Cooler heads for hot debates: Improving public engagement on difficult energy choices. Social scientist perspectives
Common approaches to public engagement are often guided by an assumption that stakeholders lack sufficient and relevant information. If the public were just better informed about where electricity comes from, what the impacts of energy on the environment are, and how to weigh trade-offs in a rational and systematic way, people would clearly come to accept renewable energy such as wind turbines in their communities. That wishful thinking is frequently met with what is too easily dismissed as "NIMBY" – staunch public resistance to pretty much any form of energy production or transmission: "not in my back yard." This paper reviews and synthesizes existing evidence from published accounts of wind energy development in the US (combined with relevant experience from other science-practice interactions and public engagement around climate change) as to whether these assumptions are borne out empirically, and if not, attempts to explain public opposition and suggests alternative ways forward to better meet community needs.
Drawing on extensive experience in science-policy interactions, dialogue and stakeholder engagement, and work with the Department of Energy's Wind Powering America Program, this paper presents evidence that debunks the simple assumptions listed above in favor of a more difficult, but more promising path forward. The results of the review and analysis conducted here indicate that both the information deficit model and the simplistic dismissal of public concerns as NIMBYism misread what stakeholders affected by energy development and transmission perceive, understand, and need. While energy life cycle understanding is indeed limited among many, the major stumbling blocks in effective public engagement on wind energy production involve perceptions of the key actors involved (for-profit utilities, energy producers, government), the distribution of costs and benefits of energy production, and inadequacies in the stakeholder engagement process. Resistance to wind energy thus emerges not just as another instance of NIMBYism , but as a focal point for a much deeper societal conflict over democratic decision-making around risky technologies. The paper provides decision-makers, advocates, and engaged scientist with a better understanding of these concerns to enable more meaningful public engagement.