New Environmental Blog Series to be Launched Soon

After a great first year here at psaenvironment.org, featuring hundreds of visitors every month, we’ll soon be celebrating our first anniversary by launching a new environmental blog series.

The blog will feature insights from the experts listed on our member directory. The first blog will come from London South Bank University’s Hugh Atkinson- watch this space!

If you’re a member and would like to write a blog, or you’re a visitor to the site and would love to see a particular topic covered, get in touch.

Blogs will be a maximum of 500 words each, providing snappy yet informative perspectives on the latest issues in environmental politics.

In the meantime, take a look below to see a couple of the individual blogs published on the site over the last few months.

Latest UN Climate Report: Little Room Left for Sceptics

***This blog was written by Paul Tobin (University of York) and originally published on Political Insight on 2nd April 2014***

 

First theorised by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and calculated by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, only those willing to disregard decades of evidence could challenge the existence of human-induced climate change.  Monday 31st March saw the release of the latest global report on climate change. Based on over 12,000 scientific publications and written by authors from around the world, the report further emphasises the confidence of the scientific community that human-induced climate change is both real and taking place right now. But as the science becomes more settled with every passing year, the political resolve to respond to such dire warnings remains in the balance.

What is the IPCC?

Published every five to six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988 as a means of supporting the UN’s annual climate change conferences (think Kyoto in 1997, or Copenhagen in 2009). The current Assessment Report is the fifth since 1990 and as always is divided into three segments. The first of this round of segments, published last September, examined the physical science basis for climate change. Monday’s report was the second segment, focusing on the Earth’s vulnerability to climate change and how humanity can adapt to the threats posed. The third and final part relates to the mitigation of climate change and will be completed in April.

Each report reflects a staggering global effort, similar in scale to the coding of the human genome. Monday’s Report was written by 243 lead authors and 66 review editors from 70 countries, receiving over 50,000 review comments. From a political science perspective, it is the ‘Intergovernmental’ part of the IPCC’s name that is crucial- the IPCC comprises all 195 member states of the UN, and the latest Report’s Summary for Policymakers was approved line-by-line by this global taskforce. Indeed, the IPCC does not conduct its own research, but rather brings together existing evidence with a view to providing an overview of the latest information. Moreover, with drafts that are publically accessible prior to publication, climate change sceptics are welcome to participate in the publication, provided they have the evidence to support their claims. So why do IPCC reports draw so much controversy?

The last IPCC report, from 2007, drew criticism from certain corners of the media for its‘apocalyptic tone’, but it was the inclusion of a non-peer-reviewed source, claiming the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, that drew the most attention. However, it was the reaction to this error, rather than the error itself, that is of greater interest to members of the PSA. Although the location of a single error in a 3,000 page report reflects exceptionally high levels of academic practice, the media response implied that such a mistake challenged the foundations of climate science. Moreover, such a mistake may have been avoided had more of the sceptics engaged with the drafting process, instead of waiting for publication before searching for errors. Clearly, the desire to challenge – rather than improve – climate science resides heavily within certain communities.

What does the latest Report say?

Featuring a handy Summary for Policymakers, the latest Report focuses on the planet’s vulnerability to climate change and how humanity can adapt to present and future threats. A litany of dangers are featured within the Report’s pages, including flooding, disruption to farming, species extinction, desertification, sea-level rise and the spread of diseases and pests to previously untouched regions. The following map demonstrates that nowhere is immune to the effects of climate change.

As a result, the Report challenges the claim made by some that climate change could be a good thing. The warming of colder regions may lead to fewer winter deaths and new farming possibilities, but these benefits may be undone by extreme weather events or the spread of new diseases. Additionally, the potential mass migration resulting from worse-affected regions to safer climes could exacerbate pre-existing racial and immigration tensions that across Europe and North America. Climate change is a threat-multiplier that is likely to exacerbate conflicts over resources and space; although not the only factor, the phenomenon has been identified as significantly worsening the conflict in Sudan.

These political challenges are perhaps the biggest obstacles to face from climate change. While richer states are more able to adapt to future threats, economically developing states are likely to bear the brunt of climate change, yet are the least able to respond. For these poorer nations, adaptation is not an option. As a result, while the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson may be right when he argues that climate change “is something we can adapt to over time” provided the UK is willing to pay billions for the privilege, the most effective strategy is likely to involve mitigating the worst effects from occurring in the first place.

What are the policy implications?

The Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation has argued that “now, ignorance is no longer a good excuse” for rapidly altering the planet’s climate. Yet the political traction for addressing climate change has faced a hiatus since around 2009, when the triple-whammy of global economic crisisdisappointment in Copenhagen and the infamous ‘Climategate’ theft of researchers’ emails weakened ambition. Then there is also the threat of issue fatigue as many may wonder why climate change is taking so long to address, while the persistence of scepticism has weakened confidence about the veracity of climate science in recent years.

Yet despite these obstacles, as the weight of evidence strengthens annually, the onus for finding a solution is shifting from scientists to politicians. In response to this latest IPCC Report, Ed Davey, the UK Climate and Energy Secretary, has argued that it will be more costly in the long-run not to act on climate change. Meanwhile, previous ‘self-binding’ legislation – such as the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008 – has rendered the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a legal requirement in many states around the world.

As such, it is likely that the final instalment of this Fifth Assessment Report, due to be published in April, will draw the greatest scrutiny from policy-makers and sceptics alike, as it details approaches to mitigating the worst of climate change. From a policy perspective, it appears that three avenues are available; unilateral ambition, regional co-operation and global agreements. While the disappointment in Copenhagen showed the (not insurmountable) weaknesses inherent in global summits, states are unlikely to respond to climate change individually for fear of weakening their economic competitiveness. Regional coalitions such as the European Union may well be the most effective means for responding to climate change as they facilitate co-operation between similar states. Yet with the rise of Euroscepticism across Europe, it is unlikely that climate change mitigation will gain much traction in the anti-EU camp. If an effective response to climate change is to be realised, however, at least one of these avenues must be pursued.

The science is settled. Over 97% of climate research between 1991 and 2011 supported the existence of human-induced climate change. It is now for policy-makers to decide how best to respond to this information.

What the Frack?

***This blog was written by Paul Tobin (University of York) and originally posted on PSA Insight on 28th January, 2014***

Fracking – the panacea that will guarantee the UK’s energy independence for decades, or an environmental disaster waiting to happen? Either way, development of the energy source raises intriguing questions for scholars of many sub-fields in Politics. As a blog by the PSA Environment Group highlighted on the PSA website last year, fracking – or ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – involves blasting rocks with a mix of water and chemicals at high pressure, in order to release bubbles of gas that can then be used as an energy source. Yet the debates surrounding this new method for obtaining an old energy source could not be more contested.

In July 2013, fracking hit the headlines due to the popular protests taking place in Balcombe, West Sussex, over Cuadrilla’s exploratory investigation of a potential fracking site. (A site which currently looks set to be scrapped.) So why has the issue hit the headlines again? On Monday 13th January, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that local councils are to receive more money if they allow fracking to place in the local area. This proposal was followed the next day with the news that Cameron wishes to offer cash payments to those households most affected by fracking.

Cameron has stated that the Government is ‘going all out for shale’ by announcing that local councils supporting fracking will receive 100% of the business rates collected from the scheme. This is double the rate of 50% currently in place. Whitehall estimates value this bonus as being worth £1.7million every year for each site that is developed, while Energy Minister Michael Fallon has placed the value at £10million per wellhead if the fracking is successful. So in an era of ‘Austerity Britain’, why is Cameron so willing to make such a cash giveaway?

While leading Conservatives have claimed that fracking will reduce energy prices, these claims have been widely dismissed. Even Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey and the Chairman of BP, Lord Browne, have noted that energy prices will remain unaltered due to the well-connected gas market in Europe. However, fracking is likely to create jobs in constituencies across the UK, and facilitate greater energy independence from other states, making it a popular choice in Whitehall. This is where Cameron’s incentives to local councils come in. By ‘rewarding’ (or, as opponents would argue, buying off) local councils to support fracking, the UK can enjoy a domestic energy source for several decades to come.

There are significant environmental problems associated with this policy; contamination of groundwater, depletion of freshwater, worsening air quality and the poisoning of surface water are just a few of the charges laid at fracking’s door. Yet it is the political ramifications that are of most interest here. Firstly, from a party political perspective, the Conservative Party has long been seen (and presented itself) as a party that opposes centralised decision-making in favour of local control. By allowing councils to take 100% of the business rates, budget-strapped councils face little alternative but to make the most of these additional revenue sources.  This has led some groups, such as Greenpeace, to argue that councils will no longer have the interests of local people at heart when making planning decisions. The proposals could be seen as facilitating a democratic deficit at the local level.

Secondly, from an environmental theory perspective, the proposals raise questions over the value of nature in the eyes of the British people. In the UK 4.5million people – around 10% of the population – are members of environmental organisations, making natural protection one of the most powerful civil society voices in the country. Yet by compensating those affected by the disruption of fracking, a price is placed on the value of nature. With many states recording swings towards postmaterialist values – that is to say, a prioritisation of those things with less intrinsic value than consumer goods – in recent decades the fracking proposals contrast sharply with such green sentiments.

Thirdly, if Western states do start to become energy independent once more, the role of Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries could be greatly diminished. Not only would these states face a weaker international position, but the foreign policies of Western powers could alter significantly. For those who felt the Iraq War said more about resources than of security, future such interventions could become less likely if the West is able to sustain its energy needs independently.

The final point reflects issues of global governance. The UK currently holds some of the most ambitious carbon reduction targets in the world following the 2008 Climate Change Act. This legislation necessitates sharp reductions in emissions every decade in order to mitigate catastrophic climate change. In the USA, fracking has dramatically reduced the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, as natural gas has been used to replace more carbon-intensive coal. Yet in the UK, where there is a very different energy make-up due to the ‘dash-for-gas’ of the 1980s, energy generation will continue to be produced from the same source (natural gas), resulting in no change to carbon emissions levels.

With the Government proposing to invest in an energy source that will do little to reduce the country’s carbon emissions, the question must be asked: “Where will the carbon emissions reductions needed to meet the UK’s legally-binding targets come from?” Few policies have been developed to ensure reductions in other key sectors such as transport, housing and industry. As such, significant questions will be asked over the UK’s ‘legally-binding’ emissions targets, despite the UK’s position as history’s biggest per capita emissions producer.

Although fracking may appear to be a regional issue based around small-scale disruption and localised pollution, in reality it raises questions that cut across the study of Politics. Those researching democratic politics, political theory and international relations should all take note of the ramifications of this high-profile phenomenon. One thing is for sure, fracking could transform domestic and international politics as we know it.