Protester at a pro-energy rally in downtown Calgary on Dec. 17, 2018 GAVIN YOUNG / Postmedia

By: Jennifer Allford – Calgary Herald

If only it were as simple as an action movie. You know: heroes and villains, black and white, a tub of popcorn and a righteous ending. But the story of energy in Canada these days is way more complex. You’ve got climate change, the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, resource-based economies and a vast country. You’ve also got misinformation coming from every direction, fear mongering and politicians stirring it up.

Is anyone else tired of all the shouting? There is so much anger and fear in the air I can barely breathe.

I propose you and I do our part to turn down the temperature of the national discourse — one civil conversation at a time. By talking to peeps across the country we may actually reach a common understanding and help solve some of the vexing issues of the day.

Whaddya say? You in?

Lianne Lefsrud is. She’s an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Alberta who studies risk management, challenges in risk analysis and words. That’s right, words (engineers are full of surprises). Lefsrud has analyzed how we talk about energy “in a post-truth, post-reality era,” and how we can “depolarize” the conversation. Regardless of which pole you may cling to — keep it in the ground /human-caused climate change is hooey — having a productive conversation starts by understanding emotion.

Lefsrud and her colleagues studied how oil and gas, pipelines and other resource-based industries and issues are discussed in traditional and social media. They built mathematical models to analyze whether people thought certain words were good or bad and how likely those words were to motivate action. “We looked at how arousing some words are,” she says. “How likely are they to cause people to want to take action either in anger or excitement, and then we looked at the relative frequency of certain words.”

Among other things, they found the word “spill” (as in pipeline) was very negative. “It’s freaking people out, it’s causing people to get really, really angry.” In fact, “spill” is more alarming to people than the words “cancer” or “explosion.” If you find that alarming, may I suggest you calm yourself by counting to 10. Or maybe count a few of the railcars rolling through downtown Calgary and remember that most Canadians are likely unaware that hundreds of railcars of bitumen snake their way along beautiful B.C. rivers every day. Many believe that no new pipeline means no oil and that’s no biggie because we can just transition off fossil fuels in a couple of years.

You can’t be mad at people for not being up on their petroleum engineering or understanding one of the most complex industries on the planet. How many Albertans understood the devastation caused by Spanish trawlers vacuuming the bottom of the ocean off Newfoundland? Maybe you just started ordering salmon instead of cod. How many of you still think Newfoundlanders club cute little baby seals on the ice? It’s a big country and most of us only understand our own tiny sliver.

When we talk about energy, Lefsrud suggests we ask a lot of questions and choose our words carefully. Try to avoid the ones that pack a big emotional punch. “Don’t use highly provocative language that causes someone to get their scruff up,” she says. “If someone says something provocative, try countering, ‘Why do you believe that?’ If you understand their underlying beliefs and values, you can have a conversation that’s deeper than just throwing muck at each other.”

And when talking about climate change, focus more on solutions than blame. “Let’s talk about energy security for Canadians and energy transition and what that looks like,” she says, “and how we think about the energy mix now and going into the future.”

Are we able to talk about energy and transition without wanting to punch each other in the head? “We have to,” says Lefsrud.  While we’re at it, maybe try to have some fun. “Humour causes people to revisit their assumptions and be open to messaging. Telling jokes or just being funny is really valuable and it’s really a way of diffusing a lot of that anger and then opening people up to alternative perspectives.”

There are roughly 37 million Canadians and while I haven’t met all of them, I am pretty sure the vast majority are reasonable people who want a good life for themselves, their kids and grandkids. I am also pretty sure that most of us have never made a great decision or solved a tricky problem when we’re so mad we can’t see straight. We’ve got a big tricky problem. Let’s all calm down and move from the black and white into the grey. That’s where the solutions are. I’ll see you there. I’ll bring the popcorn.