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Why Environmentalists Oppose One of the Best Ways to Cut Carbon Emissions

Humans may be wired to respond more to immediate issues like fracking than longer term ones like global warming.
March 7, 2013

An interesting post at The Breakthough Institute website makes a case that environmentalists should rethink their opposition to fracking.

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. “Fracking kills,” says Ono, who has a country home in New York. “It threatens the air we breathe,” says Redford. 

In fact, “gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution,” according to Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. There have been “tremendous health gains” from the coal-to-gas switch, MIT economist Michael Greenstone told The Associated Press. Indeed, air pollution in Pennsylvania has plummeted in recent years thanks to the coal-to-gas switch. “Honestly,” added Greenstone, “the environmentalists need to hear it.”

The post goes on to note that “carbon emissions are declining in the US more than in any other country in the world. The USA is the global climate leader, while Europe and Germany are returning to coal. The main reason is gas, which increased last year by almost the exact same amount that coal declined.”

Fracking certainly isn’t without its problems (see “Can Fracking Be Cleaned Up?” and “Measuring the Climate Impact of Natural Gas”). But if fracking is done properly, the natural gas power it supports can better for the environment than coal power. So why are so many environmentalists against it? Part of the reason may be that some environmentalists are comparing fracking not to coal but to solar and wind power, on the assumption that we could easily abandon fossil fuels for renewables. That’s a mistake. Solar and wind aren’t yet ready to replace even a large fraction of fossil fuel power. Costs need to come down, especially for solar, and we need better ways to deal with the fact that the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind is unreliable. It will also take a long time to build enough solar panels–in spite of phenomenal growth recently, solar power still provides less than a percent of electricity.

The reason for the opposition may also have to do with human psychology.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke, recently said that if you wanted to invent an issue that would “maximize human apathy” it would be global warming. It’s something that will happen long in the future, you don’t currently see people suffering (with the exception of the victims of specific storms, which can’t be directly linked to climate change), and anything you can do personally to address it would be a drop in the bucket.

I wonder if the opposite could be said about fracking. The industrialization of the countryside that comes with fracking is immediate and easy to see. And what can be more immediate than a threat to drinking water, especially when it’s paired with videos of people setting their sinks on fire?

And whereas eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, which is what scientists guess would be needed to limit global warming to 2 ° C, is a mind-bogglingly difficult tasks that will probably take more than one generation to accomplish, the prospect of stopping fracking seems more manageable. After all, New York State government has blocked fracking there.

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