I suppose the question most greens would ask is why would anyone in their right mind be in favour of fracking? Haven’t they heard of climate change? (And perhaps some young greens, whilst agreeing with the sentiment, would suggest we shouldn’t use the term right mind as that’s a slur on the mentally ill (And some other green would criticize that stereotyping of young greens.))
Sometimes I think of myself as a green and sometimes I don’t. When I hear some of the anti-science nonsense some greens come out with then I find it hard to identify with them. I start to think that the common perception of greens as well meaning but clueless might be true. Then I identify more with the ecomodernists – environmentalists but not greens.
This is an article by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, producers of the ecomodernist manifesto, in which they claim that gas is a necessary bridge fuel to a decarbonised future and therefore fracking is necessary. I usually agree with what they have to say but when it comes to fracking I really struggle. There is something appealing about being in complete agreement with other people, being part of a group. It’s also quite frightening.
Maybe there’s a difference between the US and the UK. Or the US and Europe. Of course there is. They’ve got loads of space over there and not so many people. Fracking in Britain is going to have two be done in someone’s backyard, in a place that’s precious to someone. There’s probably nowhere in this country that isn’t precious to someone. And then there’s the emotional aspect. You are scarring the planet you claim to love.
In what universe can that be right? Though I suppose traditional greens might have similar feelings about nuclear. The brutality of splitting the atom, breaking apart the very essence of reality. But if that’s what you think then you’ve moved from science to religion.
Or from politics to religion. Political Greens know a good thing when they see it and fracking is the perfect vehicle to mobilise people in an area threatened by the frackers, to create more Greens, to win seats on councils and in central government.
Maybe if I was American I could go along with fracking. They burn a lot of coal, and gas is about four times better (less bad) than coal, or 10 times maybe, it depends, if you catch the emissions and store them then the gas could considered a clean(ish) fuel, but at the moment we can’t do that so it isn’t. Cleaner than coal certainly, but that’s not saying much.
Britain also burns a lot of coal and we’ve really got to stop doing that in the short term. If you wanted to phase out coal in a few years, the only thing that can immediately step into coal’s place is gas. The bridge argument Nordhaus and Shellenberger and many others are making.
But there are also people who argue that though we may have to accept gas for a while, opening up a new source of fossil fuels feels like a very stupid thing to do. You can’t always trust your feelings, though. On the other hand (there are so many other hands here) the signals you send to the public are important.
If Peter Mandelson or some such election strategist, one concerned more about winning than principals, were advising the Greens he’d be telling them to stick with their opposition to fracking, to step it up even. If this goes ahead then there’s a revolutionary side to the English shires that is going to spring up.
The way the right has played on nimby wind farm opposition, now the green movement has its chance to capitalise on nimbyism. That might be just the sort of politicking it claims to shun but Greens are as Machiavellian as the rest of them.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, to get any meaningful action on climate change has got to be some public backing. Fracking brings the issue of burning fossil fuels home to people quite a literal way.
Trouble is focusing on nimbyism also gets you a load of opposition to onshore wind, the power source so beloved traditionalist greens. Perhaps greens need to accept and respect the fact that a lot of people don’t want to live next door to a power station any more than they want to live next door to a mine. We need to rally public support, not just public opposition. People have to see there’s a viable and relatively pain-free way of getting a low carbon economy. That might have to involve gas to some extent as a transitional fuel at least. Though the most viable way of decarbonizing in the least painful way may not be the quickest way of decarbonizing. That gets us to the question of how quickly we need to decarbonize, a political as much as a scientific question as its answer is determined by the relative responsibilities of various nations.
If the UK, the first nation to start burning fossil fuels, has already put more than its fair share of CO2 in the atmosphere then you could argue that it has no right to reduce its emissions in a gradual way that won’t put too much strain on its own people and economy. If you were Indian, or Bangladeshi, or Chinese, or African, perhaps experiencing the impacts of climate change in quite direct ways, you may feel that Britain’s emissions need to fall off a cliff and that needs to happen straight away. If it hurts them they’re just going to have to grin and bear it, which is what the Brits are supposed to excel at, isn’t it?
So it comes down to how much additional CO2 the atmosphere can take and how the responsibility for emissions reductions is shared out globally. If the countries that industrialised first are going to decarbonize relatively gradually then that leaves more of the global decarbonisation burden to those countries that have only just industrialised or are just getting started on the road to industrialization, whose people are demanding electricity and running water and sanitation.
When you look at papers such as Kevin Anderson and Alice Bowes’ Beyond Dangerous Climate Change and if you go along with their reasoning then it’s clear the world needs to make a pretty dramatic change of direction. If it’s not politically viable to expect rich industrialised countries to slash their emissions at the rate they really ought to then perhaps it’s more viable to decarbonise the countries that have not gone so far down the carbonization route. To build new low carbon societies may be easier than trying to decarbonize societies built upon cheap and readily available fossil fuels and built upon the assumption that that’s how things would always be.
But if the rich countries that got rich off burning fossil fuels are telling the poor countries to take on more than their fair share of the burden, how are they going to persuade them to do that? They’re not colonial rulers any more. They’re going to have to pay.
Photo by Greens European Free Alliance
Also published on Medium.