Politics and energy: the tripartite relationship among the technical, political and public realms in the age of inertia

Why politics matters

The often-cited energy ‘trilemma’, with economic, reliability and environmental requirements competing for attention, is actually a ‘tetralemma’, as political and social factors are also crucial (and indeed ultimately may well be the most powerful). The radically different responses to Fukushima in neighbouring countries shows politics to be a quasi-independent variable, though clearly to an extent affected by the other goals.

If something is not socially and politically sustainable then it is not sustainable, however attractive it might seem from an economic or environmental standpoint. The stance of the political establishment, locally, nationally and internationally, towards a major technical/scientific issue such as production of energy is enormously important. Nevertheless, the relationship between the public and political spheres in many countries has become rather fractious in recent years, while at least in most democracies political leaders are heavily and maybe even increasingly influenced by their perceptions of shortterm public attitudes rather by than long-term scientific predictions.

The social/political dimension is more difficult to characterise than the horns of the traditional trilemma. It involves such disparate matters as public acceptability, the desire to help people who cannot afford their energy bills, sensitivity to local communities which have a relationship with a particular energy source and, of course, calculations of the electoral consequences of various policies in countries where this matters. It seems to have received rather less attention from the research community, though there is a growing literature devoted to decision-making and power structures in modern liberal economies.1 However, its importance should not be underestimated. Radical changes in policy or regulatory requirements, or a perception that such changes may materialise at some point, can be extremely beneficial for or extremely damaging to the prospects of investment in any capital-intensive industry such as energy. In the worst case such fears may in effect act to prevent investment entirely. A lukewarm, or worse, political attitude towards the construction or operation of nuclear facilities or large hydropower dams, say, could increase the costs of electricity generation in a number of ways. There may be delays during construction or in achieving an initial operating licence, or interruptions in operation. Extra physical or operational security measures might be demanded, perhaps in response to a potential terrorist situation even if there is no direct evidence of a threat. Implementing such measures may be especially costly if they involve ‘back- fitting’ an existing design. The costs of site selection, evaluation and the licensing process itself can increase while those of transporting materials can escalate because of increased requirements for security against protest or the need to find new routes. The economic risk associated with uncertainty results in demands for higher rates of return on investment, an especially serious issue for technologies such as renewables or nuclear power which are highly capital-intensive even by energy standards.

There are many examples of energy policy being skewed to support a particularly powerful political lobby at the expense of supply security, low prices or the environment - the German Energiewende is only the latest example of such distortions (or perhaps contortions). And however much a government which has liberalised its power supply systems might argue publicly or dream privately that energy decisions are a matter for businesses, severe power outages or price rises will ultimately surely be blamed on the governing regime.

Although this book is examining some of the reasons why it is so difficult to take any kind of decision in the field of energy, energy is not unique in this respect, as the UK government’s contortions over airport capacity in the south east of England over many years bears witness. No matter how urgent the need might become, doing anything about it seems to take forever, at least when one compares the rapidity of technological development during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the late nineteenth century or the great wars of the twentieth century.

This chapter suggests that three phases can be identified in the tripartite relationship (or the three separate relationships) among the scientific/technical, political and public spheres over the course of the last century or so and to examine the implications for future decision-making.

In phase 1, the relationships are relatively deferential if not always harmonious. In effect, politics (as the arena for decision-making), science/technology (as a source not only of technical input but also of legitimacy for those decisions) and the public (prepared to defer to both and to surrender some of their individual ‘rights’ as long as overall ‘progress’ is maintained) are able to work in considerable harmony. Decisions can be taken, often quickly and without a great deal of scrutiny, with the result that things get done but sometimes badly. The predominating societal ethic is a utilitarian one: often there is a general feeling that there are real problems in society which need a solution, possibly a radical one. Science can even take on something of a religious aura, as discussed in chapter 11.

In phase 2, relationships become fraught as the three realms began to mistrust each other. There is a breakdown in the belief in ‘progress’ and the wide consensus that science and technology in society are ‘good things’. Other social changes threaten the hegemony of the political/scientific establishment. People become more individualistic, traditional religion and its scientific successor is replaced by cults or alternative religions such as environmentalism, formal dress is replaced by informality especially among younger generations, popular music becomes more experimental, drug-taking becomes more common and young people are encouraged to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ by academic gurus such as Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg.2 It is of course wrong to claim that all members of the population, or even more than a minority, ever directly take up such activities but a general decline in the awe with which royalty, politicians, clergymen and ‘experts’ are held becomes clear. The ‘satire boom’ of the early 1960s onwards, as epitomised in the UK by the TV show That Was The Week That Was, saw major political and business figures of the day lampooned in a way that would not have been thinkable a few years earlier. The rights of individuals became more important than had been the case when society was under more intense pressure, either from without (in wartime) or from within (in times of economic austerity or social unrest).

Phase 2 attitudes often emerge when society is going through a period of relative affluence, and facing few major threats. The relatively clear distinction between decisions that are the responsibility of government and decisions which are the domain of other agencies such as industry becomes blurred as many functions which had previously been regarded as social obligations are transferred into private hands, hands which are often mistrusted by a significant proportion of the population. The outcome is that decisions become much more thoroughly scrutinised - legislation is passed to require detailed consultation and impose heavier regulation, for example - leading to a state of affairs where decisions that do get taken may be better thought-out, but very few decisions actually get that far, no matter how urgent the need. The authority which had resided with scientists and politicians is gradually bestowed upon Big Green and others whose raison d’etre to a considerable extent is to stop things happening, driven by an ideology which is suspicious of material ‘progress’.

In phase 3 - and this is highly speculative at this point in time - people gradually begin to realise that their new high priests, the enviro-fundamentalists, are no more worthy of unquestioning faith than the church, Parliament, the boardroom or the laboratory had been before them. Gradually it becomes clear that big decisions are needed from time to time. Inevitably these decisions will be detrimental to some sections of society but this alone can no longer be regarded as sufficient excuse for failing to act. Of course, it may be that it is simple wishful thinking to believe that such a phase is emerging or could ever do so, every bit as fanciful as an all-renewable world or major reductions in energy demand.

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