‘Tell me what you think about the geological storage of carbon dioxide’: towards a fuller understanding of public perceptions of CCS

Leslie Mabon, Samuela Vercelli, Simon Shackley, Jonathan Anderlucci, Carmela Franzese, Nadia Battisti, Kelvin Boot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract / Description of output

This paper argues that a focus on values, trust and context is vital to build a fuller understanding of public perceptions of carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS). Empirical data from interviews conducted in the UK and Italy as part of the EU FP7-funded ECO2 project is presented to illustrate how publics and stakeholders often evaluate CCS in terms of its relation to their broader world views, rather than purely in terms of the perceived techno-scientific risks of the technology. The use and value of qualitative research techniques such as free-association interviews and ethnographic approaches in giving a deeper understanding of the issues affecting publics’ perceptions of CCS is explored.

We firstly argue for a deeper consideration of the role that values play in shaping public perceptions. Building on Mary Douglas’ suggestion that people often discuss notions of ‘the good life’ rather than the minutiae of a risk assessment, we suggest that many public and stakeholder evaluations of CCS technology relate to how CCS sits with the interviewees’ values and world views more broadly. That is, when participants think about CCS, they often do so via recourse to their ideas about how humans ought to treat the natural environment or whether it is fair for certain groups in society to bear the brunt of any potential negative effects of CCS or the transition to low-carbon energy.

Our paper then moves on to look at issues of trust. What we believe is of particular interest here are the assumptions that publics have to buy into in order to accept CCS as a viable low-carbon energy solution. That is, in order to ‘believe’ in CCS, publics have to be part of some rather large shared understandings about climate change and the efficacy/safety of CCS, things that they cannot test empirically themselves. Trust is thus key in public acceptance of CCS, in particular publics’ trust in the experts who convey the message about CCS to them and sometimes make decisions on their behalf. This point is illustrated with reference to the individuals, organizations and institutions that interviewees refer to when making judgments and evaluations about CCS.

Finally, context is explored. We suggest that publics rarely evaluate CCS in isolation, rather they consider the concept in relation to their own life experiences, histories and values. In particular, the conceptual frameworks within which people make sense of CCS can give much analytical purchase on the grounds for public perception of CCS. That is, is CCS better made sense of in relation to climate change, energy production, pollution reduction or any number of other factors? In other words, what framings do people use to decide that CCS is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing? Empirical extracts are used to show how hard it is to separate public perception of CCS from the contexts within which it is understood.

We also reflect on the value of qualitative research techniques in building a fuller understanding of publics’ perceptions of CCS. We discuss the importance of developing a research methodology that allows the participant – as far as possible – to speak about CCS on their own terms, and that does not impose the researcher’s own pre-conceived ideas on the interview. We suggest that ethnographic and psychosocial research techniques have a great deal of potential in getting under how publics and stakeholders integrate deliberations over CCS into their daily lives.

Underpinning this line of enquiry is the observation that a large number of toolkits, guidelines and ‘best practices’ have recently been drawn up to assist developers in devising public engagement strategies for CCS. Whilst toolkits are undoubtedly useful if deployed appropriately, they pertain to a practical level of steps to be undertaken once decisions have been made. For CCS, we are still a long way from being at this stage in our society. Publics are often not even aware of the option of CCS, and when they are it is far from clear whether or not CCS needs to be adopted and at the pace advised from some stakeholders. At the governmental level, in most cases CCS is not yet integrated in energy planning, and at the project scale, a number of projects have met public consensus difficulties. Toolkits or guidelines might solve the problem of gaining consensus at the level of single projects, but how likely is this to happen and how can consensus be reached if our society has no definite position on environmental issues and related solutions such as CCS? We thus suggest that stepping back and providing people with the opportunity to interact on the very basis of reasoning of CCS can be more useful and helpful in developing the social process that enables society to make decisions.

In turn, we propose that the research and policy nexus on public acceptability of CCS needs to be reformulated around something like Frank Fischer’s four-level discourse model. Fischer proposes that the ‘first order’ deliberation entails ‘warrant’ and ‘situational validation’. ‘Warrant’ is the familiar territory of health, safety and environmental assessments (e.g. meeting thresholds of acceptable risk, etc.), while ‘situational validation’ is closely akin to ‘geological and social site characterisation’. The ‘second order’ involves deliberation over ‘systems vindication’ – how does the proposal or technology fit within the wider context of, say, carbon emissions reduction, renewable energy options, energy policy, etc.; it also involves deliberating over ‘ideological choice’. This is more akin to Douglas’s point about competing notions of ‘the good life’. Toolkits tend to focus upon first order discourse, but it is evident that the second order discourse is erupting in numerous stakeholder and public discourses around CCS. Hence, there needs to be a redress in the focus of our efforts towards facilitating ideological and system vindication – only in this way can a broader consensus emerge that CCS might have a key role to play in tackling the climate change conundrum.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7444-7453
Number of pages10
JournalEnergy Procedia
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • carbon dioxide capture and storage
  • deliberation and engagement
  • environmental values
  • qualitative research
  • public perceptions


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