Why that guy you know hates renewable energy

Two and half years ago, I was trying to improve a sausage. I was at a barbecue, and my primary goal was finding some mustard for the tube of meat I’d just sourced from the grill. In the process, I befriended a fellow hunter/gatherer, and we chatted as I distractedly prowled for condiments.

When we reached the inevitable lull in conversation, he asked me what I do for a living. “I just started working in the wind industry”, I declared, with a smirk smattered with pride. His demeanour shifted noticeably, as if realising he’d wandered into the women’s bathroom by mistake. “Wind farms, eh. Pretty inefficient, I’ve heard” he growled, staring coldly back at me. A deer in the headlights of his unexpected disapproval, I smiled, aborted my mustard-hunt, and sauntered away.

I didn’t know it then, but if I’d responded with a single question I could have sat back and watched his claims implode, in that elegant noiseless vacuum that envelops someone coming to terms with not knowing why they just said something:

“Define ‘inefficient’”

He may have muttered something about the wind not blowing and power not flowing, but even a cursory interrogation would have probably revealed that he didn’t know much detail on the efficiency of converting kinetic energy stored in the atmosphere into electrical energy fed into the grid.

The combustibility of discussion around renewable technology is something I find abnormal. Imagine mentioning an innocuous technology, like a plasma television, at a barbeque, and receiving that same icy ideological glare. Making a turbine spin by propping it up above the surface of the Earth (instead of placing it near some ancient burning plant matter) grates dramatically against certain ideologies, and it’s this theatrical phenomenon that’s partly responsible for recent efforts to retreat from our low-carbon ambitions.

Public attitudes to wind energy

Attitudes towards wind energy fall quite neatly into political groups, the contours of which are quite neatly shown by this Essential Poll conducted in mid-2013:

Ditto for the Large Scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET).

A world absent of this skew, where people harbour brazen apolitical apathy for renewable technology, would be a curious place. “Wind farms? They sure do make a thing turn using the movement of the atmosphere” might be the dispassionate declaration from that guy at the barbecue. It’s far-fetched. Partisanship has sunk deep into the layers of steel and wires and fibreglass that comprise wind energy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has seized on conservative ill-will towards renewable technology, boosted by a seething undercurrent of scientific climate denialism. He regularly repeats the claim that ‘the renewable energy target is causing pretty significant price pressure’.

Price pressure from the renewable energy target

Let’s dig briefly into this claim. According to IPART, the large-scale renewable energy target (LRET) contributes $40 out of an average yearly bill of ~$2,000 (2%, or about ten cents per day). The integration of wind into the energy mix actually has the effect of depressing wholesale electricity prices. If we were to completely demolish our renewable energy industry, we’d each save about $15 a year.

Axing our renewable energy ambitions won’t save us from the electricity bill blues, but it will make Australia’s worst polluters breathe a sigh of relief. Renewable energy schemes are cheap tools for shifting the balance in our energy system, and despite the fact they’re already doing what they’re meant to, the government seems to have a surprisingly easy time convincing people these schemes are the sole source of electricity bill rises.

Hostility towards renewables seems to be part of a reaction to policy that’s perceived as ‘picking winners’. Green schemes incentivising low-carbon technology are seen as an unfair advantage in what ought to be a ‘level playing field’….a ‘free market’, if you will. Ditto on the carbon pricing mechanism, now a battered target of public discontent.

Adherence to free market ideology is a reliable predictor of the acceptance of climate science, as shown in the chart below. I’m willing to bet if you made a similar chart with support for renewable energy, you’d see a similar pattern. That guy you know somehow, who’s constantly muttering about spinning reserve for renewables and subsidies and birds? He hates wind farms because values are wrapping themselves tightly around the parcels of information that pop into his head.

It’s this cognitive curiosity that explains why The Australian can publish editorials denying the outcomes of climate science, or publish an article implying wind turbines are responsible for embryonic chicken mutations, “sheep deformities”, and “reports of erratic behaviour by farm dogs”. The standards of evidence they deploy are quite different, because the facts they intake and publish are filtered through a cognitive sieve dedicated to the preservation of their values.

The Green panic defence

I’ve mentioned on Twitter something I’ve termed the ‘Green panic defence’ – “We shouldn’t act on climate change because the Greens think we should act on climate change”. This seems to be a factor in the sprawling industry of climate denial, and certainly in opposition to wind farms.

Chris Mooney, an American journalist specialising in science and politics, explains this phenomenon quite well:

“We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

Because climate science and renewables are steeped in politics, they’re embedded with reflexive triggers, driving people to either wield impossibly high or ridiculously low standards of evidence. Here’s the thing: I don’t believe that renewables actually conflict with the political ideologies of conservatives and adherents to the free-market. There are a few facts that really need to be decoupled from reflexive political triggers.

Coal is not cheap.
Carbon emissions alter the physical climate systems that sustain our existence.
The externalities of carbon emissions are things we know will occur.
If we want to have nice things, then we need to ditch our carbon habit.
Either the polluters pay, or we do. I wish this were a concept we could all get behind.

Levelling the playing field

It seems therefore pretty logical that a carbon pricing mechanism, and a set of schemes to encourage uptake of renewable energy, are small steps towards an actual ‘level playing field’. The real cost of coal is being pushed onto those who’ll have to live in a world of extremes, and soon, Abbott will remove a carbon pricing mechanism that seems to work – emissions in the electricity sector are down 7.6%, or the equivalent of 14.8 million tonnes of carbon.

There’s a circularity to my claims, I know. To convince a skeptic that lowering carbon emissions and incentivising renewables will help us do wonderful, free-markety things, they’d have to accept the outcomes of climate science – something they’ve probably already decided not to do.

Maybe, though, we could chip away at the cycle by focusing more effort into understanding why people reject the outcomes of science and engineering. It’s so tempting to label them ‘anti-science’, but truly, they’re really not. We just need to understand that the facts alone are utterly powerless against the reflexive defence mechanisms of values and ideology.

Leading with values and appending with facts is an approach well suited to reversing skewed feelpinions on climate science and renewable energy. Hopefully, it can lessen the current monopolistic influence of Abbott’s feels, and restore a modicum of scientific veracity to climate change policy. At the very least it could have convinced my barbecue companion of the value of cheap, efficient renewable energy technologies.

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