CLEAN > Teaching Climate and Energy Science > Teaching Energy Science > 7. Energy and Society

Energy Principle 7. The quality of life of individuals and societies is affected by energy choices.

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Teaching this principle is supported by six key concepts:

7.1 Economic security is impacted by energy choices. Individuals and society continually make energy choices that have economic consequences. These consequences come in the form of monetary cost in general and in the form of price fluctuation and instability specifically.

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Energy Principle #7

7.2 National security is impacted by energy choices. The security of a nation is dependent, in part, on the sources of that nation's energy supplies. For example, a nation that has diverse sources of energy that come mostly from within its borders is more secure than a nation largely dependent on foreign energy supplies.

7.3 Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices. Energy choices made by humans have environmental consequences. The quality of life of humans and other organisms on Earth can be significantly affected by these consequences.

7.4 Increasing demand for and limited supplies of fossil fuels affects quality of life. Fossil fuels provide the vast majority of the world's energy. Fossil fuel supplies are limited. If society has not transitioned to sources of energy that are renewable before depleting Earth's fossil fuel supplies, it will find itself in a situation where energy demand far exceeds energy supply. This situation will have many social and economic consequences.

7.5 Access to energy resources affects quality of life. Access to energy resources, or lack thereof, affects human health, access to education, socioeconomic status, gender equality, global partnerships, and the environment.

7.6 Some populations are more vulnerable to impacts of energy choices than others. Energy decisions have economic, social, and environmental consequences. Poor, marginalized, or underdeveloped populations can most benefit from positive consequences and are the most susceptible to negative consequences.

What does this principle mean?

This principle makes direct connections between energy use and quality of life. This goes in both directions, as energy has both positive and negative impacts on societies. Access to abundant, affordable, secure, safe and clean energy is beneficial for humans. But energy extraction, transportation and use can have negative consequences to the health, environment and economics of a society. Moreover, relying on imported energy can create vulnerabilities to a nation's security. The impacts of energy decisions are not equal for all people. Poor or marginalized societies are more likely to suffer negative consequences of energy decisions because they have a reduced capacity for adaptation and they may lack negotiating power compared to wealthy nations. However, vulnerable populations can also benefit greatly from improvements in energy accessibility, safety or affordability.

This principle also addresses the fundamental problem that the world is strongly dependent on energy from finite supplies of fossil fuels. As demand increases and supply becomes scarce, the problem becomes more acute, with potentially severe economic and social consequences. A large-scale transition away from fossil energy poses a great challenge for society.

Why is this principle important?

This principle is important in that it expands student thinking beyond their personal experiences with energy and illustrates ways in which energy can impact the economics, security, environment, and health of societies. Because energy supplies are traded globally and the effects of energy use have worldwide consequences, it is important for students to consider the expansive reach of these issues. Students, particularly younger students, may not have considered how their own experiences with energy are vastly different from students their own age in different countries. Thus, this principle encourages broader, multicultural thinking. A broad-view approach is particularly helpful when considering negotiations and cooperation between nations as we attempt to solve challenges related to energy supply and energy use.

What makes this principle challenging to teach?

These concepts are abstract for many students and will encourage them to think outside of their concrete frame of reference. Students will need to be exposed to ideas, values and scenarios from other cultures in order to appreciate how energy choices differ around the world.

Similar to Energy Principle 6, teaching this principle may result in students confronting the impacts of American energy choices on the rest of the world. This is particularly poignant as developing economies strive to achieve a quality of life that is more similar to ours, which is resulting in sharply increasing consumption of energy in developing nations (International Energy Outlook 2014). Thus it is important for educators to try to broaden students' worldviews while also preventing feelings of guilt or helplessness.

Strategies for teaching this principle

In order to comprehend this principle, it is important for students to gain a sense of how energy use affects quality of life for other societies. Activities to teach this principle can be structured to build on the personal approach used in Energy Principle 6 and extend this to gain perspective for how energy choices influence life both at home and around the world. Compared to many children across the globe, American students enjoy a high standard of living and use more energy per capita than most nations. Many Americans are also removed from the immediate effects of energy extraction, transportation and waste disposal. Case studies, videos and personal accounts from those whose lives are challenged by energy use can be personal ways for students to connect with a perspective from another culture.

Middle school students can examine 'a day in the life' scenarios for children their own age in different cultures. How much energy do children use in Canada, Kenya and Japan? What differences in culture and lifestyle contribute to different energy use patterns? How do climate, transportation, food and standard of living affect energy consumption? And how does the availability of energy affect the quality of life?

High school students are more likely to have traveled to other cultures or met people from around the world, so it will be somewhat easier for them to appreciate how energy might affect quality of life. Exchange students can offer insights to energy use in their home countries. High school students can also take field trips to local energy installations to visit a power plant, hydroelectric dam or a mine. Observing the effects of energy development firsthand can help students appreciate that energy development has direct effects on the landscape.

College students can consider energy in context to geology, geography, population dynamics, economics, societal needs and human health. The topic of energy and quality of life can be explored in many types of courses. College students can work with data sets about energy resources, use, and prices around the globe. A case study approach will allow students to consider many facets of energy in a particular culture.

Example activities for a range of grade levels

The following activities introduce students to energy use and the impacts of energy use in different parts of the world.

Samoa Under Threat examines the effects of global warming on the Pacific island of Samoa with testimonials from an expert in both western science knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge. (middle school through college)

Energy and the Poor - Black Carbon in Developing Nations allows students to explore impacts using of wood, dung, and charcoal for fuel, all which generate black carbon, in developing countries. (high school through college levels)

Concepts within this principle overlap with carbon emissions negotiations and impacts of climate change. Classroom activities used to demonstrate stakeholders' concerns during international negotiations can illustrate the ties between energy use and quality of life. For example, what nations are poised to suffer acute consequences of climate change? If nations were required to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels, what impacts would that have on their way of life? These are complex economic, social and political issues, but students can learn about them via role playing and simulations with a multinational focus.

Ecological Footprint – This activity extends the usual approach of calculating one's ecological footprint by comparing students' ecological footprints to individuals in other parts of the world and to a family member when they were the student's age. (middle school and high school)

Who Will Take the Heat? This activity engages students in a role play to negotiate an agreement between the United States and China about climate change policies. Students use given background material or can do their own additional research to present their assigned stakeholder's position in a simulated negotiation. (high school)

Stabilization Wedges Game This is a team-based activity that teaches students about the scale of the greenhouse gas problem and the technologies that already exist which can dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Students select carbon-cutting strategies to construct a carbon mitigation profile, filling in the wedges of a climate stabilization triangle. (designed for high school, but adaptable to other grade levels)

World Climate: A Computer-Simulation-Based Role-Playing Exercise This simulation provides scenarios for exploring the principles of climate dynamics from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Inter-connections among climate issues, public stakeholders and the governance spheres are investigated through creative simulations designed to support learners' understanding of international climate change negotiations. (high school and college level)

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International Energy Outlook 2014, from the US Energy Information Administration.