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Energy that’s as clean as water: tracking mediatized discourse on hydroelectric dam building and climate change in Chile


Mocatta, G, Energy that's as clean as water: tracking mediatized discourse on hydroelectric dam building and climate change in Chile, The 2019 Conference on Communication and Environment in Vancouver, 17-21 June, Vancouver, Canada, pp. 24. (2019) [Conference Extract]

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Hydroelectric dam building is experiencing a boom (Ansar et al. 2015, Zarfl et al. 2014), particularly in the Global South where energy from hydroelectric megaprojects is characterised as being ‘needed for development’. However, research on large-scale hydroelectric dams has shown that hydroelectric megaprojects are not sustainable, causing unacceptable environmental and social damage (Moran et al. 2018). Almost always more expensive than initially projected, they also pose unacceptable economic burdens (Ansar el al. 2015). Though hydropower has long been promoted by energy policy-makers and dam developers as ‘clean’, and even in some of the literature as "low carbon" (Lutsey & Sperling 2008), large hydroelectric dams have been shown to be far from carbon neutral (Wherli 2011) and, particularly in tropical regions, can be important emitters of greenhouse gases (Fearnside 1997, 2004, 2015, Maeck et al. 2013). However, in parts of the world where hydroelectricity is still being developed, it is still often promoted as a ‘climate friendly’ energy alternative.

This paper is concerned with how hydroelectricity can be constructed in public discourse as a carbon neutral energy form, and how such discourse may displace other arguments on the unsustainability of large dams. This paper focuses on the case of a planned, now cancelled, hydroelectric megaproject in Chile, HidroAysén, which was promoted by the project developers as a carbon neutral countermeasure in the face of climate change. For much of the course of the public debate over this highly contested megaproject, media and policymakers seemed to concur with this position. The paper traces the linkage of discourse on the HidroAysén megaproject and climate change in key Chilean print and online media across the whole trajectory of the megaproject: an 11 year period from 2006-2017. Also using strategic communications material from the dam developers and the anti-dams protest movement, this paper demonstrates how, for a time, hydroelectric dam building and climate change were discursively aligned as "competing risks" (McGaurr & Lester 2009), and the resulting false dichotomy was used as justification for building the dams.

In alignment with the conference theme, this study also offers hope, in the face of the profound damage to ecosystems that hydroelectric megaprojects incur. In this case study, over time, the arguments of anti-dams protest were able to make "strategic interventions" (Lester 2010) in public discourse, so that discussion on the increasing viability of smaller scale renewable energy sources (solar, wind, small-scale hydro) displaced the false dichotomy of mega-hydro-or-climate-change that was initially constructed around the project. Chile is now described as being in a "remarkable renewable energy transition" (Nasirov et al. 2017), and this paper argues that the public debate around HidroAysén was one important reason for this change.

This detailed examination of competing discourses on energy sources and climate change in the context of Chile’s largest ever planned energy infrastructure project holds lessons for our understanding of mediatised representations of ‘clean’ energy from water. Such insights are particularly important in a Latin American context, where many large hydroelectric dams are planned, or are currently being built.

Item Details

Item Type:Conference Extract
Keywords:climate change, discourse, mediatization, hydroelectric dams
Research Division:Language, Communication and Culture
Research Group:Communication and media studies
Research Field:Communication studies
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in human society
UTAS Author:Mocatta, G (Ms Gabi Mocatta)
ID Code:134414
Year Published:2019
Deposited By:Media
Deposited On:2019-08-12
Last Modified:2019-08-15

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