This post has a very narrow focus, considering one motion at the General Synod of the Church of England in February. The motion is for the Church to disinvest from fossil fuels. Sadly the Church has not had a long tradition in caring for the environment and was a johnny-come-lately to green concerns. However they are catching up with a vengeance and are now swinging the other way and seem to adopt the extremer agendas of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc. and so disinvestment is seen as the best response to Climate Change, though they have not considered where Britain will get its energy from as renewables will not provide the deficit. This piece is my own response to the motion for disinvestment and I have sent it to the Bishop of Blackburn and diocesan General Synod members. To some, this will make me be seen to be in league with BP and the Koch brothers and totally unconcerned by climate change, but that is not the case.
The Case against Disinvestment in Fossil Fuels. General Synod February 2014
Why do I consider that disinvestment in fossil fuels is a terrible mistake? I consider myself to be an environmentalist. I am totally convinced of Climate Change, and am very critical on GW naysayers . I am convinced of the need for change over energy usage and production, a strong advocate of the bicycle and so on. Perhaps I may be more hard-headed than romantic as prior to ordination I was an exploration and mining geologist, so as well as seeing the despoiling due to extraction, realise how our lives today depend on availability of minerals and sufficient energy. Perhaps I am more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. I do not wish to return to a cave.
The proposal for disinvestment comes from Southwark diocese, partly through the instigation of Bishop David Atkinson, who is a leading light in Operation Noah, a group formed with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London some ten years ago.
Operation Noah has been developing arguments for disinvestment for several years culminating in the publication of Bright Now, towards fossil free churches in October 2013, which seems to be the manifesto for disinvestment.
This report needs careful study, and thus I will comment on it. First it needs to be said that the arguments for the dangers of Climate Change are questioned by very few, for example Lord Lawson and leading American oil moguls , who attempt to argue against the almost unanimous scientific consensus. I take Climate Change as given. There is no question about the need to change. The question is what needs to be done both now and the short- and long-term future.
Bright Now essentially goes for getting rid of fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables, rather than considering stopgaps, like shale gas. The report does not seem to grasp that the whole life-style of the world is dependent on a vast use of energy and that most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. That cannot and will not change in the future, for the simple reason that there are no viable alternatives. They are overly optimistic on changeover to renewables.
This is made very clear in Dieter Helm The Carbon Crunch who is very critical both of present policies and the influence of Green NGOs.
After giving The theological and moral case for disinvestment which makes the jump from the Ash Wednesday declaration to disinvestment without giving good reasons, Bright Now moves on to The scientific case for disinvestment on pages 7-8. This section is badly flawed because of inaccuracy and a reliance on publications by Green NGOs like Greenpeace and FoE, rather than regular scientific publications like reports from the BGS, USGS, EPA and peer-reviewed science. Thus only one of their references (which are so vague as to be unretrievable) on the CO2 emissions of fossil fuels are based on scientific publications .
In common with many environmental groups today ON is opposed to fracking, (which many, like Helm, see as a transition to a more carbon-free future) as are Stop Climate Chaos, and Green NGOs, but do so with varying levels of inaccuracy. Bright Now is frankly inaccurate.
On pages 7-8 they take their summary of fracking from a non-technical source – the Anglican Communion News Service , “Shale gas ‘fracking’ – hydraulic fracturing to release gas from underground rock – is potentially as damaging as coal due to the additional CO2 and methane emitted during extraction and to the local environmental risks from deep vertical and horizontal drilling, heavy freshwater use and the injection of large quantities of toxic chemicals” .http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/news.cfm/2013/5/17/ACNS5392
These are the familiar, inaccurate, scaremongering “objections” to fracking and show that the authors have relied too much on anti-fracking literature, whether from groups like Greenpeace or Anti-frack rather than the many technical reports from independent bodies like the British Geological Survey, United States Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency (USA) and academics. Familiarity with the literature would have shown them that the “worse than coal argument” is contentious and flawed. The toxic chemicals include vinegar and lemon juice!
They need to state that the “large quantities of toxic chemicals” make up only 0.5% of the fracking fluid and most are used in many domestic and manufacturing (including food) processes, and in low concentrations are not toxic in a serious sense. Further, as is well-known among those familiar with fracking, there is no need to use freshwater. All these things have been said many times in the last five years or so, and to repeat them reflects shoddy research at best. As several members of the ON board are scientists one would have expected them to do better than this. It does not inspire confidence in either their objectivity or competence for the whole report. And so to;
The financial case for disinvestment
Having read the scientific case and found it erroneous, I have little confidence in their economics. I am off home turf here, but it seems that they have been very selective in their references and ignore such economists as Prof Dieter Helm of Oxford, who makes a very different argument in The Carbon Crunch (Yale 2012) arguing for development of shale, increased renewables and carbon capture.
. They conclude the section with
Early movers and the positive alternatives
Here they consider that alternatives to fossil fuels are either available or imminent. That is not the case. The report is too optimistic on changing to renewables and looks to reports like the CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain who “believe that it is possible for the UK to fully meet its energy needs from renewable energy sources with the largest contribution coming from offshore wind turbines, which could produce around half of the UK’s energy.
They need to say when this could be, but all predictions, apart from those from Green NGOs, are that renewables will provide only a fifth or so of energy in the foreseeable future. I wish Zero Carbon Britain could be true but it is no more than a pipedream. In their faith in renewables they do not consider the infrastructure needed to take the electricity from renewables into the grid or the ways of providing energy on windless days – especially when there is a blocking polar or continental high.
So what about their final conclusion?
This report has demonstrated the strong and mutually reinforcing theological and moral, scientific and financial cases for the Churches to disinvest from fossil fuels in the face of rapidly advancing climate change.
The report has given good theological and moral arguments for tackling climate change, but not for disinvestment. The two are not the same thing, although they are increasingly being put together . By doing so it encourages polarisation rather than working for solutions, thus adding to divisions in society and the church. It ignores those who have concluded after much thought that disinvestment is not a wise course. The presentation of the scientific case is so badly flawed and inaccurate that it totally undermines their whole argument . On the financial case they ignore other possibilities, especially with shale gas as a transition to a fossil-free or carbon neutral future. They are far far too optimistic that renewable alternatives will be developed in the near future. That will not happen, so it is a false hope. They would have done well to consider Mark Lynas and Dieter Helm
My conclusion here should be obvious. Operation Noah is right on the dangers of Climate Change but when it comes to practicalities they go adrift. Their presentation of the scientific case for disinvestment is simply full of error. This totally undermines the validity of the Southwark motion on disinvestment.
What of the future? At best, disinvestment will be an empty gesture. All, including those who vote in favour, will continue to use fossil fuels at an alarming rate, prefer car to bike even for short journeys, will happily used fracked gas as it comes on line (in fact all are already using fracked hydrocarbons from the North Sea, from the 2000 or so oil and gas wells on the British mainland and from elsewhere). This is one of the many fracked gas wells producing I MegaW of electricity
. It will, and is, polarising environmentally concerned people, whether Christian or not, thus making constructive working together more difficult. Further, to disinvest the church will cut itself off from all influence, if it has not done so already.
Far better is to consider the wise arguments of Dieter Helm and Mark Lynas and take seriously the mess we are in due to climate change and look for sound policies to ameliorate this, even though this will mean gas and oil.
P.S This advice to the White House gives a better way forward; http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/01/22/3190851/recommendations-obama/