Ivan Scrase and David Ockwell

In this chapter the argument is that moving towards low carbon, sustainable energy use will require a critical look at the framing of energy policy. 'Framing' here means the assumptions made, and the ways in which policy debates 'construct', emphasise and link particular issues. For example, energy 'security of supply' is often emphasised in arguments favouring nuclear generated electricity. A more limited framing effect operates on individuals in opinion polls and public referendums: here the way in which questions are posed has a strong influence on responses. The bigger, social framing effect referred to here colours societies' thinking about whole areas of public life, in this case energy use and its environmental impacts.

A key element of the proposed reframing advanced in this book is to cease treating energy as just commercial units of fuel and electricity, and instead to focus on the energy 'services' people need (warmth, mobility and so on - see Chapters 4 and 10). This chapter helps to explain why any such reframing, however logical and appealing, is politically very challenging if it goes against the perceived interests of powerful groups. Therefore it is necessary to consider how these groups' roles and interests are defined and sustained.

At present society tends to view large areas of energy policy as best left to officials and experts, preferably equipped with accurate data and powerful analytical techniques. Climate change and fuel prices, however, are widespread popular concerns, and energy policy need not be an exclusively expert domain. It can appear to be, however, given the way debates are framed and participation is organised through current institutional arrangements. Most people are excluded, or at least their indifference is facilitated. Later chapters deal with institutional specifics, but here the focus is how ideas, value judgements and discourses shape energy policy.

A dominant conception of policymaking as an objective, linear process is one of the key reasons for energy policymaking being sustained as an exclusive activity. In essence the process is portrayed as proceeding in a series of steps from facts to analysis, and then to solutions. In reality, policymaking is usually messy and political, rife with the exercise of interests and power. The veneer of objective, rational policymaking, that the dominant, linear model of policymaking hides behind is therefore cause for concern. It effectively sustains energy policy 'business as usual' and excludes many relevant voices that might be effective in opening up space to reframe energy policy problems and move towards more sustainable solutions.

An alternative to the linear model is provided by a 'discourse' perspective. This draws on political scientists' observations of ways in which politics and policymaking proceed through the use of language, and the expression of values and assumptions therein. Discourse can be understood as: 'a shared way of apprehending the world. Embedded in language it enables subscribers to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts. Each discourse rests on assumptions, judgements and contentions that provide the basic terms for analysis, debates, agreements and disagreements' Dryzek (1997, p. 8).

A discursive approach rejects the widely held assumption that policy language is a neutral medium through which ideas and an objective world are represented and discussed (Darcy, 1999). Discourse analysts examine and explain language use in a way that helps to reveal the underlying interests, value judgements and beliefs that are often disguised by policy actors' factual claims and the arguments that these are used to support. For example, in Section 3.2.2 below, UK energy policy review documents are criticised for presenting information in ways that subtly but consistently favoured new nuclear power.

People (including scientific and policy experts) base their understanding of problems and solutions on their knowledge, experiences, interpretations and value judgements. These are coloured and shaped by social interactions, for example by what is considered an 'appropriate' perspective in one's work life within certain institutions. Policy actors therefore expend considerable effort on influencing the design and evolution of institutions in order to ensure problems and solutions are framed in ways they favour. Thus discourse is fundamental to the way that institutions are created, but in the short-term institutions also have a constraining or structuring effect. At a more fundamental level there are even more rigid constraints, which can be identified as a set of core imperatives, such as sustained economic growth and national security, which states and their governments, with very few exceptions, must fulfil in order to ensure their survival.

There is also, of course, always the possibility for events to constrain the future effectiveness of any group of actors' policy ideas by physically demonstrating their failure in ways that defy discursive rescue. For example, in the near to medium future it is likely that society will begin to bear some unpleasant physical and ecological impacts of climate change if international energy policy fails to reduce carbon emissions. This is likely to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of current energy policy in no uncertain terms. By this point, however, any resulting change in energy policy may well be 'too little, too late'. Yet in the short term, which is the timeframe that matters, being 'right' in one's analysis or 'radical' with regards to the actions needed is of little value if policymakers can afford to ignore the case being made.

This discussion highlights the nature of the challenge faced in effecting a reframing of energy policy in the UK. The ideas that underpin any new framing must also be constructed to address core imperatives if they are to be effective within the evolving context of incumbent institutions, and be able to alter the way that policy discussions frame energy problems.

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