Interview with Dr. Jan Osička, Department of International Relations and European Studies
By Inga Kakulia
Jan Osička is an associate professor and one of the leading lecturers in the Energy Policy Studies program at Masaryk University and has been in the field for over 12 years. For Dr. Osička energy policy is where all major political science concepts and international relation issues manifest clearly. But the field’s most special quality is that it is one of the few branches of political science and IR that we have our daily, “hands-on” experiences with.
“I remember that when I was doing our first project on gas security supply after the gas crisis of 2009, I was boiling water for some tea and using the gas stove and I knew quite exactly where the gas was coming from, as well as the whole route it had to go through. In energy politics, you have this combination of a grand picture of how the world works and at the same time, you have a personal experience with it.“
It is also a field that moves incredibly fast. Osička recalls an incident from a conference that took place in July when a presenter was apologizing to the audience for presenting with data acquired in January of the same year.
It seems like Masaryk University has managed to attract just the right people for that through the Energy Policy Program; students who have a clear vision for what they want to study and how they are going to go about it.
“Energy politics is not something most universities offer as a major and people are generally not aware you can study such a thing, so people who arrive here usually have some preexisting interest in the field and then they look for opportunities on how to materialize it in their education.“
Since the program is so specific, it gives its students a competitive edge. They can join international negotiations or strategic departments of companies, do energy consultancy, or join environmental organizations. That’s because they bring with them something that the job market really wants.
“Our graduates arrive more or less ready for these institutions, they are able to navigate these processes and the companies don’t have to spend a year having their new employees learn about energy systems, their interactions with the environment, or institutions and decision-making processes that govern them.“
And this trend of gathering a group of impressive and determined individuals seems to be continuing this year as well.
“We just finished the application procedure for the next semester and there are so many interesting people with such interesting backgrounds. I’m glad to see that we attract people who have this spirit, who want to make a difference.“
With a group of determined, strong-minded people who are passionate about what they study, disagreements are a part of a daily teaching routine. Turns out even in the field of energy policy, the questions of responsibility, justice, and resource distribution are at the core of a lot of disagreements during classes.
While climate change is obviously a part of the majority of discussions around energy politics, it is specifically the question of responsibility that most students find especially interesting. Students talk about the distribution of the cost of mitigation and who should cut their economic growth for the sake of the greater good.
The questions and concerns about what will follow after the transition to more sustainable energy policy are completed, are also critically important. According to Osička , such major transitions don’t happen without aftershocks and there has to be a plan for those who are going to feel them the most.
“There will be a huge shift in resources all over the world in terms of money. So today’s developers and builders of technology will be out of jobs. Many of today's car manufacturers and energy corporations may go bust, countries dependent on oil exports may collapse. We’d better start getting ready for that.”
With so many pressing issues at hand, it’s not surprising that the outlook for the future in the general public but also in classes at the Energy policy program sometimes turn a little grim. But according to Osička, it is not only about the challenges ahead.
“Our current generation of students started to be interested in what is going on around in the world sometimes after 2008 or so. And what have they seen around since then? Crisis after crisis after crisis, starting with the economic shutdown of 2009, then the Euro crisis, the bloodbath in Syria, the refugee crisis, our unconvincing approach towards climate change, COVID and now war in Ukraine. Imagine this being your worldview-defining decade.”
Osička continues and emphasizes the importance of being exposed to good news.
“I hope that we will become more cognisant of the bias that the media have towards bad news. It will make it easier to actively seek good news and get cheered up a little when everything seems grim.”
Osička incorporates this issue into his lectures as well. One of his courses which covers the approaches to tech over the 20th century begins with showing a commercial from the 50s, displaying a picture-perfect image of the home of the future, a space fully equipped with the newest technology, including then mind-blowing microwave. He then discusses what their reasons for being optimistic are and what promising news have they encountered in the climate and energy studies area.
It often turns out that while a lot of public debates may seem to be dominated by pessimism, there actually are good reasons for being optimistic. Osička adds an example:
“In many places, the debate about electric cars and batteries is very much affected by many people who either don’t welcome it or they extrapolate the trend. So they would bring up arguments such as ‘if we look at how much lithium we need now if we were to switch this amount of cars to electric, then we would need the amount of lithium the size of Nebraska cubed and we just can’t have that.’ But this is not how things work, this is not how history has developed and we are, in fact, going to have that amount of lithium eventually.”
Dr. Osička brings up the example of oil wells. When the oil industry started, there were 3 wells around the world and people had the same concerns, but now we are using 100 million barrels a day. This is part of the reason why Osička’s outlook for the future, specifically, when it comes to renewable energy, is an optimistic one and he believes that this transition will be completed sooner rather than later.
Dr. Osička also believes that energy politics offers great insights into how special the current times are. According to him, it is one of the most surprising things about the field in general.
“It is useful to look around yourself and count the rated power of the appliances that you have at home. If you look at the label of a laptop, you can see for example 65 watts and 65 watts is more or less the sustained power that a human body is able to generate. If you are working on your laptop right now, that is equivalent to one human working hard to power your laptop.
Then you sit in the car, and the car’s rated power is around 70 kilowatts, so that’s the equivalent of 1,000 humans pushing you to the grocery store. Just to buy milk!”
What makes this even more fascinating is that such access to power has occurred only during the 20th century, meaning that there have only been 4 generations in the history of the world who have experienced it. Earlier, and especially before the industrial and agricultural revolutions, people only disposed with the 70 watts of their bodies’ power output.
“It’s breathtaking that we live in this very tiny window of history and can do all these things.“
With that, however, comes a great responsibility to maintain such an energy surplus and access to power and to pass our living standards to future generations without significantly disrupting the environment.
“This is what energy politics starts with - an acknowledgment of where we are in history, and that you must do a lot of things to ensure that we will not fail our children. Next-generation would be happy to get a functioning energy system but they would also like to get a livable planet.”
Yet another surprising thing about the energy policy is that it is all-encompassing, more so than one might think.
“In Energy Policy, the decisions that are taken at one place have a profound effect on the lives of people who might be living really far away. Huge redistribution of resources and competencies and life experiences is associated with energy planning. I'm still captivated by this. Energy poverty is a superb example of that. As an energy policy planner, you decide the fate of the lives of millions of people. They may be on the brink of having a really terrible life and with well-designed policies, you can improve their lives significantly. But you can also make it significantly worse.”
This entanglement between great questions of today such as climate change or sustainable development and people’s lived experience makes energy policy particularly interesting.
“[Energy Politics] paints an extremely complex picture in front of you and then it is up to you to decide what you are going to do about it.“
Jan Osička's recent publications:
OSIČKA, Jan, Jörg KEMMERZELL, Maksymilian ZOLL, Lukáš LEHOTSKÝ, Filip ČERNOCH a Michèle KNODT. What's next for the European coal heartland? Exploring the future of coal as presented in German, Polish and Czech press. Energy Research & Social Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2020, roč. 61, March, s. 1-27. ISSN 2214-6296. doi:10.1016/j.erss.2019.101316.
STANČÍK, Andrej, Jan OSIČKA a Indra OVERLAND. Villain or victim? Framing strategies and legitimation practices in the Russian perspective on the European Union’s Third Energy Package. Energy Research & Social Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2021, roč. 74, April, s. 1-14. ISSN 2214-6296. doi:10.1016/j.erss.2021.101962.
OSIČKA, Jan, Lukáš LEHOTSKÝ, Veronika ZAPLETALOVÁ, Filip ČERNOCH a Břetislav DANČÁK. Natural gas market integration in the Visegrad 4 region : An example to follow or to avoid? Energy Policy. Oxford: Elsevier Science, 2018, roč. 112, January, s. 184-197. ISSN 0301-4215. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2017.10.018.