Professor Andrew Watterson, Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport
Dr William Dinan, Senior Lecturer in Communications, Media and Culture, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
We live in a moment of double jeopardy. Climate change looms ever larger despite the immediate but still much smaller threat to public health from COVID-19. Air pollution contributes to climate change, global mortality and simultaneously increases the risks of morbidity and mortality in those contracting COVID-19.
A syndemic has occurred with the SARS-Cov-2 virus bringing together, as waves and clusters, illnesses linked with air pollution, the virus, socio-economic inequalities and in many cases geography, age, occupation and ethnicity. This has rightly aroused public concern and may lead to global action. If the current crisis does not trigger meaningful international cooperation to protect public health and the environment it is difficult to imagine what can shift the tectonic plates of the current global political economy. However, syndemics of air pollution illnesses due fossil fuels (including shale gas) with environmental injustices linked to income, class, ethnicity and occupation have been occurring every year for decades prior to COVID-19 and have largely been ignored by governments and the energy industry. Why did shale gas policies in England fail to fully address public health priorities and neglect ethical and environmental justice concerns?
The planning and legal systems, at least in England, have proved ineffective in protecting vulnerable communities and populations from the effects of air pollution due to the energy and other industries. The law does not effectively protect its citizens in England from environmental injustices and planning controls do little to help those experiencing significant socio-economic deprivation, who are often those most exposed to air pollution. In addition local councils have been over-ruled by UK government when they seek to refuse fracking applications in their areas. There appears to be no social licence to frack yet precautionary policies on the basis of the state of knowledge have repeatedly been downplayed in shale gas applications. The situation is compounded by the marginalisation of public health professionals despite growing scientific and medical evidence of the direct and indirect global and local adverse health impacts of shale gas extraction. Until a few months ago, there was no obligation on central and local government to consider the climate change impacts of shale gas in planning inquiries at all.
Air pollution and climate change are largely discounted in the complex realpolitik of policy and regulation involving shale gas development in England. There is a closed loop often of industry-funded and industry friendly reports and papers that downplay public health concerns and ignore completely environmental justice concerns . This is clear from an analysis of official policy documents and statements on planning and regulatory oversight of shale exploration in England, and material from industry and their consultants relating to proposed shale oil and gas development. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have responded differently and with greater circumspection than England and acknowledge community interests, public health concerns and global climate change factors as legitimate concerns.
However, currently the oil, gas and chemical industries in England continue to dominate and influence energy and feedstock-related policy making to the detriment of ethical and environmental justice decision making with significant consequences for public health.
The blog, based on a peer-reviewed paper, argues the oil, gas and chemical industries in England as major producers and /or users of shale gas from fracking continues to dominate and influence energy and feedstock-related policy making to the detriment of public health.