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Cars line up in traffic in Washington, D.C. Personal consumption of energy seems to have been ignored in the debate over climate change action, argues Ken Coates. (Photograph courtesy cherryblossomwatch/Flickr)

Scientific Wrangling Over Natural Gas and Climate Obscures the Need for Real Action

After decades of debate and with growing anxiety about climate change, the planet is no closer to a systematic solution to our collective energy challenge. Yet still we try.

At its impressive Vancouver gathering, National Geographic asked a simple question:  Is natural gas the bridge to a sustainable energy future?  (See video featuring participants including Ken Coates here.) The meeting brought together an impressive group of industry specialists, community representatives, environmental activists, and Aboriginal leaders. The frank discussions ranged from highly specialized, technical observations to emotional appeals for environmental protection. No consensus emerged, but the open conversation provided an excellent indication of the range of options about natural gas alternatives for the world’s pending energy crisis.

In our work at the University of Saskatchewan, we are not specialists in natural gas but understand the interplay of global and local forces in the sector. Our expertise rests, instead, with the study of history and politics of Aboriginal participation in the natural resource economy and the development of appropriate strategies for community engagement.

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The Big Energy Question: Natural Gas
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The indigenous-development connection has taken on new urgency with the proliferation of natural gas and fracking projects around the world. Aboriginal people struggle to balance the need for jobs and business opportunities with the environmental issues associated with resource extraction, replicating at an intense and local level key aspects of the global debate.

Lost in the Debate: Personal Consumption

The current discussion continues global conversations about energy that go back to the first global oil crisis in the 1970s. It is remarkable, in retrospect, to remember the naiveté that surrounded discussion about global energy supplies and energy consumption at that time. The OPEC-created crisis forced the Western world into a burst of self-reflection and conservation, as prices spiked and supplies plummeted.

The Western world seems to believe that a person can have their preferred lifestyle and be energy and environmentally conscious at the same time.

It seemed, for a time, as though the combination of geopolitics and simple energy supply and demand would generate long-term strategizing and energy saving approaches. But the crisis evaporated and short-term solutions disappeared. Governments backed away from regulations, energy consumption increased, and the Western industrial system spread even farther, expanding to China, South Asia, and other regions. Very few countries have actually asked their citizens to make substantial reductions in energy use.

The contemporary debate, including the discussion about the current and future role of natural gas, has lost several key elements. In the past, debates about energy futures were more emotional and more engaged. For 30 years, a great deal of the emphasis focused on personal consumption patterns: lower temperatures in homes, fuel-efficient vehicles, insulation, and the like. While these elements remain in evidence, discussion of them is almost perfunctory in nature. True conservationists care a great deal about such things and organize their personal and organizational affairs accordingly, but general interest seems to be declining.

The new model, however, is exemplified in the entrepreneurship and lifestyle of former Vice President Al Gore. Rather than emphasizing reductions in energy use, the current priority focuses on maintaining lifestyle and arranging for personal environmental offsets. There is a seeming surrender over what was once the main battleground of the environmental movement: personal consumption. The Western world seems to believe that a person can have their preferred lifestyle and be energy and environmentally conscious at the same time. And the emerging nations, particularly China and India, argue that the world’s energy future must incorporate their expectations for comparable lifestyles.

If Appeals to Responsibility Don’t Work, What Will?

To the degree that it is true — and much of the discussion about natural gas focuses on the substitution value of gas, in addition to its contribution to the reduction in carbon  emissions — this represents a major change in global planning around energy consumption and environmental protection. There has been precious little evidence, beyond upper middle class purchases of hybrid vehicles and some minor energy reduction measures, that consumers as a group are willing to accept a significant reduction in overall energy consumption and, therefore, quality of life.

The core lesson here, and it is an important one, is that economic considerations are the most effective in shaping energy use. Since appeals to personal responsibility for the environmental appear not to work, market forces (enhanced by government taxation) are clearly going to be fundamental to changing energy use patterns.

It is shocking that the world has not yet created a sense of personal responsibility for energy consumption. Faced with mounting scientific evidence of the cumulative effects of over-consumption of energy, the world has issued a collective yawn. The scientists’ call to arms, most recently in the highly provocative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, generate remarkably muted responses, certainly nothing in proportion to the scale and intensity of the mounting evidence of global climate change. Perhaps the most puzzling element of the global debate about climate change, energy sources, and conservation is the disconnect between the science (which should be clear), action (which have been described), and the climate future of the planet.

The Western industrial system is, allegedly, built on a scientific foundation and a confidence in evidence and expert opinion over theology, ideology or gut instinct. Surprisingly, however, on the greatest issue facing humanity, the scientific imperative is, in public debate, mangled and largely ignored.

It is much the same with natural gas, where conversations about the relative merits of natural gas and other energy sources should be discussed calmly and with scientific precision. Instead of science producing consensus and understanding, we get dueling scientific facts and interpretations. Non-specialists trying to make sense of the issues are quickly overwhelmed by competing scientists and often-bitter divisions about core scientific assumptions. It is hard for non-specialists to engage in a discussion when scientific and technical details are used so aggressively by all sides in the debate.

Even if natural gas is better than other non-renewable energy supplies, as it appears to be, the question of the world’s energy future is not likely to be resolved on scientific or technical grounds. Far from providing clear solutions, clarifying or solidifying public opinion, proponents use science to confuse the debate confound observers and add to the acrimony.

By any objective basis, the IPCC report should result in an immediate reconsideration of national and international policy and generate urgent action on climate change. The consensus among scientists should underpin individual and collective decisions. But it will not—and the citizens of the planet will muddle forward. The reality is that moving slowly, or partially, is simply not good enough.  We have to do all things – converse, innovate, intervene and us alternative sources of energy, like natural gas –but there is no evidence that we will do so.

In this way, the discussion about the role of natural gas is representative of a global environmental debate about energy, environmental sustainability, and climate change that allows emotions and technical-based wrangling to prevent a fully reasoned and responsible resolution.

Written with Dr. Carin Holroyd, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan