Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy (Introduction)

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This blog is to introduce a 4-Part Series I am uploading shortly called Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy.

Imagination is sorely lacking in climate and energy policy conversations these days. Despite growing numbers of environmental and clean energy "experts" telling us the way forward to net-zero, many are trapped in narrow perspectives. If there's one common fault, it's not having the capacity (or desire) to expand imaginative horizons.

For those who've read "John's Musings" on the Portolan Global website, you'll know I like to illustrate my views on energy policy with reference to old printed maps and mapmaking.

This 4-part blog series is no exception. In each blog I introduce fresh new thinking by other analysts on current climate and energy policy issues. I use maps to frame the discussion -- especially where I believe imagination is lacking or, in losing its foothold in reality, becomes mere fantasy and speculation.

In old maps we see imagination permeating each page. From today's perspective we also see things that look far-fetched. But look more closely. The mapmaker also offers you a chance to see things anew -- perhaps a navigable route to a much-desired (policy) destination. 

Let's look at an example of what I mean.– Gerhard Mercator’s 1595 map of the Polar region, Septentionalium Terrarum Descriptio(shown above)

Mercator depicted the North Pole as a large rock surrounded by four islands, an image he drew from an anonymous 14th century work, “Inventio Fortunatae”. As Mercator describes it in a letter to the Oxford polymath John Dee:

“In the midst of the four countries is a While-pool…into which there empty these four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes around and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel…It is 4 degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone.”

Interesting description. And completely imagined.

For those weighed down with the fear of risk, venturing anywhere near such “indrawing seas” would be fatal. You would be sucked down into the centre of the earth, as the water pours northwards to the Pole and down into Stygian darkness. The risk is too great for anyone, however intrepid, to go near.

Yet new imaginings, new connections and possibilities can spring from the same Mercator concept. Looking more closely at the map, you’ll see there’s a distinct and apparently navigable sea passage between the huge Arctic/Polar rock islands and what looks like the American and the Scandinavian-Russian continents.

To the fertile minds of Elizabethan geographers and adventurers – like John Dee and Martin Frobisher – this meant that one could sail from England to the riches of Cathay via a Northern Passage. They connected the dots – and produced schemes and plans to reach distant places through routes hardly imagined by anyone, let alone encountered.

That concept – a Northwest Passage to Cathay – took hold in people’s imagination, where it stayed for centuries thereafter, even to this day.

What’s all this got to do with Energy Policy?

Well, we too have a story in the form of a policy narrative. It’s about climate change and how we can reverse its impacts by reducing carbon emissions. Like all good stories, it describes a desired goal, a destination towards which we need to journey – namely, a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

Imagination plays a strong role here. We visualize our society functioning on carbon-free energy. Many emphasize (or assume) our energy sources will be exclusively renewable in nature. The metaphor is green. Everything green must be renewable; everything renewable must be green.

Such narrow assumptions pose a risk to the imagination, however. The risk is that imagination becomes hampered, locked down by excessive zeal. Nothing apart from the single solution can be imagined. Let’s not look for possible wider connections.

If we are to travel successfully to net-zero emissions, energy policy needs feasible and achievable solutions. But more than that. Policy needs imagination. It needs to see connections that may lead us through the transition.

Let’s go back to old maps for a moment, starting with the mapmaker – the person who listens to eye-witness accounts from explorers returning from the outer reaches of the known world. Before committing the tale to a two-dimensional piece of paper, he imagines what the explorer saw.

But not all is purely in the mind. The explorer has taken measurements, logged information about places and conditions, and conjectured what might lie just beyond one’s line of sight. This, too, the mapmaker seeks to capture and convey in the map’s narrative.

We return to energy policy. People want policy to be aspirational. They also want it to be practical, with real outcomes.

The truth is, we have to combine the two. Compelling narratives are needed to inspire the public to imagine a different, brighter future. But equally (or more so), fact-based, engineered solutions are needed to make the desired goal a reality.

When you read the explorers’ and sailors’ accounts of their vain search for an open, navigable Northwest passage, you see the hard reality they encountered and the risks they took. Somehow, they managed to make factual recordings of tides, conditions, sea depth, flora, locating their positions by stars and instruments. In such practical means lay their only hope of reaching the destination.

Many Canadians share the destination of a net-zero carbon emissions future. They can imagine it. They support it. But saying you want a green future is just brandishing a metaphor.

That’s why I believe we need to integrate imagination with practical, engineered, science-based solutions. I would like to see Canada’s energy and climate change policies combine the two and be liberated from exaggerated characterizations of risk.

I believe we can find successful policies by connecting the dots with greater imagination, supported by engineering and realism.

Can I give you examples of what I’m talking about? Yes, I can.

In the 4-part series to follow, we will look at four recent articles that stimulate the imagination. They all have to do with climate policy’s net-zero interaction with energy production. And (spoiler alert) they all have implications for nuclear energy in Canada.