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Fracking: Are Environmentalists Missing the Point?

27/01/2014 11:55 GMT | Updated 26/03/2014 09:59 GMT

With Prime Minister, David Cameron, extolling the virtues of fracking at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, it seems environmentalists still haven't understood what they're up against. For the problem isn't fracking, but something broader, more global, and far more pervasive.

Environmental campaigners seem to think that simply because fracking is potentially dangerous and will only add to global warming, governments ought not to support it. "It's going to be harmful, so don't do it!", or so their thinking would go. As Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said, "Shale gas is not the solution to the UK's energy challenges. We need a 21st century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change."

But what's really behind the government's drive for fracking? Is it simply the need to keep the energy companies - and business generally - happy? Feathering the nests of Tory party donors and supporters? Simply putting greed and profit before people and planet? Yes, it's all of those usual things. But they're only one small part of a much larger story.

Read between the lines and you'll see that what's really driving governments is not so much immediate greed and self-interest, but the fear of the dire consequences for their national economies if they don't exploit shale gas while other countries do. The U.S. has been the first mover on shale gas, which has floored US energy prices, so providing much cheaper energy to U.S. manufacturers and consequently putting European firms at a competitive disadvantage. If Britain and other European governments don't go for fracking, their economies will be well and truly, well, .... fracked. As the EU Industry Commissioner, Antonio Tajani said, "I am in favour of a green agenda, but we can't be religious about this. We have to stop pretending, because we can't sacrifice Europe's industry for climate goals that are not realistic, and are not being enforced worldwide."

For environmentalists, then, fighting fracking merely on the basis of its potential dangers or the need to avoid climate change is not an adequate strategy. It is not having - and cannot have - any significant effect in a globalised, competitive, world economy. For the real problem is not fracking, but the underlying need of all nations to keep their economies internationally competitive. The problem, put differently, is a lack of global cooperation.

If the environmental movement is to achieve its aims, then it needs to go beyond its usual arguments and strategies. In addition to its existing methodology of lobbying and protest, the movement needs a more strategic and global methodology; one that's specifically designed to drive governments towards robust global agreements. It was precisely to help the movement to achieve that aim that I founded the Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) campaign, now gaining momentum in a number of countries around the world.

Without that crucial perspective on the necessity of global cooperation, and on how to make it happen, the environmental movement will remain frustrated as governments continue to sacrifice the environment for the sake of hanging on to their economic competitiveness. It's not that environmentalists should stop their protests, lobbying, or their appeals to our better nature. Those are all vitally important. But they're not enough. Until they add the second, global methodology to their strategy, they'll continue to fight a losing battle.