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Changing Public Attitudes to Energy - How do we make the Switch?

The recent shift in attitudes towards renewables is part of a process that has taken thirty years - yet only recently have we seen climate change enter mainstream conversation. 

Partly, this has been due to a lack of funding and research - but also a lack of media coverage. 


Throughout the nineties, renewable energy was taught in schools, but - unlike PE kits sequestered in any number of sweaty plastic bags - rarely taken home. Media coverage was scant at best - and activists like Swampy, though treated poorly, were rarely taken in earnest - in contrast to today’s protestors.


Change - to quote Hemingway - has happened “gradually, then suddenly”: first with carbon emissions making headlines as early as 1956 - then gathering pace as reports of vanishing ice caps, depleted animal species and natural disaster became a devastating reality.


Progress remains unhelped by those in power. The Tory  response to a “climate emergency” was to introduce a VAT increase on domestic solar, while the current Prime Minister of fire-striken Australia is Scott Morrison, a man so passionate about the economic benefits of coal that he brought a lump of it into parliament. 


Similarly, Trump’s stance on energy -aside from his theories on wind farms - has been to court votes from communities where fossil fuel provides vital income - and profit to executives higher up the chain.


Class is arguably one of the biggest key issues in tackling climate change to date, particularly where the adoption of certain habits: reusable totes, veganism; household recycling equate to white middle-class virtue signalling - good intentions which can appear both patronising and exclusionary.


According to Catherine Happer, a lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University, there are instances where the Swampy stereotype prevails, with a tendency among lower economic groups to use distancing terminology. Regional media consumption is also an issue, as is “widespread collapse in public trust” - on both sides of the Atlantic. 


Like organic food and sustainable clothing, renewable energy is often viewed as an expensive business, available to those who can afford it - however, this is based on a lot of misinformation surrounding renewable energy’s expense, when in reality (according to Which) it’s £151 less than the average annual cost of going with one of the Big Six standard tariffs. 


Then there’s the question of reliability - wind turbines break down on average 1% of the time, while solar panels don’t actually require direct, continuous sunlight to operate, even in the UK, which gets around 60% of the solar radiation found at the equator. 


It can be hard to change the habits of not only a lifetime, but of generations.  It requires, writes Andrew Revkin, “a mix of urgency and patience”   - an uncommon pairing in a world polarised between rigid immovability and the demand that change happen now.


Of the many “multipronged” solutions put forward by activists, perhaps the simplest -as with any real, lasting change - is for it to happen at both government and individual levels. According to Happer, this entails a reframing of climate in terms of “a fair and just transition to clean energy with prioritisation of public health, security, housing and jobs at the centre of it.”

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