WISER Symposia Series Reflections: Conversations on Intersectionality and Energy Entanglements

This is the second guest post by Eden Luymes on the Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) three-part symposia series. Here she discusses the importance of including intersectional voices in debates around energy transitions.

Many policy makers and leaders in clean energy industries endeavor to innovate and spend our way out of climate change. Elites from both the public and private sector stress the exponential power of human ingenuity and the capitalist ethos of competition breeding innovation. Governments throw subsidies and research and development grants at carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas, to fund electrification and carbon capture technology, while clean energy companies vie for government grants and private funding to get off the ground.

However, as clean energy transitions increase around the world, the focus needs to shift to the social dynamics of energy use, not just the technical aspects. As stated by Larissa Crawford (Future Ancestors Services):

“everyone is talking about ‘just transition’, and yet very rarely do we see those conversations go beyond tech . . . very rarely do we see a conversation acknowledging why we need to have a ‘just transition’.”

Grassroots community movements centered on environmental and climate justice need to inform how energy transitions are facilitated. In expanding the social framing of our energy issues, we also expand our solutions – not only to climate change, but to the interwoven harms of colonialism, extractivism, and global inequality.

These essential conversations about just transition and embedded injustices took place during a three-part symposia series hosted by Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER), Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI), and Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) Canada.

Following their first symposium entitled ‘Transitioning Energy Systems: Who Leads? Who Benefits?’, I authored a piece reflecting on the emancipatory potential of decentralizing energy solutions. WISER has since hosted two other symposia in their series – discussing urban energy transitions, energy modelling, energy poverty, and more. Panels were interdisciplinary – representing engineering, human geography, NGOs, and national research institutes. This symposia series created space of diverse voices to discuss the intersectional nature of energy transitions and find ways to equitably comb through our energy entanglements. These conversations underscored the importance of shifting from a technical framing of energy transition to a more holistic, social framing.

Expanding our Carbon Tunnel Vision

From a technical perspective, transitioning away from fossil fuels is relatively simple – the technology exists, and we just need to make it competitive enough, profitable enough, and deployable at scale. Seen from this perspective, addressing climate change can become a game of nudging the market or pulling the perfect policy levers to incentivize the right production and the right consumption. However this framing is what Emily Ghosh (Stockholm Environment Institute) introduced as “carbon tunnel vision” – the narrow perspective that sees addressing carbon emissions at any cost as the primary goal of energy transitions, rather than taking the more holistic approach of incorporating the social and environmental dynamics of energy transitions.

Panelists including Laura Tozer (University of Toronto) and Madeline McPherson (University of Victoria) identified this as a technological pitfall that many engineers, scientists, and policy makers fall into.  As Tozer notes, fossil fuels and society have “co-evolved for so long, fossil fuels are really tangled up in society’s institutions – socially, economically, and politically.” It’s not “a technical swap – there’s a deep entanglement.” Teasing out these social entanglements is the real challenge of addressing climate change – especially if we hope to do so in a just and equitable manner.

McPherson calls for a movement to expand the “epistemological framing” of energy modeling to build a more holistic approach “informed by a range of voices and a range of disciplines.” This expansion of the epistemological framing of the energy transition is exactly what WISER and other intersectional energy spaces are trying to do – but how do we expand this conversation? 

Space for Intersectional Voices

To move beyond exclusive technological framing of energy transitions, what perspectives must we include – and how does this expand our epistemological framing as McPherson suggests? There are many groups whose voices are central in a just energy transition, which Jenny Lieu (Delft University of Technology) has called “silent stakeholders” – although often these stakeholders are not silent, but rather ignored or silenced.

In so-called Canada, as Emily Eaton (University of Regina) stated, we need “to put Indigenous rights and sovereignty at the centre of the conversation around just transition . . . Justice won’t materialize out of thin air when we swap fossil fuels for our green energy infrastructure.” The transition must be inherently decolonial – without the meaningful return of sovereignty and land, “any energy transition is a process of greening theft.”

In fact, as Larissa Crawford discussed in a panel on Inclusion and Energy Transitions, by ignoring the past and ongoing harms of colonialism and extractivism, “we’re denying sites of opportunity and action that will address the root causes for why we need to be responding to the symptoms of harm” in the first place: denying the opportunities to not only address climate change, but the harms of colonialism and capitalism and well. Acknowledging harms – both historic and ongoing – is essential in our energy transition because it underscores why we need to chart a new energy pathway. Without the acknowledgement of past harm, even supposedly ‘clean’ energy transitions will repackage the same inequalities and extractive relationships as fossil fuels. “We can’t just assume that a transition equals to a just system if we don’t tackle the injustices” themselves, Lieu reminded us, particularly when the energy transition is lead by wealthy corporations, colonial governments, and predominantly white men.

Another social aspect Lina Brand Correa (York University) spoke to is the class and gendered impacts of energy poverty. For example, many household tasks traditionally done by women in a patriarchal society became more efficient with access to modern      appliances. Yet, poorer communities often cannot afford such appliances and the associated additional energy costs. In such cases, energy poverty creates a greater class discrepancy through the channel of women’s household labour – already deeply undervalued in our society. Yasmin Abraham (Empower Me/Kambo Energy Group) also notes the intersectionality of folks experiencing energy poverty in Canada. Newcomers, immigrants, single mothers and seniors face “layers of barriers . . . to take advantage of programming” – barriers such as “language, trust, access, time, or money, of course.” The gendered, racial, and class impacts of energy policies are crucial to include in both our definitions of the problems with our energy systems, and in our co-created solutions.

The voices brought together through WISER’s 2022 symposia series were a privilege to listen to and learn from. Creating space for women and gender diverse people to have intersectional conversations on energy planning and solutions helps tease out these energy entanglements.

Our solutions to climate change cannot be merely technical. Energy planning and solutions need to begin with an acknowledgement of the harms of colonialism and capitalism, and be reflexive to and grounded in the needs of people, communities, and societies. Rather than allowing these “entanglements” to complicate the challenge of switching to cleaner energy, this symposia series served as a reminder that addressing climate change is an opportunity to address the inequalities within our energy systems.      Expanding framing of energy transitions to include social and ecological dynamics also expands our solutions, addressing aspects of racial, gender and class inequalities within our local and global communities.

Bio: Eden Luymes is a political science graduate student at the University of British Columbia and is passionate about environmental policy and climate justice. She holds undergraduate degrees from the University of British Columbia, with an Honours in Political Science with International Relations, and from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (SciencesPo). Her research focuses on climate justice and the influences of neoliberalism and neocolonialism in global climate governance. Eden sees addressing climate change as an unprecedented opportunity to heal our relationships with the Earth and with each other. She loves hiking on glaciers, bike camping, and scanning the Salish Sea for orcas in her free time.

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