Monday, May 14, 2012

More Nuance, Less Entrenchment

A recent article by the Guardian newspaper exposed efforts by the fossil fuel industry to co-opt and support grassroots groups opposed to wind energy facilities.  The article points to a strategy memo put together by the conservative American Tradition Institute (ATI) to organize local anti-wind groups and generate more opposition to big wind facilities, and ignoring the core problem of climate change caused by unsustainable use of the planet's resources.

The campaign, and other recent efforts by the fossil fuel industry to maintain its destructive foothold on our planet is a sign that, despite growing concern for our climate and our economic dependence on unsustainable fossil fuels, the industry is still on the prowl, like Cruella Deville in search of puppies. Following efforts by the Heartland Institute, this was dismaying, but not a surprise.  But the response from the green community has been the most alarming for me.

Since the ATI story broke, there has been a flurry of partisan rhetoric from wind industry supporters who plan to save the planet by defeating one Goliath with another Goliath -- 400 foot high wind turbines.  The environmental response conveyed the emotion I felt about the ATI scandal, but the substance of the response suggests we are locked in a battle not to save the planet, but to destroy fossil fuels.  David Roberts of Grist characterizes the ATI effort to counter wind energy as another example of the "culture wars" that have engulfed the country, and the members of those anti-wind groups as part of a "conservative base" that will eventually "die off".  After reading his piece, I was left nodding in agreement.  Not because I hope conservatives will "die off" and wind turbines will carpet our open spaces, but because he was right that we are in the middle of a war, and I feel that it is weakening the environmental community.  Our conservation ethic becomes another casualty as we become entrenched in a fight, and we lose sight of our reasons for stepping into the battlefield.  In a response to a reader on Twitter, Mr. Roberts lays out what we should do to counter ATI and the fossil fuel industry:

"Key is to scale up econ interests allied w/ RE [renewable energy] & use that power ruthlessly. As econ & political power realign, culture will follow."
We should be countering subversive efforts by the fossil fuel industry, but we should also be asking ourselves: why was the fossil fuel industry able to co-opt these anti-wind groups?  What is the culture we are seeking to encourage when we tell people that they have to live next door to giant industrial machines? Yes, some members of the anti-wind groups that ATI preyed upon may be a lost cause when it comes to explaining climate change and sustainability.  But at the heart of the matter are individuals and grassroots groups of various (but probably mostly conservative) political stripes that were interested in saving landscapes or wildlife in their communities.  If beautiful sunsets and birds were only valued by hippie environmentalists, we'd be much further behind in saving what we love.  The green community frequently taps into reservoirs of pro-conservation tendencies among conservatives-- hunters and fisherman, farmers who adopt more sustainable practices, landowners that support conservation easements, or citizens besieged by coal mining.  Why did we lose this opportunity to ATI?  I'm not saying every anti-wind group can be an ally against fossil fuels, but I bet some, if not many people concerned about massive wind turbines marring their land would also be concerned by the effects of climate change, or at least air pollution and toxins in their water supply.  It's not like registered Republicans like mercury in their water, more than Democrats do.

Do we really want to wage "war" the same way that ATI does? Is that what we are about? Fight industry with another industry.  NIMBY conservatives against wind or solar energy fighting with NIMBY liberals against coal mining and Arctic drilling?  Once we dive into that mentality, we are going to end up making sacrifices we will regret, if we have not already.  Can't we all just get along and put solar panels on rooftops? Apparently not.  It looks like the war mentality has taken root.

The Sierra Club in a recent blog post celebrated the wind industry's first quarter financial results and the fact that there are large-scale wind facilities in over 75% of our States.  The article quoted the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) reports, and made no mention of the need for keeping wind energy off of ecologically intact wildlands or avoiding impacts on raptors and migrating birds, which AWEA has been fighting against.  One commenter raised these concerns, but they were dismissed by another environmentalist who stated "this is about trade-offs".  My response to that is that Washington is a place of very few principles. If you make the trade-offs before you come to the table, Washington will take a little more. And the events of the past couple of years have shown that very well.  We've got the most pro-clean energy President ever -- opening up our lands to large wind and solar -- but he is also clearing the way for Arctic drilling, more coal mining in Wyoming, and at least half of the Keystone pipeline.  When being a green President is as easy as approving a solar facility that bulldozes 5.6 square miles of beautiful desert, you'll get your "trade-off".  But we should instead be advocating from a base of environmental principles. We should be advocating for the most sustainable path forward that adheres best to our conservation ethic,  and not just lobbying on behalf of whatever industry seems most prepared to beat coal.  One of the industries we chose (utility-scale wind) is eventually expected to kill 1,000,000 birds per year, and industrialize 20,000 square miles of our country, still require natural gas back-up plants, and consume millions of tons of cement, steel and copper to install and connect to the grid.

Around the same time that the Sierra Club posted its wind energy financial progress report, an article originally published by pro-industry Cleantechnica in 2009 was re-published on Scientific American's website, and titled "Wind Turbines Don't Kill Birds; Coal Plants Do." The article argues that more birds will likely die due to climate change than wind turbines.  While the "coal plants" part is true, it's hard to take the author seriously when the title contains a blatant lie absolving the wind industry of all of its sins.  This unfortunate spin, however, was broadcast across thousands of eager green readers when first Mr. Roberts of Grist tweeted the "Wind Turbines Don't Kill Birds" title and a link to nearly 20,000 followers, followed by another tweet from the Sierra Club's official Twitter presence to its nearly 38,000 followers.  Since most followers probably did not bother to read the study, the bottom line absorbed by the community was "wind good, coal bad". Or perhaps this was not intended to be a factual statement?



Screenshots of the Tweets that went out to thousands of readers. Notice that the Sierra Club's Twitter page background is emblazoned not with the high Sierras or Bryce Canyon, but towering wind turbines.



As Mr. Roberts wrote in 2010, the environmental community cannot fight climate change alone.   After reading some of the responses among groups and writers I count as allies, though,  I feel this is going to be another long war we cannot win if we forget why we started it.  If we fight climate change on the terms of industry and Wall Street, we will still end up losing.  As environmentalists, we are advocating for a clean environment, and wildlands that future generations can enjoy.  Climate change is the number one threat to that. But if our solution is the second biggest threat, maybe we should advocate for an energy model that is more consistent with our conservation ethic. 


2 comments:

  1. Great post Shaun!

    It seems that in the last two years the choices are always would you prefer a wind turbine or a stirling engine etc to be "planted" out on your favorite unspoiled desert view, with nobody in power(government, big enviro groups,etc)listening when you say, you know I would prefer my rooftop to be covered with pv solar panels.

    Even the Australian Beyond Zero Emissions national blueprint to go 100% renewables in 20 years, downplayed rooftop solar, in favor of big solar and big wind out in the boondocks.

    It is almost like, if it ain't big, we ain't listening. If it is on rooftops, we ain't listening.

    The most obvious choice usually is the right choice, but try telling that to folks today, who are busily tweeting away about good wind and how they are going to wipe out bad coal!

    A note to all those tweeters- did you see where the Obama administration just put "CLEAN COAL"
    back up on their energy website?

    So you see, you didn't change anything, it is still the same old, same old and while the bulldozers are warming up their engines to blade away more pristine wilderness, millions of rooftops are just sitting there soaking up the southern California sun, not helping at all to stop climate change, the most obvious choice passed over again.

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  2. Excellent post! Sharing under "wind vs coal not the answer" Thank you, thank you for bring some wisdom into this discussion.

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