It’s no secret that our dependence on fossil fuels is a major factor in climate change. But less understood is how deeply these fuels — petroleum, natural gas, coal – have defined us and the course of modern history.

“We are a fossil fuel society,” says Professor Imre Szeman. “Every element of our society, culture and politics has been shaped by fossil fuels. And if we’re going to make the transition to renewables that we hope for, it’ll have to be a social, cultural and political transition, too.”

Imre SzemanSzeman is a University Research Chair in environmental communication and a faculty member in the Department of Communication Arts. In 2020 he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, recognizing his international acclaim as a public-facing scholar and a pioneering expert in energy humanities, a field that investigates the relationship between society and energy.

The role of energy in everyday life

“Within a century, we went from being horse-powered to having space travel,” he says, adding an illustrative statistic. In 1850, less than seven per cent of energy used came from fossil fuels (mainly coal). By the 1950s, 91 per cent of energy used was from fossil fuels. “But the idea that energy is fundamental to understanding how society developed during this period has not been foregrounded in most accounts of social history.”

The transition to renewable energy sources — including sun, wind, waves, geothermal — seems formidable, especially in Canada. Our country ranks extremely low, at 54 out of 61 countries, in its use of renewable energies according to the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index. Yet oil-producing countries such as Norway demonstrate the shift to renewables is possible.

"Within a century, we went from being horse-powered to space travel"

Researchers in energy humanities insist that a transition to renewables must take into account the significant role of social and cultural factors.

Changing habits and norms that drive economy and permeate our everyday lives is a hard ask, Szeman fully acknowledges. “If we move away from fossil fuels, we need to evaluate our habits and expectations. We need to reconsider how and when we move around or how we define a working day. If you have renewables, you might not have constant electricity supply — so energy transition might mean a change in the eb and flow of our day.”

Social changes need to happen to support energy transition. But he also considers how energy transition can support social change. “The connection to social movements for equity and inclusivity may not be obvious, but I think big social changes can emerge and be amplified by energy transitions.”

Szeman mentions solar energy, for instance. If there is wide-spread adoption of solar energy, individuals and governments that previously lacked access to electricity, or which had a smaller role geopolitically because they lacked fossil fuels, would be empowered in numerous ways. “I’m fascinated by how this energy shift begins to produce complex socio-political changes, and potentially some very positive ones.”

Collective actions drive social and energy transition

Of course, data on climate change is widely available and citizens and governments generally acknowledge the urgency of our situation. Yet even though we have all the information about how we might stop destroying the planet, human complexity remains a challenging obstacle.

Szeman’s advocacy for communication to affect social transition is essential in multidisciplinary deliberations on climate action. “When I talk to climate and energy colleagues in other disciplines, I am often saying that how you communicate an idea about the environment to publics is extraordinarily complicated, and how you communicate an idea to motivate people is even more complicated — and it’s not the same as business marketing.”

"Social changes can emerge and be amplified by energy transitions"

To tackle that communication problem, Szeman applies his research on several fronts including international policy, youth education, and communication tools.

He is a research fellow with the Canadian International Council (CIC), which allows him to share critical questions and insights about energy transition with policy developers and other governmental stakeholders. As part of that work, Szeman is involved with the development of a socio-energy calculator.

“The most well-known environmental calculator is the global Footprint Calculator that provides a numeric score on individual behaviour. And it’s always depressing — if you make big changes in your personal life, it doesn’t change the result much. For my CIC fellowship I’m working on the idea of a social transition calculator to prompt people to consider the collective actions necessary for social and energy transition.”

Szeman is also a member the International Panel on Behavior Change, which is supported by Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change (IC3). It complements the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he explains: “The IPBC is collecting information on what kinds of climate actions will work — we’re trying to fill in the gaps on how we act. We’re currently writing a public report that looks at COVID-19 as a case study about behaviour change.”

For Szeman, working with students is particularly inspiring. Along with his university teaching, he works on co-curricular projects, such as last year’s International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures involving high school students worldwide. It tapped into their experiences, ideas and hopes about energy and the environment, culminating in a report from the cohort to energy decision makers. “Students are much more attuned to the question of energy transition so it’s important to see how these ideas resonate with younger people.”