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Annals of a Warming Planet
The Shift to Renewable Energy Can Give More Power to the People
By Bill McKibben
March 3, 2021
A good method for converting so-called NIMBY opponents of turbines and other renewable-energy infrastructure would be to give locals a stake in the enterprise’s economic success.Photograph by Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty
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The pandemic has driven a lot of people outdoors: reports show that park visits are up around the world and parking lots at hiking trails are packed. That’s understandable—by now you’d need to chop down a sizable forest to print out the studies showing that time in nature reduces stress, cuts healing times, and enhances the functioning of the immune system. As Sadie Dingfelder wrote in the Washington Post in December, “I’ve always found it relaxing and rejuvenating to be outdoors, but the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic, the uncertainty of civil unrest and, oh, I don’t know, the potential crumbling of American democracy have made me crave nature like a drug.”
That’s good news for the planet and for people. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that kids who spend more time outdoors grow up to become more environmentally inclined. If you love something, you’ll protect it: from the day that the Sierra Club was founded, that’s been the mantra of the conservation movement. But there’s one trapdoor here: if we’re going to build out renewable energy in the ways that the climate crisis requires, it’s going to require intruding on some of that landscape. A new report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law finds that state and local governments across the country have been passing laws designed to restrict the expansion of solar and wind projects. Sometimes, they’ve acted at the behest of the fossil-fuel industry—as Molly Taft reported in Gizmodo last week, the Koch front group Americans for Prosperity played a part in blocking a major Texas wind farm.
But some of the push came from local people who just didn’t want to look at wind turbines. As the Sabin study concluded, “ ‘not in my backyard’ and other objections to renewable energy occur throughout the country, and can delay or impede project development.” I’ve definitely seen that phenomenon at play in Vermont, where I live. Plenty of people with no apparent allegiance to oil or gas have managed to impose a de-facto moratorium on new windmills on ridgetops, and challenged construction of solar farms for being eyesores. Their arguments are often absurd—the idea, for instance, that windmills cause cancer was adopted by Donald Trump from nimby opponents of turbines, even though the medical evidence is clear that windmills don’t cause harm. (Just as it is clear that particulate pollution from fossil fuels now accounts for nearly one in five deaths worldwide, ahead of H.I.V./aids, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.) Yes, wind turbines kill birds—perhaps a quarter of a million every year in the United States, compared with the 6.8 million that die after colliding with cell-phone and radio towers and the billions that succumb to domestic cats. (And, if we keep raising the temperature on the current trajectory, two-thirds of American bird species will be threatened with extinction by 2100.)
There’s a bad reason that some of this resistance will eventually dissipate: bigger players are coming into the renewable-energy industry, and eventually their clout is going to match the Kochs’—NextEra Energy, a Florida-based renewables provider, briefly passed ExxonMobil in market capitalization last autumn, and one assumes that it is hiring lobbyists. But a better method for converting—in the words of a Clean Energy Wire analysis​—​nimby​s into p(lease)imbys would be to give locals a stake in the economic success of the enterprise. The simplest way is through ownership—early German solar and wind expansion, beginning in the nineteen-nineties, was eased by the fact that much of the equipment was owned by local coöperatives and even by churches, which made money off it. But, as the scale of Europe’s renewables industry expands—wind power may need to grow by a factor of twenty-five this decade to meet the Continent’s targets—it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small players to buy into projects. As Paul Hockenos reports at Yale Environment 360, the European Union is trying to spur more community ownership of renewables, but, as huge offshore wind farms begin to sprout, only large corporations have access to the billions of dollars required for construction.
There are probably other ways to turn renewable energy into something that economically benefits the people who live with it—watching New Mexico face the potential loss of oil and gas revenues, as Joe Biden calls for a temporary ban on new drilling on public lands, is a reminder that we should think of sunlight and wind power as community assets, and make sure that those who exploit them are, at the least, paying a hefty price to communities for the right. But we shouldn’t give up on the idea of democratizing energy ownership as much as possible: the sun and the wind are omnipresent, giving us a remarkable chance of reducing the influence wielded by those who control the energy supplies. As the invaluable Institute for Local Self-Reliance pointed out a full decade ago, “With new rules, we can unlock the potential of distributed generation and the potential of people to power the clean energy future.”
This is not the only nimby battle that needs fighting. In California, the reluctance of too many otherwise committed environmentalists to allow denser cities, which would decrease the use of cars, is a hypocrisy of the highest order. And, in both cases, part of the answer is a new aesthetic that reflects the reality of the world we inhabit. We need to see dense, vibrant cities as more attractive than scattered suburbs, and we need to look at wind turbines and see the breeze made visible. Much depends on it.
Passing the Mic
Having watched a winter storm bring Texas to its knees (or to Cancún), it seems the right moment to talk with Saket Soni, the executive director of Resilience Force, which has been described as “a national initiative to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening and securing America’s Resilience Workforce” and one that is “the national voice of the millions of people whose work, heart, and expertise make sustainable recovery from disasters possible.” He’s currently at work on the idea with Craig Fugate, who was the administrator of fema during the Obama Administration. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
Obviously, even if we do everything right from here on, we’re going to be dealing with climate-related disasters for the foreseeable future. How should we prepare?
Even if we slashed emissions to zero tomorrow, a certain amount of harm is locked in, particularly for front-line communities. We see that in the record hurricane seasons, the wildfires in forested states, the crisis in Texas. So climate resilience has to be an organizing principle of the federal government. Our future depends on rebuilding our homes, cities, communities, and social infrastructure not just back to the way they were but stronger, better able to withstand the next storm, fire, quake, or drought. And none of that happens without a skilled, secure resilience workforce. The federal government can—and must—unlock billions in adaptation and resilience.
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But here’s the thing: that money will compound inequality if we don’t intervene. The current rules of federal-recovery investment disproportionately channel money into wealthier communities. As a result, white homeowners’ wealth tends to increase after disaster recovery, while low-income Black and brown communities fall further behind. I call this the resilience divide. Building true resilience has to mean bridging that gap.
Did we learn anything about this from the covid year?
covid was a dress rehearsal for our climate future. The questions we faced in responding to a global health disaster are the ones we face in preparing for the even greater threat of climate change. That includes how to repair historical inequalities through disaster response.
I learned a lot in New Orleans, an epicenter of both the climate crisis and covid. We partnered with the city to build a New Orleans Resilience Corps. We took Black and brown workers who had lost their jobs during the economic shutdown, retrained them for covid- and climate-related work, and put them on new career paths.
It’s a glimpse of what’s possible if we invest in the resilience workforce at scale. A national resilience corps could work on climate adaptation and mitigation year-round and provide a path to the middle class for workers, the way manufacturing once did. Lawmakers looking for answers should take note.
It seems as if immigrants often play a big role in this hard work. Why, and what should it teach us about a new ethic of solidarity?
Every time America is rebuilt for a new generation, immigrants play a big role in that rebuilding. This time is no different. I saw it myself after Katrina, and after dozens of climate disasters since. After fires and floods, through hell and high water, immigrants drive the rebuilding that lets others come home. “We are America’s white blood cells,” one of them told me.
What’s new is the outpouring of solidarity during the covid crisis. Suddenly, workers at the bottom of America’s labor caste system—grocery-store clerks, care workers, delivery drivers—were being applauded. The workers dismissed as unskilled had a new name: essential. The climate crisis, too, has its essential workers. A vast portion of them are immigrants.
The question is how to turn the applause that the workers are getting into the protections that they need: P.P.E., health care, high wages, benefits, unions. And immigrant resilience workers need one more thing, which is just as essential: citizenship. The new federal playbook for climate resilience has to include it.
Climate School
A team at Duke Law School has issued a report urging the Securities and Exchange Commision to increase the rigor of reporting on socially responsible investing. “The SEC’s failure to mandate consistent and decision-useful disclosure” of relevant information on how companies address environmental, social, and governance factors, the researchers write, “has made it impossible to efficiently allocate capital towards a sustainable future.”
GreenFaith is organizing a worldwide day of climate action for people of faith on March 11th—in the United States, it’s concentrating on fighting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, and backing the call for green-infrastructure spending in Congress.
Climate change has been an issue long enough that historians are giving it an increasingly serious look. The National Security Archive recently released a cache of declassified documents from the Clinton era that outline how the U.S. prepared for the Kyoto Climate Change Conference, in 1997. In a summary accompanying the released documents, the archive’s senior analyst, Robert Wampler, notes, “As a January 1998 memorandum to Vice President Gore stresses, the administration’s domestic campaign must prevent a ‘fatal PR blitz’ from undermining public and Senate support, which could kill the treaty ‘in the cradle’ ”—which, indeed, is what happened.
Reflecting on the Texas energy debacle, Ezra Klein points out, in the Times, that, even as we need to build large-scale networks to cope with crises, defenders of the status quo may try to hunker down in place: “a global crisis that demands cooperation and even sacrifice will be fertile soil for nationalists and demagogues.” But a poll by Morning Consult offers some good news: fifty-six per cent of U.S. voters say that Texas should connect its electric grid with those of other regions, compared to only twenty-four per cent who say that the state should preserve its independence.
Scientists working at the cern particle-physics laboratory, in Switzerland, have found a new feedback loop, in which warming may produce more clouds that could, in turn, intensify the warming. Iodine is the key, and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing as the Arctic thaws. “The more the ice melts, the more sea surface is exposed, the more iodine is emitted, the more particles are made, the more clouds form, the faster it all goes,” Jasper Kirkby, a spokesperson, said.
Writing in Daily Kos, Dan Bacher notes that California’s ongoing permitting of new oil and gas wells is threatening protected marine areas—and agrees with Kyle Ferrar, of the Fracktracker Alliance, that, if Governor Gavin Newsom would finally stop issuing O.K.s for new wells, it might make it easier for the Biden Administration to do the same on public lands across the country.
A big new study indicates that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (amoc)—a set of ocean conveyor belts that includes the Gulf Stream—is slowing down, and dramatically. The paper, published in Nature GeoScience, reports that the warming climate—and hence the melt of Arctic ice—has left the current in its weakest state in at least the past millennium. The Times provided a true service this morning by taking the report and other recent ocean science and turning it into a spectacular multimedia presentation.
Scoreboard
There is guarded good news from Indonesia, where deforestation for palm-oil plantations has fallen fairly sharply in the past couple of years. But the same companies continue to dominate the industry, and there is reason to worry that palm-oil prices have begun to rise again, as economies around the world come out of the covid funk.
Local groups in Novato, California, are pushing back against a plan for a fourteen-pump Costco gas station, on the ground that we shouldn’t actually be pumping more gas. Since California is planning to end the sale of internal-combustion engines in the years ahead, it makes little sense to keep building new fossil-fuel infrastructure. The Novato Planning Commission recommended approval of the plan last week, but opponents say that they’ll keep up the fight as it goes to the full city council. The battle is far from hopeless—the neighboring city of Petaluma just banned new gas stations.
Montgomery County, in Maryland, is leading the nation in deploying electric school buses; it has leased several hundred of them from a Boston-based firm. As Steven Mufson and Sarah Kaplan note, in the Washington Post, “a sweeping study published in 2001 found children riding in diesel school buses are exposed to four times the levels of toxic exhaust as people sitting in a passenger car on the same road.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that “two pipeline workers were among those arrested in a human trafficking sting in Itasca County” between February 17th and 19th, “stoking activists’ fears the Enbridge Line 3 project could increase such crimes in Minnesota.”
A judge in New Delhi ordered bail for the young Indian climate activist Disha Ravi, but, as Naomi Klein writes in an important piece for The Intercept, her case is depressingly emblematic of the growing bond between authoritarian governments and Big Tech.
The early returns aren’t promising: nations were supposed to submit new climate pledges under the Paris accords by the end of 2020. The U.S. and China didn’t do so; the countries that did submitted plans which would reduce the carbon problem by only about one per cent. One country, Mexico, actually lowered its previous target.
Warming Up
The Weather Station is a Toronto band led by the singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman. Its new album, “Ignorance,” focusses on climate change. Here’s a review by the venerable podcast “Sound Opinions,” and here’s the first track, “Robber,” inspired by ExxonMobil. Key lyrics:
He had permission
Permission by words
Permission of thanks
Permission by laws
Permission of banks
A previous version of this post misidentified the respondents to the Morning Consult poll.
Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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