Tuesday 27 May 2014 4:38 pm

Why environmentalists should embrace fracking – not sacrifice

THE FRACKING debate continues apace, with the British Geological Survey announcing that there are over 4bn barrels of oil in the shale rocks of the South of England. The government has proposed new rules of access to land to speed up the exploitation of this oil, with proposed payments of £20,000 to those living above land where fracking takes place, on top of existing compensation.

Yet opinions are highly polarised. In part, they reflect differences of views on climate change, where scepticism is much more widespread among the population as a whole than it is among scientists. But perhaps paradoxically, the strongest opposition to fracking seems to come from those who are most vociferous about the potential threat which climate change poses to the planet. Many environmentalists appear to relish the idea of wearing the hair shirt, of making sacrifices to deal with the issue. They do not like the idea that technology might solve the problem.

In the US, a much more pragmatic consensus is emerging, as Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in California points out. Shellenberger and his colleagues have argued for a long time that UN climate treaty efforts are doomed. Caps on emissions and other efforts that make fossil fuels more expensive would fail in a world in which competitive alternative fuels do not exist, and when billions of people need to consume more, not less, energy. 

Two powerful allies have emerged in the shape of former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle, close liberal and environmental allies of President Obama. Shellenberger draws attention to their recent essay in the widely-respected environmental magazine Yale Environment 360. Wirth was lead US negotiator for the Kyoto Treaty, which was centrally focused on limits. Yet Wirth and Daschle now call for a completely different approach.

They argue that there should be a move away from global targets and restrictions, to encouraging bottom-up measures to build cleaner and more prosperous economies. It is much easier to persuade electorates to adopt climate-friendly policies when they benefit from them than when the policies impose costs. As Wirth and Daschle say, “such a shift would change the psychology of the climate change issue from one of burden to opportunity, and change the likely outcome from one of hand-wringing about failure to excitement about tangible action to build a better world”.

In contrast, many green activists in the UK and the rest of Europe adopt a reactionary stance, which denies the ability of innovation to solve climate problems, and which instead relies on the failed approach of global bodies trying to impose targets on individual nations. One of the worst offenders is the current Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey. As Shellenberger points out, major advances have come from polices inspired within countries, shaped in the national interest, and which bring direct benefits to electorates. The recent shift in the US from coal to cleaner gas, driven by fracking, France’s programme of building nuclear power stations, increased resilience to tropical cyclones in India – these are all examples of this positive theme.

Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners, a visiting professor at the UCL Centre for Decision Making Uncertainty, and author of Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World.

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