Windmills and fracking – a controlled experiment

It’s not often that you get the chance to see the results of experiments with an international dimension in which specific legal or social factors could possibly determine attitudes on given subjects.

In this case we have the benefit of a George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication study, with others, of US attitudes to fracking which can be compared with attitudes to fracking in Australia – and which provoke some thoughts on windmills.

What makes the experiment interesting is the legal difference between the US and Australia on resource ownership. In the US the landowner owns the resources under the ground while in Australia the state owns the resources under it (a good thing too) and here seemingly noone other than governments and fracking companies are in favour of fracking.

We also know there is evidence in Australia and the UK that attitudes to windmills on farms are shaped by whether they are on your land or your neighbours. In the former case you don’t hear the windmills and you don’t toss and turn worrying that the windmill activity is going to cause you to die from some previously unidentified disease. But in the latter case, like some environmentalists, you invoke the precautionary principle and assert that, just because it hasn’t happened and there is no evidence, doesn’t mean it won’t or hasn’t.

The US study, conducted by researchers from Oregon State University, Cornell University and George Mason University, was published in Environmental Politics.

 It found that: “Combining geospatial data on extractive industry activities and survey data from a nationally representative sample, we explore whether local and regional extractive industry activities affect support for fracking. While limited evidence is found for the impact of proximity to oil and gas wells or production on support for fracking, employment levels in the natural resources and mining sector in the respondent’s county and residence in an area experiencing active oil and gas development significantly increase support for fracking.”

“Our findings suggest that people in communities that think they may directly benefit economically from extraction are more likely to support fracking. These people may also be more familiar with extractive industries than other Americans. Yet, our findings also show that among Americans as a whole, as familiarity with fracking increases, support for fracking decreases. Given that most Americans at the time of our survey had only slight familiarity with fracking, and that most Americans also neither strongly supported nor strongly opposed fracking, this suggests that public opinion on this issue may be highly susceptible to new information. Our results also suggest that public campaigns making the case for the harmful environmental and health consequences of fracking may undermine public support for fracking among Americans at large. In communities economically affected by fracking, however, to be successful, anti-fracking campaigns will need to identify effective counter-weights to the positive local economic benefits that appear to be associated with extraction.”

In simple terms – as exemplified by mining communities and forestry areas around the world – if you are in jobs or making money the problems seem to go away. If you are distant from it you worry. Of course, in the US the situation is shaped by further complications. Just as death duties in the US terrified people in one of the country’s poorer states, Kansas, where very few people would have to pay them – and also in the coal mining areas depicted in full meth and oxytocin-induced detail in the US series, Justified, – claims about death taxes, death panels, coal, guns, God, Muslims and what not are an effective way to displace people’s concerns from inequality to other issues.

Meanwhile in Australia the taxpayers’ dollars continue to fund windfarm research while the Government’s Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, writes in an online  publication that climate change science is still not settled and that anyone who thinks so is ignorant and medieval. Now Brandis, with the benefit of a bit of a tonsure, might look like a well-fed medieval monk and he has generally proven to be ignorant (for example on metadata) although perhaps not medieval, given that the medieval mind was not as closed as conventionally believed. But nevertheless, one looks forward to Prime Minister Turnbull’s waffling on why George is a good chap and entitled to his opinion. However, the blog does hope that if Justin Trudeau comes to Australia to explain climate change, quantum computing and metadata he is not obliged to have to provide classes to Brandis and other members of the Turnbull Cabinet.

The blog has always believed, despite its own commitment to altruistic philosophy, that the most compelling explanation of events and attitudes in just about any area you can think of is cui bono. Windfarms, fracking, mining, banking political donations and so on all sadly suggest that the cynical take that you can’t go wrong betting on self-interest is still depressingly relevant – whatever the resource use laws mandate.

In another interesting climate change development The Guardian reports (15 April 2016) that: “For the first time, Australians can see on a map how rising sea levels will affect their house just by typing their address into a website. And they’ll soon be able to get an estimate of how much climate change will affect their property prices and insurance premiums, too.

Launched on Friday, the Coastal Risk Australia website takes Google Maps and combines it with detailed tide and elevation data, as well as future sea level rise projections, allowing users to see whether their house or suburb will be inundated.”

Indicating the degree of interest in the subject the site was impossible to get on to for three days due to extraordinarily heavy traffic. One assumes Senator Brandis was not one of those although one can never under-estimate the hypocrisy of those pandering to the Liberal Party right wingers.