Ghosts of the past and shadows of the future

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Ghosts of the past and shadows of the future

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Returning to work after an excellent fortnight in Catalonia (wonderful trip and I'd recommend the train journey), it takes a little while to readjust to 'normal' life and to the noise that surrounds environmental debate.  For example, I have been struck by the reaction to the news that the RSPB has objected to two fracking proposals.   While we have received many supportive comments about our position, which aligns with most other environmental organisations, some have accused us of "playing politics". 

In my detached, post-holiday view, I find this odd.  A wildlife charity objecting to a development which might have consequences for widlife and the environment? That's sort of what we do and have been doing for 124 years.  But, for some, fracking is seen as the answer to concerns about energy security, reducing fuel bills and rebooting the economy.  Any opponents are accused of not being relevant to the debate, a nimby or worse having ulterior motives for getting involved.

Economics aside, I cannot help wonder if there is a collective desire to suppress concern about the consequences of locking ourselves into an energy future that remains reliant on fossil fuels.  Even beyond the well-known climate deniers, the science of climate change and its impacts on humans and wildlife, seem to either to have been forgotten or to have been deprioritised.   I cannot help but draw a rather crude parallel with my holiday reading: the Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett which partly seeks to understand why Spain, for so many years, struggled to end its "pact of forgetting" the Civil War and the four decades of Franco's rule.

Four years ago, the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (both domestically and internationally) was at the centre of political debate led by David Cameron and by Ed Miliband.  It had been fuelled by the Nick Stern report on the economics of climate change which argued convincingly as to why it made economic sense to invest in reducing greenhouse gases today rather than pay to deal with the consequences of climate change tomorrow.  Now, there is a danger that debate about climate science and its impacts has been reduced to an entertaining sport between believers and sceptics.  I hope that the forthcoming Independent Panel on Climate Change reports (on the science in September this year, on impacts in March 2014 and on mitigation in April 2014) helps to shift public and therefore political opinion.  Only then can we move on to a more grown-up debate about the tough choices we face in wanting to maintain standards of living whilst guaranteeing a safe future for our children and the planet.  From the leaks that have been reported (see here), the climate crisis appears to be getting worse and the clock calling for action is ticking. 

As I have written before, there is a lot at stake.  A major review in Nature suggested that up to a third of species could be committed to extinction by 2050 as a result of climate change and the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds highlighted the consequences of a warming world for wild birds.   But this isn't all about shadows of the future, there is already strong evidence that climate change is affecting UK wildlife now. 

Our collective "pact of forgetting" the climate science and its impact on widlife need to be abandoned so that we have a more rounded debate about our energy future and, yes, that must include an honest assessment of the risks of fracking.


  • Martin,  

    Surely locally-sourced 'fracked' gas will help to reduce UK's greenhouse gas emissions (as it appears to have done, substantially, in the USA) and buy more time for renewables such as tidal and wave power to come on stream both reliably and economically. Not sure about solar though, having seen great swathes of prime productive farmland in the south-west and elsewhere suddenly being covered in row-upon-row of uniform, shiney panels.  I wonder what species will take up residence in this new man-made habitat, and which species have been displaced?

    This would also help bridge the gap between older more polluting forms of energy generation and cleaner non-carbon based forms.  Furthermore, some of the national savings/tax take accruing from UK fracked gas could be reinvested in accelerating, further, provision of reliable, renewable energy sources.

    I agree with redkite – we should review developments on a case-by-case basis.

  • Well most experts seem to think there is very little risk of any problems and there will always be some risk in everything we do in life.

    For sure the energy expended on Wind Turbines seems a waste to me when a few days ago the wind farms at two places managed just to boil a few kettles,probably single figures,what a waste.

    Iwonder seeing as the rspb is overweight with climate change type of intellectuals they feel they have to object to everything to keep themselves in jobs from our hard won subs.

    What sense would there be in us taking a ideological stance on fracking and the rest of the world benefiting from it,we would simply lose out and get our share of there emissions.

    Please let no one say we have to give a lead and show a good example because we are way down on the list of being in that position.

  • I think there are a number of issues here. First of all I don't think the RSPB should object to all "Fracking" in principle unless the environmental risks associated with the technology are so great that it is clear that they are never going to be mitigated to an acceptable level. I don't however, think this is the case, at least at present.

    Objections to fracking developments should therefore be on a case by case basis. If a development is going to significantly impact on the local wildlife then the RSPB should object as strongly as possible and I am sure that is the situation in these two cases.

    The second issue is that of climate change and here, as the RSPB is so rightly doing, the Government must be "held to book" in achieving its reduction in carbon emission levels regardless of the type of fuel that is available for power generation.

    In all the "hullabaloo" about fracking there is a tendency to mix up these two issues which should be avoided as far as possible.This is not so easy, as on the one hand, "home" produced fuel would save this country huge amounts of foreign currency and provide significant help in stabilising electricity prices for customers at a time when North Sea gas is running out. We also need to recognise that over recent years there has been very major investment around the UK in natural gas receiving terminals to receive imported liquified natural gas, LNG, from overseas. If home produced gas from fracking purely acts as a substitute for imported gas and means coal is no longer used as a fuel, then all well and good. The great danger is of course that the Government will take the "easy way out" and forget about its carbon reduction targets when cheaper fracked gas is available. This MUST not be allowed to happen for the sake of wildlife and people and all the environmental organisations must combine their lobbying of the Government to ensure it does not.

    Local impact issues therefore need to be kept separate from climate change issues.If this is done then any rubbish talk of "fracking objectors sabotaging the country's economic well being" can be dealt with much more easily.            

  • Martin,

    I have to ask is it the fact that "tracking" will take place or the fact that a well will be drilled. Both are very different issues.