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Obama allies lead the way on a positive approach to climate change

The fracking debate continues apace, with the announcement by the British Geological Survey that there are over 4 billion barrels of oil in the shale rocks of the South of England. The government has proposed new rules of access to land in order to speed up the exploitation of this oil, with payments of £20,000 being made to those living above the land where fracking takes place.

Opinions are highly polarised. In part, they reflect differences of views on climate change, with scepticism being much more widespread amongst the population as a whole than it is amongst 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 America, 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 United Nations climate treaty efforts were doomed. Caps on emissions and other efforts that make fossil fuels more expensive would fail in world where competitive alternative fuels do not exist, and where 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 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 deeply reactionary stance, which denies the ability of innovation to solve climate problems, and which 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 America from coal to gas, the French programme of building nuclear power stations, increased resilience to tropical cyclones in India, these are all examples of this positive theme.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 28th May

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