Contrasting Controversies: Fracking and Climate Change

Monday, 15 December 2014
Don Duggan-Haas, Ingrid H.H. Zabel and Robert M Ross, Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, NY, United States
Slickwater high-volume hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) is highly controversial. So is global warming, and the two issues are closely related, but the natures of these two controversies have substantial and important differences. Building upon years of experience in teaching and developing resources and strategies for teaching about evolution and climate change, staff at the Paleontological Research Institution have engaged in public outreach and educator professional development to help nurture understanding of fracking and the broader energy system. How are these controversies similar to and different from one another, and how should understanding these similarities and differences inform educational programming (and about how you talk about these issues with your Uncle Fred at the family holiday dinner?).

It is nearly universally agreed amongst scientists who study climate that changes now underway are real and human caused, and are posing or likely to pose very serious problems for humanity. Scientists who study slickwater high-volume hydraulic fracturing agree that it causes environmental damage, but there is no consensus as to whether fracking causes more or less harm (e.g., among different kinds of environment harm, across different temporal and spatial scales, and among different social contexts) than other ways of producing energy on a large scale. In other words, the basic tenets of climate change are not a matter of scientific controversy, though the implications for policy making obviously remain politically controversial, while fracking is an issue of both scientific and political controversy. Without advocating for or against fracking, we help audiences disentangle scientific and political issues, better understand the energy resources used in their own communities, and consider issues of scale, systems, and complexity.

We will compare and contrast the overlapping controversies surrounding climate change and fracking and highlight effective and ineffective approaches for educational programming as well as for more personal discussions. We will draw attention to the important ways in which these topics differ and what that implies for the development of programming and resources for teaching.