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Understanding Opposition to Offshore Wind: Start by Getting Related

In September, NOAA reported that in 2023 alone, the US had experienced 23 climate disaster events costing more than $1Bn each. According to the Pew Research Center, 74% of Americans support US engagement on climate issues at the international level, with two thirds saying we should prioritize renewable energy development. Nonetheless, support for local offshore wind development lags.

Progress will hinge on relationships built early (earlier than you might imagine, and well in advance of regulatory processes). These relationships will be strengthened over time by parties who see and hear one another and feel seen and heard – in a way that allows people to understand themselves as seated together at a table rather than across a dividing line. These relationships will feature shared respect, accountability, sense of ownership and benefit. They are as critical to capital projects as financial contingencies in an economy of rising inflation and interest rates, and offer buffering value when plans inevitably change, unanticipated events transpire, or false narratives loom large. Constructing these relationships will require savvy, agility, integrity, and dedication - just as the technical aspects of project development does.

Opposition to offshore wind projects often starts with roots like those of many conflicts: fear of change to how things are now, paired with uncertainty and the potential for undesirable outcomes. How things are now includes the world we see and interact with around us, including marine areas, wildlife and fisheries, the look and feel of coastal communities, and their economies. Among other things, feared change features ‘NIMBYism’, the sentiment of ‘not in my backyard’, wherein stakeholders may support something in theory - like offshore wind development – but have a very different feeling when the proposal is not to install wind turbines somewhere in the world, but within sight of home.

At the same time, well-funded opposition groups are at the ready to leverage fear through false narratives, stoking conflict and opposition to sorely needed renewable energy sources.

The conflict escalation graphic above features a third element that is particularly complex and which can’t be overcome outside the context of relationship: a perceived threat to values and identity. Threats to ‘who we are’ have unique potential to escalate and trench conflict. This is because:

1. Changes to values and identity require us to reinterpret ourselves in the world and how it should work. As our basis for understanding what is most fundamental, value and identity threats have super- powers in driving fear.

2. Neuroscience tells us that fear of this sort can crowd out key abilities- including certain types of reasoning and effective communication. This means we may not be able or willing to express clearly what we are afraid of and what we want, and we may not be able to take in information effectively. In other words, the emotional nature of existential threats can override our ability to engage the more creative and intellectual qualities of collaborative problem solving.

3. Threats to our core can seem like ‘all or nothing’ propositions- inherently raising the stakes. History tells us that some of the greatest conflicts we have experienced began with perceived threats to who we are.

So, what does this mean for how we approach earning and sustaining social license?

Firstly, the work of building social license begins years ahead of construction because:

1) Trust-based, collaborative relationships – wherein parties don’t see themselves on opposite sides of a divide – are most easily established in low-pressure environments before high stakes drive people to “all or nothing” positions.

2) Once you’re in the permitting process, the potential for large scale change can feel too imminent and threatening for stakeholders to not automatically move to defensive positions which preclude them from hearing one another or deploying creative, collaborative action. For many, the dynamic of a regulatory permitting process itself highlights power imbalances and mistrust.

3) Building the sort of trust-based, collaborative relationships that are required takes significant time and hinges on a demonstrated pattern of consistency, responsiveness, and respect.

How is as important as when: start by listening to learn and to integrate, and never stop.

Always, but particularly in the beginning, getting related should emphasize learning from stakeholders. We do this by approaching with curiosity: asking questions, listening to learn about who your stakeholders are, what they care about, what makes them tick, and what defines them. In getting to truly know communities and stakeholders, there’s a great deal that will come across that can illuminate sacred, untouchable assets, as well as aspirations or desires that may provide opportunities for connection and collaboration.

Relationship is the state of being meaningfully connected.

In addition to truly getting to know stakeholders, to connect, we must be ‘known’. I’m referring not only to a project or its proponent, with resources and purpose and a track record; I’m talking also about the people that make up that organization, what they care about, what drives them, and humanizes them. Informal, everyday interactions between stakeholders and an organization’s workforce can go a long way in achieving this and can interrupt what may otherwise turn into a dynamic of conflict with a faceless, unfeeling opponent. Being known and connected is also among our most effective tools for disarming false narratives and sustaining clarity when strategies that seek to generate chaos and confusion are deployed.

Create the conditions for collaboration by sharing power.

It is normal to push back against inequity, power imbalances, and situations that deny us the ability to meaningfully shape our own lives. At the same time, the concept of power sharing is intimidating to many. It can feel antithetical to doing business, advancing a project, or getting it right. But this is a critical element of earning and sustaining social license, as well as managing other risks through unique stakeholder knowledge. Ways of sharing power and manifestations of its distribution crosses the spectrum of subtle to overt. Strong, integrous relationships will include a mix of these mechanisms, from attentive listening and meaningful response; to inclusion in thinking through challenges and providing guidance; to studying resources, impacts, making decisions and doing business together; to shared ownership structures.

Recognize the importance of identity and values.

Lastly, proponents cannot ignore the imperative to meaningfully acknowledge and engage on concerns related to values and identity. The nature of seaside communities, their unique sense of place and resource-based livelihoods pursued across generations bring feared impacts to values and identity to the fore in many stakeholders’ reception of offshore wind proposals. The broader energy industry has frequently countered concerns about livelihood impacts with economic contribution reporting featuring tax revenues, promises of vocational training, and new jobs. But for many in areas where offshore wind developments are being contemplated, resource-based livelihoods represent much more than income. They are a way of life and a narrative that offers dignity, pride, and creates a cultural through-line in a rapidly changing world.

I won’t suggest that there is a single answer to concerns to reconciling these worries or potential losses because solutions are discovered and defined through collaboration by the parties involved. I will say, however, that addressing them begins with listening, acknowledging, and with people both being and feeling seen and heard. And this is work that can only begin within a meaningful relationship.

Understory has more than 20 years of experience in designing strategies and building bridges for shared value, social license and sustainable development. Reach out for a conversation about how we can support your success.

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