Time to depolarize energy-climate conversation

We’re tired of it. And we know there’s a better way.

We’re tired of the polarized, over-simplified, blame-filled rhetoric we’re hearing around the Big Issue. You know what we’re talking about: Climate versus Oil. Jobs versus the Environment. It seems, as a society, that we’re reverting to the level of pre-literate kindergarten kids, using only Instagram-like pictures for communication: Greta Thunberg, on the steps of the legislature. Eighteen-wheelers emblazoned with ‘We love Alberta Oil.’ Oh, please.

So much is riding on a successful and thoughtful resolution of this issue (our global reputation, investor confidence, our own existence) — yet most of what we hear is at a level that would get students sent to the principal’s office for name-calling. One of us is a teacher, and expects more from the 12-year-olds that they teach. Can the adults involved in this please play a bigger game?

We know there’s a better way — for one thing, we’ve seen some great demonstrations in Alberta classrooms. To begin with, we call upon Alberta’s adults to deal with the outpourings of passionate, concerned youth as any good educator would, whether they are from Sweden or St. Albert. Take some time to practise the lost art of listening, bring compassion and kindness, make it a real conversation, and — possibly — allow yourself to be moved by and learn from their arguments.

Invite them to speak at your meetings, even though you don’t agree with everything they say; and it makes sense for them to invite you in, too, so they can begin to understand your point of view. When we listen, we can discover shared values and how each side of the debate can do more. Do better.

Would you like your kid to be in a classroom where this kind of empathy is practised? Thought so. We need to get better at empathy, but the list doesn’t end there. We need to avoid stereotyping: as the philosopher Kierkegaard said: “If you name me, you negate me.” (and yes, we got that little gem from the Wayne’s World movie. Thanks, Wayne).

Critical thinking is key: we need to scrutinize our information sources, consider various viewpoints, and look beyond what politicians and influencers say to determine if they’re trying to make the world a better place, or just appealing to their base. Critical thinking is central to our education system so when students practise it, and challenge some adult-made decisions, it falls to us adults to do some hard listening. We might learn something.

Sure, there’s tension between the different points of views but what if we made it a creative tension, a crucible that forces both sides — actually, a number of sides — to work together to come up with new approaches? This is not a simple problem and so the solution space will be complex, and call upon us to flex muscles already well developed in Alberta, leveraging our hard-won oil and gas expertise as we collaborate more, and work to create innovative solutions. Lots of Alberta folk already do this but it needs to go viral.

Forty per cent of global consumption of energy comes from oil, so clearly we can’t just stick a cork in the Alberta tap; but the climate crisis means we need to transition to a new energy system. We need to do both and let’s have a conversation about how fast we make that transition happen, and how to pull it off.

The world is changing, and we have to change with it. We need to depolarize the energy/climate conversation, and soon. We can have both climate action and economic growth that includes a thoughtful and well-paced transition from carbon-based fuel. If and when we get it right, we’ll have earned the right to proudly take our place in the new energy economy, whatever that looks like. Somebody’s going to make a lot of money over the course of this energy transition; it might as well be us.

Gareth Thomson is the former executive director of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education (ACEE), and a Fellow with the Energy Futures Lab. Melissa Easton (Alberta teacher) and Tanya Doran are both ACEE Board members.