CLEAN > Teaching Climate and Energy Science > Teaching Energy Science > 5. Energy Decisions

Energy Principle 5. Energy decisions are influenced by economic, political, environmental, and social factors.

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Teaching this principle is supported by seven key concepts:

5.1 Decisions concerning the use of energy resources are made at many levels. Humans make individual, community, national, and international energy decisions. Each of these levels of decision making has some common and some unique aspects. Decisions made beyond the individual level often involve a formally established process of decision-making.

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5.2 Energy infrastructure has inertia. The decisions that governments, corporations, and individuals made in the past have created today's energy infrastructure. The large amount of money, time, and technology invested in these systems makes changing the infrastructure difficult, but not impossible. The decisions of one generation both provide and limit the range of possibilities open to the future generations.

5.3 Energy decisions can be made using a systems-based approach. As individuals and societies make energy decisions, they can consider the costs and benefits of each decision. Some costs and benefits are more obvious than others. Identifying all costs and benefits requires a careful and informed systems-based approach to decision making.

5.4 Energy decisions are influenced by economic factors. Monetary costs of energy affect energy decision making at all levels. Energy exhibits characteristics of both a commodity and a differentiable product. Energy costs are often subject to market fluctuations, and energy choices made by individuals and societies affect these fluctuations. Cost differences also arise as a result of differences between energy sources and as a result of tax-based incentives and rebates.

5.5 Energy decisions are influenced by political factors. Political factors play a role in energy decision making at all levels. These factors include, but are not limited to, governmental structure and power balances, actions taken by politicians, and partisan-based or self-serving actions taken by individuals and groups.

5.6 Energy decisions are influenced by environmental factors. Environmental costs of energy decisions affect energy decision making at all levels. All energy decisions have environmental consequences. These consequences can be positive or negative.

5.7 Energy decisions are influenced by social factors. Questions of ethics, morality, and social norms affect energy decision making at all levels. Social factors often involve economic, political, and environmental factors.

What does this principle mean?

This principle addresses how decisions are made regarding energy use. These decisions are made on many levels such as:
  • personal (what temperature to set the thermostat),
  • regional (availability of different types of energy and blending of energy sources to meet demand)
  • national (renewable energy policy)
  • international (oil import/export policies)

Energy decisions can be based on a wide range of factors. Individuals make energy decisions daily, and these decisions may be driven by need, cost, convenience or social norms. Societies make energy decisions following formalized procedures, but these decisions are influenced by many different, and sometimes competing factors. Economics play an important role in shaping energy policy. Market forces, taxes, regulations and subsidies can affect the prices of different forms of energy. Environmental and societal costs are part of decision-making as well, as each form of energy has different impacts on the environment and society. The political process surrounds all of these factors, which adds influences relating to the balance of power, ideology and governmental structure. In a nutshell, the decisions surrounding energy use and energy policy are part of a complex, multifaceted process.

Why is this principle important?

Our society is facing many energy challenges. Will we have enough energy to fuel our society and our economy? Can we continue to use energy without causing irreparable harm to Earth's climate system? How much effort and resources are we willing to invest into alternative energy sources? Can sufficient energy be distributed fairly, safely and economically to all parts of our global society? The answers to these questions are dependent on the decisions we make about energy.

This principle is of critical importance for students, and in fact, for all people. Energy decisions can have profound impacts on our lives, the economy, national security and the environment. Every day, individuals make decisions about energy in the actions we take, the products we purchase and the policies we support. Because of this, every person plays a role in the complex system of energy decisions and every person has the power to change their decisions on a personal level and to take part in affecting decisions on a societal scale. Because every decision has consequences, this principle encourages students to understand the important role of decision-making about energy.

What makes this principle challenging to teach?

Teachers may be familiar with student utterances of "Why can't we just switch to renewable energy?" or "I think we should do away with nuclear power plants." These statements refer to to the complicated topic of energy decisions. In order for students to engage in an informed discussion they need to be aware of the realities of balancing energy demand, economics, and the inherent advantages and disadvantages of various energy sources. Moreover, younger students may not be familiar with nuances like taxes, subsidies and political processes.

Whereas the previous principles deal primarily with scientific understanding, this principle encompasses human behavior, politics, economics and other issues that can be personal for some students. Policy viewpoints can be challenging to teach due to communications roadblocks such as the worldview backfire effect (learn more in this summary from the CLEAN Climate Communications workshop). It is important for educators to not advocate any particular policies but to focus on building knowledge around the science, engineering, economics and policy of energy decisions. Teaching this principle can help students understand some of the factors that go into shaping energy decisions, and can help them understand how the decisions they make on an individual level may impact others.

Strategies for teaching this principle

Because decision-making reflects the inputs, priorities and needs of diverse groups of people, role playing is a logical pedagogic tactic for teaching these concepts. This interdisciplinary topic spans science and technology, economics, environmental science, political science and social science. Moreover, psychology, communications and ethics also play a role in shaping energy decisions. Thus, this topic can be taught within nearly any discipline. That said, students would benefit from an understanding of the science behind the energy issues before they grapple with the policy aspects. Thus, an activity about energy policy could serve as an effective capstone project for a unit about energy science.

This principle offers important opportunities to discuss solutions to energy challenges. It can be powerful to discuss energy decisions as they relate to teaching about the climate system or general Earth systems. Topics such as the increasing demand for energy, the need for clean and sustainable energy sources, or the ways in which societies use energy are all possible methods to tie in energy decisions to science topics.

As with Energy Principle 4, a quantitative approach allows students to go beyond the basic concepts. A well-rounded learning experience will allow students to back up their ideas with scientific or economic data that demonstrate the feasibility of different decisions or policies.

Case studies are another possible method for teaching this topic. Energy policy is an enormous subject, but small examples or local cases can serve as a concrete means of delving into this arena.

Examples of possible energy policy activities in different disciplines:

  • Political science or Social studies - How is energy used across the world? How does energy use vary in different cultures? How are energy decisions made?
  • Math or economics - Calculate the costs of different types of energy. What factors are included in the price of energy? Are environmental impacts included in the price of energy? How does the price of energy influence the consumption of energy?
  • Psychology - What factors influence how much energy a person uses? What are some ways to motivate change in energy use?

Role playing activities
Car of the Future In this activity, student teams research and develop a proposal to decrease the carbon footprint of their city's/town's public transportation system and then prepare a report that explains why their transportation plan is the best for their community. (middle school and high school)

The Great Energy Debate - Students develop arguments on the pros and cons of different energy sources (middle school and high school).

Evaluating the Effects of Local Energy Resource Development is a semester-long jigsaw project in which students work in teams to explore the effects of energy resource development on local water resources, economics, and society. (college level)

Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Role-Play Exercise - Students take the roles of various important players in the climate change policy debate including politicians, scientists, environmentalists, and industry representatives. (high school and college level)

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