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date: 28 April 2017

Media Coverage, Public Opinion, and Communication about Hydropower, Tidal Power, and Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Is hydropower “green”? Is it “sustainable”? Is it “renewable”? Does hydropower provide a necessary alternative to fossil fuel dependence? Can its ecological consequences be mitigated? Is this the end of the era of hydropower or simply the beginning of a new chapter? These are the questions about hydropower that circulate through public discourse in an era of climate change, lending a sense of urgency to the many decisions to be made about the future of hydropower dams.

The United States and the European Union saw an enduring trend of dam building, from the Industrial Revolution through the mid-1970s. Contemporary media discussion in these countries about hydropower focus largely on the removal of existing hydropower dams and the retrofitting of existing dams that offer hydropower potential. Outside of this context, increasing numbers of countries debate the merits of building new large-scale hydropower dams that, in many developing countries, have disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities who hold little political or economic power. As a result, news and social media attention to hydropower, outside the United States and the European Union, has been trained largely on activist efforts to oppose hydropower and the complex consequences for ecosystems and communities.

Despite the wide range of ecological, economic, and social tradeoffs, and the increasing urgency of conversations about hydropower globally, relatively little work in communication studies explores news media, social media, or public debate about hydropower and dam removal. Existing studies, largely from the United States, Chile, Sweden, and France have applied a range of methods to analyze media coverage and debate over hydropower. More recent research has explored in depth the nature of hydropower and the dam removal debate across New England states, employing media discourse analysis, interviews, participant observation, design charrettes, and role play simulations.