Backwards Reasoning

Could fracking prevent climate change denial?

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 30th August 2013

Many of those who deny that climate change is taking place reached that position as a result of their opposition to wind farms. This, for example, was the route taken by David Bellamy, who stumbled disastrously into the debate a decade ago.

During one of our discussions, he set me the following challenge:

“Why are the so-called greens backing a cartel of multinational companies which are hell bent on covering some of the best of our countryside with so-called wind farms, which can neither provide us with a sustainable source of future energy nor have any measurable effect reducing the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere? If he [George Monbiot] can disprove the latter – which is the mathematical truth – I will fall into line over global warming”.

In other words, if I could disprove his contention that windfarms are useless, he would accept climate change science.

I don’t mean to disinter an ancient and long-settled debate, but to use this as an example of a common phenomenom, to which all of us succumb from time to time. When we don’t like an outcome, we reject the premise.

Some of those who oppose an airstrike on Syria, for example, are more inclined to question the premise that Bashar Al-Assad ordered a chemical weapons strike against his own people. Those who support the intervention are more likely to disregard calls for hard evidence.

Once the UK government decided that it would instigate a badger cull, it began dismissing or downplaying the results of the £49m trial commissioned by its predecessor, which showed that the cull is likely to be useless or worse than useless. Those who oppose the cull, on the other hand, are more inclined than its supporters to reject the evidence that badgers are a source of bovine tuberculosis.

In other words, we reason backwards. It’s a constant temptation, to which none of us is immune. It explains, I believe, much of the refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence for manmade global warming. For people who reject regulation or other restraints on profit-making, or who believe they have a fundamental right to use as much fossil fuel as they wish while driving or flying or heating their swimming pools, or who hate the thought of wind turbines spoiling their view, the temptation to reject the science seems overwhelming.

Conversely, those of us who lament the ever-escalating pace of life, who love peace and quiet, who hate the damage done to the natural world by the extraction of fossil fuels, who believe society has become too materialistic and self-serving, are inclined to embrace the science with fervour.

Doing so does not necessarily make us more scientific or more rational than our opponents: it’s just that in this case the weight of evidence happens to accord with our values and beliefs. In other cases, the same instincts are just as likely to estrange us from the evidence (our wildly exaggerated fear of radiation from nuclear power plants comes to mind, but I’ll leave that for another occasion).

Accidents of history and geology have ensured that, in the UK and many other parts of the world, our backwards reasoning has made people disinclined to accept the science of manmade climate change. The problem can be summarised as follows: most of our means of generating power seldom intrude into people’s consciousness.

Thermal power stations are highly concentrated sources of electricity, which means that few people have to live close to them and suffer from the visual intrusion and local pollution they cause.

Most of our gas and oil is either imported from far away or extracted from under the seabed, through rigs situated beyond the horizon.

Opencast coal mines are mostly dug close to former mining communities, whose people tend to have little political power and little access to the media. So they are seldom the subject of major campaigns, and are largely ignored by most of the public. This was the basis of my old argument with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and the, er, electric encounter with its chief executive that the Guardian filmed. CPRE was campaigning fiercely against wind farms, but not against opencast coal mines.

Since then, I’m glad to say, CPRE has amended its policy, and is now campaigning against opencast coal.

In other words, fossil fuels seldom bother us, so we seldom consider their wider impacts.

Wind turbines, on the other hand, are widely distributed, close to home and highly visible. They intrude upon the views of rich and poor alike: both unemployed miners and Telegraph leader writers. Many people don’t like them, and follow the irrational evolution of thought to which David Bellamy succumbed, rejecting climate science because they don’t like low carbon energy.

So perhaps we should thank the fracking companies for bringing fossil fuel infrastructure to people’s doorsteps. If people’s dislike of low-carbon power production drives them to reject climate science, their dislike of high-carbon power production could drive them to accept it.

For the first time in decades, prosperous, well-connected people in this country are having to face the reality of fossil fuel extraction, and they don’t like it one bit. Some of us have long been arguing that oil, coal and gas do far more harm at every stage of production than most forms of renewable energy. Now the fracking companies have obligingly chosen to demonstrate it.

I suspect that as fracking – and its attendant protests – spreads, we’ll see a renewed surge of concern about global warming. After all, climate change is the most powerful of the many arguments that can be deployed against fossil fuels, and those who oppose their extraction would be foolish not to use it.

As fracking companies move into the leafy suburbs, the well-preserved villages, the haunts of Conservative voters and Telegraph columnists, I think we might see the manufactured debate on global warming subtly shifting. Embracing junk science and promoting the claims of cranks and fossil fuel lobbyists will start to look a lot less clever, and will begin to be more fiercely challenged by constituents and readers. And perhaps, as a result, this country might begin to take its responsibilities more seriously.