Why is the acceptability of geoengineering technologies important?
For many, climate change is regarded as one of the most pressing issues in modern times. By 2050, the European Union is aiming to have 70% of its energy supplies come from renewable energy sources. Similarly, one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to provide clean, affordable, and sustainable energy for communities worldwide. Investment in new and the development of existing energy technologies that depend on geoengineering is crucial to achieve this. However, such technologies tend to evoke strong public resistance. Understanding under what conditions communities are willing to support different technologies such as geothermal energy, nuclear power, and mining is critical for geoscientists and industries to successfully implement these projects.
So far, not much research has been conducted into the reasons underlying the public’s acceptability of different technologies that rely on geoengineering. To address this, we investigated whether people’s acceptance of these technologies related to their values and self-identities. Values refer to people’s beliefs, goals, and reflect what people find important in life. The values that we investigated in our research were conservatism, openness to change, self-transcendence, and self-enhancement. People with conservative values like preserving the traditions of their culture and maintaining established societal norms. In contrast, people who are open to change seek novelty in their lives and show greater creativity and independent thought. People with self-transcendence values seek to ensure the welfare of all people and the natural world, whereas those with self-enhancement values place a greater emphasis on achieving high social status, dominance, and personal success.
Why are people’s values important?
Values also reflect how people view themselves and the type of person one aspires to be. These are known as ‘self-identities’. Self-identities often have different dimensions (e.g., environmental, economic, political self-identities). These can be described as whether people are concerned with environmental issues, think in the interest of the economy, or adopt a political ideology as a way to describe themselves (e.g., liberal, conservative), respectively. The central idea underlying our research study was that people’s values inform their self-identities (i.e., how people view themselves). In turn, important self-identities predict people’s acceptance of geoengineering technologies that are consistent with people’s values and self-identities. Indeed, other researchers in psychology previously found that people with values who care for nature and the environment also reported having a strong environmental self-identity. Subsequently, those people reported doing more pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling, turning off electrical appliances when not in use, and buying sustainably produced goods (Van der Werff et al., 2013, 2014). See Figure 1.
We asked 505 members of the general public in Ireland about their values, self-identities, and how acceptable they found different technologies in an online survey. We chose to investigate the public’s acceptance of geothermal energy and nuclear power given that these technologies have been considered as options to transfer to renewable energy sources elsewhere. Yet, the risks and harmful impact these technologies potentially have (e.g., pollution, construction costs) have also been noted. Mining provides raw materials necessary for renewable and new resource streams (e.g., in solar panels, wind turbines) such as lithium or other metals. Geotechnical engineering also provides the basis for infrastructural projects such as the foundations for underground power lines and public transport. However, while the economic benefits of these technologies have been noted, they may also encounter public resistance in certain settings due to their potentially harmful environmental impact, among other reasons.
In our results, we found that acceptability of geothermal energy was common among people who were open to change. These people also reported having a strong environmental self-identity. That is, people who are open to change are also likely to consider themselves as having an environmental self-identity, which in turn increases their acceptance of geothermal energy. This means that environmental issues appear to have a strong impact on whether people find geothermal energy acceptable. Regarding nuclear power acceptability, a political self-identity seemed more relevant. Here, we found that people with conservative values or who were open to change were also likely to report having right-leaning or liberal political self-identities, respectively. In turn, those with a more conservative standpoint were more accepting of nuclear power, whereas those with a more open, liberal outlook were not. These results suggest that nuclear power is a highly political and contentious topic, in part due to differences in people’s values and self-identities.
People’s economic self-identities were most relevant to their acceptance of geotechnical engineering. All of the values we measured were related to having an economic self-identity that in turn related to increased acceptance of geotechnical engineering. Economic outcomes may be important for people in general. People’s values likely focus their attention towards information on economic issues consistent with their values, which in turn increases geotechnical engineering’s acceptability.
Finally, several values and self-identities were relevant for people’s acceptance of mining. We found that people who had self-transcendence values or who were open to change also reported having an environmental self-identity. In turn, those people were less likely to endorse mining. Yet, people with conservative values also reported having a right-leaning political self-identity, which predicted greater support for mining. Interestingly, we also noted a relationship among people with self-transcendence values with having an economic self-identity. Those people also reported more mining acceptance. These results indicate that many different issues are at stake when evaluating the acceptability of mining. Mining has often been perceived by different members of the public as having a harmful environmental impact, providing economic benefits, and is also a politicised issue. These differences in people’s acceptance of mining may depend on their values and self-identities.
To summarise, we identified some of the underlying motives for the public’s acceptance of geoengineering technologies, specifically people’s values and self-identities. Critically, we noted that different values and self-identities are relevant for the acceptability of different technologies. That is, acceptability of geoengineering technologies is context-dependent and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. From our research, we hope that geoscientists, industries, and political bodies will appreciate the psychological processes in the public’s approval for sustainable energy projects.
ReferencesMoynihan, A.B., Schuitema, G. (2020) ‘Values Influence Public Acceptability of Geoengineering Technologies Via Self-Identities’, Sustainability, 12(11), 4591, available: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su12114591.
Van der Werff, E., Steg, L., Keizer, K. (2013) 'The Value of Environmental Self-Identity: The Relationship Between Biospheric Values, Environmental Self-Identity and Environmental Preferences, Intentions and Behaviour', Journal of Environmental Psychology, 34, 55-63, available: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.12.006.
Van der Werff, E., Steg, L., Keizer, K. (2014) 'I Am What I Am By Looking Past The Present: The Influence of Biospheric Values and Past Behavior on Environmental Self-identity ', Environment and Behavior, 46, 626-657, available: https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916512475209.
Dr. Andrew B. Moynihan & Dr. Geertje Schuitema
University College Dublin