Transitioning to a low carbon economy requires making important decisions about how we get energy. There are various technologies available that can be used to harness energy, each with their advantages and disadvantages; or comparative risks.

A number of energy technologies are currently contested in Scotland and in other countries. Arguments about such technologies are commonly characterised by differences in people’s perceptions of the risks associated with the technology. Conflicting information presented by various experts with differing perceptions of an issue can give the impression that little is known about the problem, even when this is not the case. Furthermore, different perceptions between experts and the wider public are often attributed to ‘information deficit’- a lack of knowledge, familiarity, and understanding of the risks associated with technologies. However, the factors influencing public concerns (such as issues of trust, empowerment and effective engagement) are often overlooked when making decisions about technologies and how they are developed. To add to the complexity, it is also not currently clear how perceived risk affects opinions on complex and contested issues.

ClimateXChange researchers at the Universities of Strathclyde and Aberdeen are exploring how risk perception varies with familiarity and expertise, and whether these factors influence opinion on the topic, using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas in the UK as a case study.

CXC’s research seeks to explore how different groups of ‘experts’ (i.e. people with specialist knowledge about shale gas) answer questions about the potential environmental risks associated with shale gas extraction. This research uses the same questions as the University of Nottingham’s ongoing biannual survey of public attitudes towards fracking, but includes follow-on questions to investigate the rationale behind participant’s answers. This allows us to explore the participants understanding of risk and the language used to communicate risk. The research will also shed light on how opinions are affected by perceived risk.

This represents one of the first studies into how different types of expertise affects perception of risk. The work is important for policy making on complex and contested topics, where expert witnesses (typically with technical expertise) play an important role in informing decision making. The work will also inform the current debate about energy choices and developments as we move towards a low carbon energy future. 

A report of the results will be published by Autumn 2015.

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