limited utility as a fuel. Fossil fuels as we’ve known them to date, come out of the ground and are supplied to us – essentially – ‘ready to use’ with increased energy availability over traditional energy sources (such as wood and wind) measured in orders of magnitude.

    The energy benefit from oil is so massive that as soon as it appeared on the scene as a motive power in the 1900s, mankind almost overnight forgot what personal energy expenditure was required to travel any distance, to build things or to produce food. As soon as oil appeared, all of the creative mechanical genius aimed at harvesting wind and wave power evident in the Victorian age (and the previous 2 centuries of industrial innovation) faded away.

    For over 100 years – maybe close to 3 generations – we have been, in terms of the dominant culture, completely out of touch with the true, everyday ‘hard realities’ of life on earth. And because emotion trumps reason, experiences of comfort, safety, security and satiation (which are all aspects of ’emotion’) completely eliminate perceived need for Westerners to consider or factor in ‘risk’ (itself a ‘product’ of reasoning)!

    So, to my mind, it’s a combination of the control inherent in ‘inequitable exploitation’ and the unprecedented ‘energy benefit’ of oil that is at the root of mankind’s current incapacity to grapple with the oil problem.

    This is the argument I would advance in commenting on your piece. Not a contrary p.o.v I think – maybe just further explanation.

    Sam Powrie, Adelaide.

    Comment by Sam Powrie — June 25, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

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