The current patchwork of policy frameworks for energy fall far short of what is needed to transition to a low carbon economy. Such a transition can only be achieved through effective energy governance, globally and nationally. This project (which is still at the preliminary stage) aims to lay bare the architecture of global energy governance, its nature and outcomes. It will provide an empirically grounded understanding of the key obstacles to more effective energy governance and identify, both globally and within Australia , how energy governance can best facilitate the transition to a low carbon economy.
This is a multi-dimensional project. In 2017 PI Gunningham’s focus was on private energy governance and the role of environmental NGOs in ‘building energy norms from the grassroots up’. A case study of the fossil fuel divestment movement examines its evolution, aims, and strategies as well as why it is both distinctive and important. The fossil fuel divestment movement is at the forefront of civil society initiatives to raise public consciousness about the need for a “fossil free” future. Through the lens of the social movement literature, this research shows how the movement has harnessed grassroots activists, engaged in innovative and sometimes disruptive forms of protest and used cognitive framing and symbolic politics to gain media interest and persuade the public of the importance and legitimacy of its claims, and to promote a new social norm. The relative instrumental, structural, and discursive power of the movement and its adversaries is also examined, showing how, notwithstanding the fossil fuel industry’s deeply embedded structural and instrumental power, the movement has managed to shift the contest onto a terrain where it holds a comparative advantage. Finally, the movement’s role in non-state climate governance is considered, taking account of its interactions with and impact on a range of other climate actors, and concluding that climate governance is not only an instrumental or pragmatic process of mandating changes in behavior, but an expressive and symbolic one of nurturing a new norm and institutionalizing a new set of moral principles.
Complementary work by Research Associate Julie Ayling shows how the divestment movement has sought to influence attitudes to fossil fuels by framing producer companies as pariahs and as unnecessary and redundant. In response, the fossil fuel industry has engaged in a direct and aggressive attack on the divestment movement. This research considers the relationship between the movement and the industry as a contest for legitimacy for both the organizations and the norms they advocate. Through a case study of the coal discourse in Australia from 2013 to 2016, it explores how each party has attempted to undermine the other’s legitimacy and to build or defend its own. It concludes that the contest for legitimacy is complex, being conducted at multiple levels (pragmatic, moral, legal, and cognitive) and before multiple audiences. For the movement to “win” the contest, it will require more than a simple rebalancing of the legitimacy scales.