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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2015

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Editorial - Fracking, Sustainability, and Democracy

Sustainability and democracy should reinforce each other. An actively engaged society that treats its members fairly and builds in safeguards for its future well-being forms the essential bedrock condition for sustainability. An essential characteristic of democracy and sustainability is the right of assembly, backed by freedom of speech, in the interests of ensuring that future generations are not knowingly disadvantaged by actions taken today.

Earlier this week the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014, 6) challenged us all:

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

This is as strong a statement as any group of scientists can express in a hothouse policy forum. The IPCC had placed indelible writing on the wall and makes no concessions for continuing increases of greenhouse gas emissions where alternatives are on offer.

Climate change is a threat to sustainable development. Nonetheless, there are many opportunities to link mitigation, adaptation and the pursuit of other societal objectives through integrated responses. Successful implementation relies on relevant tools, suitable governance structures and enhanced capacity to respond (IPCC 2014, 21)

In this issue, John C. Dernbach and James R. May offer a comprehensive guide to the various contentious environmental aspects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale for gas or for oil. They highlight the advantages for the U.S. economy and for low-income households of cheaper fossil fuels. But they also point to the longer term sustainability advantages of energy conservation and of renewables and the many unknowns over water availability and methane leakage. These challenges are being neither explicitly nor equivalently addressed in state level sustainability assessments. The bonanza of cheaper oil and gas is not being converted into low-carbon enterprise futures and sustainability safeguards advocated by the IPCC.

More to the point, Dernbach and May stress the lack of devising institutions of assessment and regulation of the kind which the IPCC calls for in the final line of the second quote. Yet such transformation in institutional performance was sought in the Rio Conference on Environment and Development, as well as in the Brundtland Report (1987). What emerges from this valuable essay is the appearance of weakness in designing robust tools and decision procedures for ensuring that sustainability is an essential ingredient of technological and economic advance. The preparation of sustainable development goals should include audit arrangements for the upgrade of robust governance structures for sustainability assessments backed by effective participatory democracy.

So much for the ideal. In the United Kingdom a much more insidious process is taking place that strikes at the very heart of sustainability and democracy. The UK government is hell-bent on facilitating investment in fracking. It sees the huge energy security advantages and possible cost reductions seemingly associated with this technology as requiring “fast-track” planning permissions (with minimal attention to local opposition), along with the “freedom” to drill below privately owned land without compensation or legal permission.

In the two regions where fracking is being actively contemplated, East Sussex (southwest of London) and Lancashire (near to Manchester), local protest is extremely well organized, overwhelmingly supported, and utterly peaceful. Yet a recent report by the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (Elliot and Short 2014) shows that the antifracking movement (which has blossomed to over 180 groups in England since 2012) is the target of excessive and allegedly illegal bullying and intimidation by local police.

The analysis of interview data indicates that through these actions the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, liberty and security of person, a fair trial, and respect for a private and family life, have been threatened or violated through the use of unnecessary or excessive force, unlawful arrests, covert surveillance of protestors, and intimidation of members of the Anti-fracking movement. Each of these rights is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, European Convention on Human Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the UK is legally bound to observe.

This kind of treatment is not confined to antifracking protest. It extends to all legitimate climate change protest in England, even to the point of refusing bail for arrested (peaceful) protestors and of adding their names to police databases.

Dernbach and May introduce an important perspective on fracking and sustainability. But what is even more insidious is the systematic surveillance of climate change protest in a democracy where the scientific community across all disciplines is calling precisely for such mobilization.


Brundtland, G. H., Chair, 1987. Our Common Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Elliot, J., and Short, D. 2014. “Fracking Is Driving UK Civil and Political Rights Violations,” The Ecologist (30 October).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers. New York, NY: IPCC.

—Timothy O'Riordan

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