Missing the fracking point


More coverage this week on proposed fracking schemes wherein energy companies will blow stuff up underground to release shale gas that they can then burn to keep our smartphones charged and our patio heaters aflame.

The terms of engagement and cast of characters for this supposed debate have been set for some time. Meet the energy company spokesperson who just wants to keep our bills down. Meet the frantic homeowner who is desperate to prevent any damage to their sub- or super-terranean environs within a radius likely to affect what they can see, what they can smell or what they can tell their friends they can get for their house which they don’t actually intend to sell. Meet the news organisations who are lining up debates between these two, filing them under ‘schedule filler’ and then relaxing for the next couple of years.

The way this issue is being framed and conducted is wrong and ultimately incredibly dangerous. We know that there is a huge disconnect between the public understanding of man-made climate change and any sense that our personal actions can or cannot affect this global outcome. And yet we continue to accept a debate which centres around the despoiling of the countryside versus the possible impact on household bills, and we allow the terms of engagement to be dictated to us.

There is a bigger picture and by ignoring it the media are doing us a huge harm. They may even be signing our death warrants.

Bill McKibben is an American activist and writer. I heard him speaking last year on an edition of This American Life which focussed on how some often unlikely people are trying to move the debate over climate change forward, out of stagnation and into possible action. The whole episode was fascinating, and it’s well worth listening to.

Bill McKibben made a very direct point, and I’ll précis it here.

At the UN Climate Meeting on Copenhagen in 2009 the world’s governments agreed that a two degrees Celsius rise in temperature would be enough to cause catastrophic climate change.

It’s possible to calculate how much carbon dioxide would be needed to raise the temperature by two degrees. It turns out that it will take us just 14 more years to produce it, at our current rate.

Here’s the interesting part. The part that you may not have seen reported before. The part that should be being screamed from every news channel, front page and street corner all day, every day.

We have already discovered enough reserves of coal, oil and gas that, if we brought it to the surface and burned it, would release five times more carbon dioxide than it would take to produce a two degree rise in temperature. Energy companies own those reserves, and they plan on burning them.

Put simply, if the energy companies execute their existing business plans, we are all dead.

Doesn’t that make them a direct threat to our survival? Doesn’t that make them real life Bond villains?

And doesn’t that suggest that we’re really grasping the wrong end of a very pointy stick when we get involved in a cheap electricity vs house prices debate?

For political and social movements to be effective in fomenting change they need an enemy to set themselves against. Anti-fracking campaigners have been handed a convenient enemy. It’s the guy in the hard hat who wants to blow up the rocks under their back yard. [The answer to fracking is simple, by the way. We own the land, one way or another, and unless we sell it to them they can’t touch it.]

But every day we spend shouting at the guy in the hard hat, we’re letting a much, much, much bigger enemy get closer and closer to blowing up the entire planet.

Shouldn’t we be fighting them?