Friday, March 11, 2016

Why Community Engagement Matters in Addressing Climate Change

How does the image above make you feel? Your answer may be key to addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Climate Change Agreement world, creating more sustainable landscapes depends on local perceptions of proposed low carbon energy development projects.

I recall an exquisite yet frightening ice-sheathed world when the moon rose over my dark neighborhood in Maine following the ice storm of 1998. My family and millions of others lost electricity for over a week. My sister and I called it camping out in our house, but the novelty of life without electricity wore off after a few days.

Before this disaster, I hadn’t given much thought to electricity. Sure, the lights didn’t switch on during the occasional brief power outage, but it had never occurred to me that our running water and toilet used an electricity-powered pump. An extended power outage meant manual flushing. Chipping away ice to fill a bucket from a nearby stream just to flush a toilet made me think twice about flushing. Relying on a woodstove not only for heat but also for cooking gave me a far less romantic view on life before electricity. And washing clothes by hand? No thanks.

Joni Mitchell summed up how I felt in her song lyric: “you don't know what you've got ‘til its gone.” I had taken electricity for granted without ever considering where it came from. Fast-forward a decade and a half later. My family cares where electricity comes from. While my dad installed a solar hot water heater for the showers and PV solar panels to help charge his electric car, I’ve been researching controversy over offshore wind farms, a promising but contentious new(ish) technology.

Wind turbines Scroby Sands
Image credit (edited) Martin Pettitt, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Part of my research entails asking: what do images of wind turbines - such as those above - make you think about? How do they make you feel?

Your answer may be key in addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Agreement world, generating climate-friendly electricity depends more than ever on the extent to which people obstruct (e.g., file lawsuits), accommodate or champion low-carbon energy solutions. Perceptions matter.

If you are like the majority of North Americans, you probably have vaguely positive reactions to these images, even if you perhaps feel a little overwhelmed at the height of the turbines and the scale of the London Array Wind farm. According to opinion polls and my survey results, most North Americans support the development of offshore wind farms, which they think of as clean sources of electricity. Despite general public support, problems arise when it comes to financing and figuring out where to put offshore wind farms. Why?

The Economist, August 19, 2010. Public opinion polls show high levels of general support for offshore wind farms, but different activists in Cape Cod have vigorously demonstrated support and opposition to the Cape Wind Farm proposed off the coast of Massachusetts, U.S.  
For an offshore wind farm, the cost per unit of electricity generated is approximately two to five times more expensive than electricity from onshore wind, hydroelectric dams or natural gas plants. These costs will likely diminish over time. Despite the expense, Northern Europeans have already built industrial-scale wind farms. For example, the 175-turbine London Array powers approximately 500,000 homes.

If North Americans get serious about reducing carbon emissions, which will be needed to meet the new goals espoused at the COP21 climate negotiations, harnessing offshore wind could be an important part of a low-carbon energy portfolio, particularly for the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.*

The fledgling offshore wind industry is rapidly gaining momentum in the U.S., but, as evident in numerous lawsuits, it has not been smooth sailing. My PhD research explores why it has been controversial and what can be done to address people's concerns about this technology.**

To dig into this controversy over transitioning to a cleaner source of electricity, I lived on my father's sailboat for a summer and commuted by rowboat to Island Institute in Rockland, Maine. Island Institute is a non-profit organization working to sustain Maine's island and remote coastal communities. They collaborate with communities, developers and decision makers to support effective stakeholder engagement and outreach processes related to offshore wind and other coastal issues. I partnered with staff in their Community Energy Program to help synthesize lessons they have learned about participant satisfaction and frustration with community engagement processes, which have played out on New England islands near proposed offshore wind farm sites.***

Over the summer, I met with island residents involved in energy initiatives and scoured documents about this new use of ocean space. I integrated my academic knowledge about risk perception and decision theory with their on-the-ground experience of how stakeholders were engaged on these islands near proposed wind turbines.

In our report, we emphasize the critical importance of making mutual learning accessible and collaboratively developing community benefits. The overarching goal was not to provide a guide to obtaining consent for offshore wind farms, but rather to improve the decision process and the quality of the interactions between communities, government agencies and project developers in the hopes of creating more acceptable outcomes.

The major lessons I took away from my summer of working closely with Island Institute is that attempts to change energy systems are inherently political and messy affairs. These efforts require long term collaboration with local communities. Conflict is pretty much inevitable because all sources of electricity have drawbacks. We can, however, learn from island residents, many of whom, by choice or necessity, tend to be remarkably self-reliant and mindful of their energy production and consumption.

As of 2015, the foundations for the first offshore wind farm in North America are complete, the majority of adjacent island residents support it and they negotiated for several community benefits from the developer. This could be a launch pad for a massive transition to low carbon electricity sources. Our case studies have relevance for other parts of the world where deliberating with communities and being mindful of their perceptions of low-carbon energy sources is key in transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.

Will transitioning to greener energy sources be too little and too late? Local satisfaction or frustration with renewable energy technologies and siting processes impacts the answer to this crucial question.

The author, Sarah Klain, lived on Peaks Island, Maine until age 5. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation focuses on offshore wind farms, risk perception, biodiversity conservation and environmental values. During the summer of 2015, she lived on her father’s sailboat and rowed to work to collaborate with Island Institute. This effort was supported by the UBC's Public Scholars Initiative, the Biodiversity Research: Integrative Training & Education (BRITE) program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

* For examples of nifty albeit politically naïve renewable energy plans from a team at Stanford University and their partners, see here.
** See Whither Wind in Orion Magazine for a fantastic description of ambivalent environmental values at play in wind farm controversy.
*** We compared three case studies: 1) a wind farm near Block Island, Rhode Island, which, as of 2015, is on track to be the first installed offshore wind project in the U.S.; 2) a proposed offshore wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts that is currently moving through regulatory processes; and 3) a proposed offshore wind project near Monhegan, Maine where developers are focusing on refining their floating turbine prototype.

Feature image credit (edited): 
Mariusz Paździora  Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Contributing to the relational value concept: considering ecological relationships and interdependent values

In their most recent article, published in PNAS, Kai Chan and colleagues (1) propose that framing ecosystem values in terms of relationships can help unpack why we value nature and how research and policy might better reflect our values. In this this thought-provoking conceptualization, Chan and colleagues consider two primary types of relational values. First, they consider relationships between people and places; that people value specific places of meaning, not necessarily an ecosystem service in abstraction. Second, they consider relationships among people that are mediated by important places and ecosystem components. The relational values concept can be further enhanced, however, by including not only relationships among people and between people and the environment, but also relationships among different ecosystem components. Such ecological relationships go beyond bio-physical processes. I do not mean to evoke generic environmental interactions such as salmon needing cold water and therefore needing a forested watershed. This basic biophysical model is already captured in Chan and colleagues’ discussion of the “golden rule” in their policy application number four (i.e., care for your place may translate into care for someone else’s place if the two are ecologically connected). Rather, what I mean is that the values people place on connected ecosystem components are themselves interdependent.
This fuller picture of relational values is illustrated in how the Cree Canadian First Nations people manage their goose hunting. I was fortunate enough to spend several seasons living in the Cree community of Wemindji, in James Bay, Quebec, and to learned about goose hunting, an important subsistence and cultural activity (2). Hunting takes place in specific coastal marshes; but, prime locations change over time as the James Bay coast rises out of the Earth’s mantle having been depressed by the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America during the last glacial period (2, 3). The land is still rising to this very day, causing coastal marshes to dry up and new ones to form (2). Coastal marshes and prime goose habitats change rapidly, within the course of human lifetimes (4).
Cree hunters often invest significant amounts of energy to build soft infrastructure, such as mud dikes, to protect important marshes from drying up so that future generations can hunt (2, 4). Through intergenerational use, these marshes become imbued with history, culture, and identity and take on a value of their own (2). However, management decisions are influenced by ongoing environmental, social, and technological changes (2). Hunters may stop maintaining a marsh if, for example, geese change their flight paths and no longer visit an area (2). The marsh is still valued as an historic place that contributes to people’s identity (2).
The goose and the coastal marsh each have a value that is relational to specific Cree hunters, that cannot be reduced to one another or substituted, and that is interdependent. The relational values in Cree goose hunting involve social-social relationships (e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes)[1] (Fig. 1). What we can learn from the Cree goose hunting example is how the values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components.
Considering a wider array of social and ecological relationships helps flesh out the relational value concept. It can promote cross fertilization with other disciplines such as social network research, where social-ecological systems are conceptualized as networks with social-social, social-ecological, and ecological-ecological relations (6). Such collaborations will hopefully lead to theoretical and methodological advances that will help us achieve Chan and colleagues’ goal: a meaningful understanding of ecosystem services valuation that can better inform research and policy.
Figure 1. The values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components. Valuation in Cree goose hunting involves social-social relationships (SS, e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (SE, e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (EE, e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes). These relationships define a network of interdependent social and ecological units (red and green circles, respectively). Figure adapted from Bodin and Tengö (6).
Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank the CHANS lab for hosting my commentary and Kai Chan for editorial comments and advice.
Jesse Sayles is a postdoctoral fellow at the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University. He does human-environment and sustainability research in costal and watershed systems. He is friends and colleagues with several CHANS lab members.
1.            Chan KM et al. (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1462–1465.
2.            Sayles JS, Mulrennan ME (2010) Securing a Future: Cree Hunters’ Resistance and Flexibility to Environmental Changes, Wemindji, James Bay. Ecol Soc 15:22.
3.            Pendea IF, Costopoulos A, Nielsen C, Chmura GL (2010) A new shoreline displacement model for the last 7 ka from eastern James Bay, Canada. Quat Res 73:474–484.
4.            Sayles JS (2015) No wilderness to plunder: Process thinking reveals Cree land-use via the goose-scape. Can Geogr / Le Géographe Can 59:297–303.
5.            Peloquin C, Berkes F (2009) Local knowledge, subsistence harvests, and social-ecological complexity in James Bay. Hum Ecol 37:533–545.
6.            Bodin Ö, Tengö M (2012) Disentangling intangible social–ecological systems. Glob Environ Chang 22:430–439.

Photo: Canada Geese flying in Wemindji.
Source: Cree Nation of Wemindji online gallery.

[1] While the coast is likely always to be important, a new set of ecosystem relationships may also be emerging. Hunters increasingly travel inland and hunt at roadside gravel pits due to a combination of social and ecological changes that affect where geese go and the amount of time people have for hunting (5). Thus, for some hunters, these roadside areas may take on a different value in the future than they have had in the past.