A discourse perspective

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There are two key reasons why a linear, objective view of the policy process fails to adequately explain energy policymaking, even on apparently scientific or technical issues: both facts and values are misconstrued to sustain this view. Scientific knowledge is impressive in many areas, but with policy problems there is very often a significant degree of uncertainty and the evidence almost never provides 'the answer'. For example, ecosystems that may be important to protect are unique, and different systems are extremely variable and complex. This is often obscured by the simplicity with which environmental problems are portrayed and policy solutions prescribed. When scientific analysis has to work at the level of the global climate system, the level of complexity and uncertainty becomes even more significant.

That energy use is causing climate change, and that its consequences could become severe, has been very robustly demonstrated by scientific standards. It is, however, impossible to know precisely what form these consequences might take and exactly when they will occur.

Such predictions rely on climate models that incorporate a wide range of different assumptions concerning ecosystem functioning and different climatic feedback functions, including various 'tipping points' such as the melting of vast areas of permafrost. The models then have to be run based on different possible scenarios based on assumptions relating to economic growth, population increases and technological advances.

Decisions on the appropriate energy policy response to climate change are not, therefore, based on a neat empirical conception of the problem. Instead, policymakers and the wider policy community must weigh up the uncertainties involved and make judgements on what the most appropriate course of action may be. Is it desirable, for example, to err on the side of caution and invest heavily in solutions now, or better to just wait and see, and live with the consequences? What sort of weight should be given to the interests of future generations in making such a decision?

It is here that the second failure of a linear, objective view of the policy process arises. Not only do judgements have to be made in the face of scientific uncertainty, they are also coloured by participants' values and specialist knowledge, which in turn are shaped by argument and debate with colleagues and, more generally, by debates within society. Moreover people's values, or at least the positions they take in these debates, are conditioned by their material commitments to existing energy systems and energy-based practices. To put it more simply, actors' understanding of their own interests never lies far below the surface in practice. Policymaking is therefore by no means the value-neutral, objective activity that a linear view of the policy process would suggest. And nor should it be. Politicians are elected on the basis of the values that they claim to stand for. People therefore reasonably assume that these values will be formative in policymakers' decisions.

All too often, however, the subjective roles of specialist knowledge, ideas, values, beliefs and underlying interests are ignored in policy discussions. As Adams et al. (2003, p. 1915) put it: 'policy debates are often flawed because of the assumption that the actors involved share an understanding of the problem that is being discussed. They tend to ignore the fact that the assumptions, knowledge, and understandings that underlie the definition of [policy] problems are frequently uncertain and contested.' In this way the ideas of certain actors are often dismissed as they fail to fit with dominant ways of expressing knowledge claims within institutional contexts. For example, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, Cumbrian sheep farmers' knowledge about the physical properties of the soil in the Lake District was ignored by government scientists. This led to an ill-informed and ineffective policy response while creating antagonism and fostering distrust of officials and experts (Wynne, 1996).

Recognising the ways in which values, beliefs and ideas are shaped and drawn upon in the construction of policy problems and solutions makes it possible to reach a better understanding of the policy process. It is an arena that involves the interplay of different and often competing 'knowledge claims' of various actors. Sometimes these conflicts are between the different types of knowledge ('knowledges') of lay or local actors and those of experts, but they can equally constitute contests within local or specialist communities.

In 2006, for example, the UK government argued that the nation needs a new generation of nuclear electricity stations to tackle climate change and provide energy security (DTI, 2006c). This assertion reflects the knowledge claims of the nuclear industry as well as some scientists. Nuclear energy's proponents portray it as harnessing science for society's benefit, providing secure, low carbon electricity. Its opponents portray it as socially and environmentally damaging, emphasising the authoritarianism and secretiveness that have attended its use, the risks of radiation releases, sabotage and weapons proliferation, or simply arguing that it is expensive and unnecessary. It is therefore difficult to see the policy decision to build new nuclear power stations in the UK as the result of a simple, rational, linear policy process. A more accurate interpretation would be to see it as a value- or interest-based decision to accept the knowledge claims of certain actors. As demonstrated in Section 3.2 below, a lot can be revealed by focussing on the language that actors use to promote certain discourses that fit well with the way in which energy policy issues have been framed. It is at the level of discourse that the dynamic conflicts and alliances between different knowledge holders are expressed in policy processes (Ockwell and Rydin, 2006).

More relativist perspectives on discourse see 'reality' as completely 'constructed' by people and societies (Hay 2002, p. 199). In this sense there is nothing outside of language, or that cannot be brought back to the use of words. The assumption is that human reliance on language to understand the world is so complete, and also so distorting, that effectively there is no world outside our utterances. From this perspective, discourse is therefore solely responsible for determining political outcomes. A more (critical) realist understanding is advanced here. Three sets of limiting factors or constraints on the free play of discourse and its consequences are outlined below: institutional forms, outcomes or impacts and state imperatives.

The fact that something is discursively constructed through social interaction does not make it any less real. Law courts are very real institutions, for example, but they did not simply fall out of the sky. Taking action on climate change in wealthy nations might involve passing a law forbidding expansion of airport capacity. This would first require a change in political values and beliefs that are currently reflected in the discourse that sees limitless flying as an individual right. Once such a new premise is established, negotiating the law, articulating the law itself and, to some extent, enforcing the law (within the context of court proceedings) would all be achieved through the use of language and the expression of values, interests and beliefs therein.

The environmental and social impacts of energy use can be very real, regardless of how partial or constructed people's understandings might be. Being able to heat homes and cook food adequately can be lifesavers. The human cost and ecosystem impacts of a nuclear accident like Chernobyl cannot be wished away through a postmodern appeal to the way in which society constructs its experience of such impacts. Practices governed by energy policy have direct physical consequences for human beings, animals and nature which can result in their health suffering and, sometimes, their death.

Apart from these institutional and physical limitations on the role of discourse, there is a third, more enduring set of constraints. These consist of a number of imperatives, or functions that governments of most contemporary nation states must fulfil. These can be broken down into five categories (Dryzek et al., 2003, pp. 2, 11). The first three involve maintaining domestic order, surviving internationally as an independent state and raising revenue. The remaining two have emerged with the rise of capitalist democracies: economic growth must be sustained and civil legitimacy maintained, so states are compelled to bear in mind the interests of citizens and investors.

In all policy spheres, including energy, it is always in the interests of state actors to first and foremost ensure that initiatives deliver against these core imperatives. Other concerns, such as environmental issues, constitute secondary considerations and may only become salient when cast in the light of these imperatives. 'Such imperatives will always be in the interests of public officials, and override any competing preferences these actors may have' (Dryzek et al., 2003, p. 13, original emphases). This implies that developments at the discursive level, such as emerging consensus on the need to tackle climate change, are unlikely to be successful in having any substantive influence on policy if they challenge these core imperatives. Conversely, actors who discursively construct or

'frame' their proposed policy solutions in a way that claims to contribute to achieving these core imperatives are more likely to be successful in influencing energy policy.

This insight begins to shed light on why policy proposals such as a switch to large-scale use of renewable technologies tend to be framed around the idea that new technologies will bring with them new opportunities for economic growth. Without this, such technologies could be seen as removing the economic benefits of existing, large-scale, centralised energy-generation technologies, which would challenge the core state imperative of economic growth. A policy discourse framed solely around the environmental and social benefits of renewables would be unlikely to meet with any fundamental success in influencing policy.

This perspective begins by seeing politics as a struggle for 'discursive hegemony' in which actors seek to achieve 'discursive closure' by securing support for their definition of reality. The notion of 'storylines' is useful here. These narratives employ symbolic references that imply a common understanding of an issue (Hajer, 1995; Rydin, 1999). Essentially, the assumption is that actors do not draw on a comprehensive discursive system, instead this is evoked through storylines. By uttering a specific word or phrase, for example, 'global warming', a whole storyline is in effect reinvoked; one that is subtly different, for example, to that of the 'anthropogenic greenhouse effect' or 'climate change'. 'Global warming' implies a storyline where the whole earth will get hotter in the future; 'climate change' suggests something less certain and uniform; 'anthropogenic greenhouse effect' is perhaps the most technically correct term, and it directly attributes the warming effect to human activity.

Storylines are therefore much more than simply 'arguments'. The meanings and connotations of familiar storylines are often recognised at an almost subconscious level. They can thus act to define policy problems while obscuring underpinning interests, values and beliefs. They can add credibility to the claims of certain groups and render those of other groups less credible. They therefore act to create social order within a given domain by serving as devices through which actors are positioned and ideas defined and linked together.

Institutional arrangements are important in structuring discourses, forming routine understandings. Complex research findings or logical arguments are often reduced to an eye-catching visual representation or memorable one-liners. These gloss over real complexities and uncertainties, and entail significant loss of meaning. This allows considerable flexibility in interpretation, which helps recruit people with differing views into a 'discourse coalition'. It also avoids confrontation or even the necessity for direct social contact between coalition members (Hajer, 1995).

In this view, to shape policy, a new discourse must dominate in public and policy discussions, and penetrate the routines of policy practice through institutionalisation within laws, regulations and organisations (Hajer, 1993; Nossiff, 1998; Healey, 1999). In terms of policy change then, promoting a new storyline is a difficult task, involving dismantling those promoted by those actors who were able to achieve prominence for their claims and viewpoint originally (Rydin, 1999) and which may have become embedded in institutions. For example, it took over a decade for the issue of 'acid rain' to impact on UK air pollution policy. A discourse coalition formed around the issue, promoting a storyline highlighting the negative international environmental impacts of emissions from coal-fired power stations, particularly trees dying in Scandinavian countries, and the related need for tighter pollution controls in Europe. In the UK the acid rain discourse coalition first had to confront the institutionally entrenched British discourse on air pollution. This was dominated by local and national concerns with urban air pollution and health effects, which left little room for the consideration of new ideas related to the international environmental impacts of industrial emissions (Hajer, 1995, p. 268).

It is also important to recognise the way in which speakers and writers linguistically construct their arguments and undermine those of others. This linguistic construction can be understood by focussing on four aspects (Dryzek, 1997). Firstly, one needs to question the 'ontology' underlying a discourse, that is, what entities are recognised or posited as 'real'. Thus, for example, when economists speak of 'interventions' in free markets they are implicitly reinforcing the idea that the market in question is in fact 'free'. Similarly in the UK 'fuel poverty' is constructed as a real phenomenon by some while others argue it is simply one aspect of 'poverty'. Secondly, one can examine what kinds of relationships are presented as natural: are members of society inevitably locked into a Darwinian struggle with one another, or are people naturally co-operative beings, for example? Thirdly, it is necessary to question assumptions about 'agency' and 'motivation': for example, are climate scientists or policymakers portrayed as self-serving? Are members of the public 'citizens', or 'consumers' or the 'population' for the purposes of the argument under study? Lastly one can focus on key metaphors that are used to strengthen an argument, and sometimes to undermine those of another. The 'invisible hand' of the market is a powerful metaphor; the 'greenhouse effect' perhaps less so if one has never found out how a greenhouse works.

Before proceeding, it is worth noting the pervasiveness of discourses in all written and spoken material, this book included. The authors are not immune to bringing their value judgements to bear, nor would they want to be. Readers are invited to critically consider the discourses drawn upon, the metaphors used, the storylines evoked and the linguistic tactics deployed, and to draw their own conclusions.

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