Rewarding Polluters and Locking Up People Who Want to Save the Planet

The climate campaigners should be given a medal for their outstanding bravery and public service, not prison sentences

What if, instead of giving Marie Curie and Alexander Fleming Nobel prizes for their life-saving work on radiation and penicillin, they'd been thrown in jail? Or, instead of being awarded the Grand Croix of the Legion d'honneur for his work on the germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur was imprisoned like Napoleon on Elba?

It would be perverse to return the favour of great, public works by depriving people of their freedom. Yet that is just what we're doing in Britain right now. The contributions of the people above were remarkable, but how much greater is the challenge of preserving a readily habitable climate, and how thankful should we be to those prepared to throw their life's energy and creativity at the task?

The answer according to the British establishment currently is not at all. Their response is the kind of gratitude a Caesar might hand-out to an innocent messenger on receiving unwelcome news. He throws them first into court, and then possibly into prison. In early March many celebrated when the state-backed French energy company EDF dropped a PS5m civil lawsuit against climate campaigns who occupied one of the company's gas-fired power stations for several days in 2012.

The case was seen as an attempt to intimidate and therefore frighten-off other campaigners, and the victory therefore an important signal. Less noticed, however, was that many of the campaigners still face criminal charges in relation to the occupation. Faced by a magistrates court, with no jury to appeal to on the wider issues, several pled guilty to charges of aggravated trespass. Due for sentencing on 6 June, they could be the first people in the UK sent to prison for acting to prevent global warming.

As part of the No Dash for Gas campaign, their argument for taking action is quite simple. EDF and several other big energy companies, actively supported by the chancellor, George Osborne, are set to lock the UK for decades into a new generation of 40 gas powered energy stations. They point out that even according to the government's official advisers, the committee on climate change, this would be technically illegal, preventing the country from meeting its legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The reality proves murkier than a polluted puddle in a tar sands field. Since leaving BP, former CEO John Browne became managing director of the private equity firm Riverstone Holdings LLC, which is itself part-owner of Cuadrilla Resources Ltd.

The latter is part of the push for a big expansion of shale gas development in the UK. After already handing out tax breaks in 2012, in his March 2013 budget (pdf) Osborne announced 'a package of support for the UK shale gas industry,' including hints that the compliance of affected local communities would be encouraged with some form of remuneration.

Both job creation and energy security were used by the Treasury to argue their case. Yet a study by Cambridge Econometrics comparing dependence on gas to large scale investment in offshore wind, found that looking forward to 2025, taking the wind option would create 100,000 more jobs and bring broader economic benefits, not to mention being more climate friendly.

In terms of energy security, the signs across Europe and even to some extent in the US, are that backing gas now, rather than a range of renewables will be a strategic folly, a bit like investing in a nationwide network of fire signal-beacons at the dawn of telegraphy. Even in the US gas is being over-hyped, and in Europe especially so.

In economics, as in life, getting the right outcome is often a matter of having the right incentives. Here they seem a little awry, or as an economist might say, perverse. A group of people attempting at great personal cost to promote a rational, life-preserving, economy-enhancing, job-creating energy policy end up facing prison and having their own life and employment chances severely curtailed.

Whereas a carbon intensive energy sector which, to their own huge profit, are set to lock the UK into a costly, polluting and ultimately doomed technology, get the nation's economic policy written to advance their cause. For John Browne, a cheerleader for the sector, he needn't worry about jail, his reward for helping put the UK and planet in peril was to be sent somewhere else entirely, to the House of Lords.

But it won't be long, I believe, before society sees that instead of being weighed down with a criminal record, the climate campaigners should be given a medal for their outstanding bravery and public service.

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