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Bringing Trustworthy Energy Information to the Table

by April 20, 2011

This opinion piece authored by Kent Cavender-Bares was published in the Pioneer Press on April 20, 2011.

‘We need all of our energy options on the table!’ So say those advocating for the removal of the legal barrier preventing new nuclear plants in Minnesota. I completely agree with the sentiment and would go a step further: We need to understand all of our energy options so we can make informed decisions about them.

Does this mean entering a cycle of unending study? No. Expert studies certainly have their important role. But they are not the weak link. Rather, what is missing is an adequate transfer of knowledge from the expert community to the rest of us regarding the multiple, unequal options available. We need translators to bring technical key points to life in a way that furthers our understanding while remaining faithful to the underlying science and technology.

The challenge in making that happen with complex, controversial topics such as nuclear energy is twofold.

First, it means traversing the gap between the language of those who understand a technology like nuclear energy and the rest of us. That is where great communicators come into the picture.

Second, it means separating trustworthy information from hyperbole. We need to be able to identify and then clearly communicate a knowledge base that is widely shared by experts drawn from across society — experts from corporations like GE and Xcel as well as academics and experts from various advocacy groups and government agencies.

How can we find common ground in this era of polarization?

I believe there are two essential pieces to an effective strategy. My years of experience communicating science to general audiences suggest that key points about nuclear energy will be viewed as trustworthy if they have been endorsed by experts with whom people from across society can identify. I am personally predisposed to believing that nuclear energy presents serious safety concerns, yet that is honestly a belief grounded in emotion rather than expert knowledge. Compelling information backed up by a broad group of experts could persuade me to believe otherwise.

The other piece of the puzzle is providing information without also telling people what they should do with it. In practice, staying impartial is really tough, but essential. Would we trust the Bureau of Labor Statistics if, in addition to its straightforward reporting of jobs lost or gained, it also gave credit to administration policies and told us this is a good time to purchase stocks?

This is why I am launching Dialogue Earth, a new nonprofit media enterprise. Dialogue Earth will identify information gaps as issues with a connection to the environment percolate up in societal dialogue. It will fill the gaps through informative multimedia whose content will be established by experts from across society to ensure messages do not stray from the current common ground shared by the expert community. Then Dialogue Earth will share this engaging content across the Web and social networks. Through it all, Dialogue Earth will remain absolutely committed to abstaining from issue advocacy while seeking to become a trusted source of information.

How will Dialogue Earth approach a contentious issue like energy? This summer we will launch a yearlong campaign designed to explain a few key points about 10 energy topics in a way large, diverse audiences will grow to trust. This effort will be guided by a steering committee of thought leaders on energy. We will invite an energy sector executive like Michael G. Morris, Chairman and CEO of American Electric Power to co-chair this committee and balance that perspective with that of a leader of similar stature in the environmental advocacy community. Such an approach will, we hope, reassure those who might otherwise be inclined to dismiss the effort as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But, you say, even if we understand coal, nuclear, wind and other energy topics better, how will we ever agree about a long-term vision on energy?

Just as a wise investor seeks to balance often-competing interests such as short-term gains, long-term security, and risk aversion with the best possible understanding of the various options, we need a strong understanding of the various options as we assemble a winning energy portfolio.

In the last decade, there has been renewed interest to source energy domestically to increase national security. There are strong voices for jobs and economic security, especially linked with rural communities and the agricultural sector. Then there are those who advocate for energy choices that will lead to environmental security — local, global or both. We need to understand how the various energy sources measure up against these security endpoints. Then we as a society can argue about our energy portfolio as we seek policies that achieve what some would call energy security — that overlap shared by national security, economic security, and environmental security.

I believe that Dialogue Earth’s approach is a powerful formula, capable of creating islands of shared understanding in a sea of polarization.

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