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Climate Change Choices: Difficult, Easy, or Erroneous?

July 17, 2023
Est. Reading: 4 minutes
Solar thermal power project located near Tonopah.
Solar thermal power project located near Tonopah, about 190 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Photo credit: Pexels-Kinder-Media

Having waited too long to address reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is now forcing some difficult choices. In parts of the western U.S. the issue is whether to preserve groundwater for residents or allow its use for building solar power plants. In California, conservationists have sought protection for Joshua trees that may restrict land otherwise perfect for solar projects.

As Columbia law professor Michael Gerrard observes, We are now at a point where we have to swallow hard, put some of these wind and solar facilities in imperfect places, unfortunately kill some birds. Professor Gerrard describes the global dilemma perfectly; as the immediacy and urgency of climate change becomes increasingly apparent, some painful choices are no longer avoidable. However, some opposition to climate solutions framed as too costly or unnecessary is upon close examination not compelling or credible. Distinguishing the difficult choices from the false ones will be essential if climate action is to progress in time to avoid the worst.

Some choices are serious and difficult, others sadly a reflection of misinformation and ideology. A few of the more serious include:

· Many solar and wind projects are being opposed by local communities, environmentalists, and native tribes because the projects would be on land of historical or cultural significance. For example, in February, the National Congress of American Indians called for a moratorium on offshore wind projects to allow them more opportunity for participation in planning and permitting. In another instance, a large proposed wind project on federal land in Idaho is being challenged by Japanese Americans because of its proximity to a national historic site where their families were incarcerated in WWII. The issue is not only happening in the U.S. as similar concerns have been raised by indigenous groups in Sweden and Norway.

· In addition to opposition to many solar and wind projects, there are increasing controversies regarding other climate solutions including projects to mine the nickel and other metals needed for EV batteries and even carbon capture projects linked to the operation of petrochemical facilities in poor minority communities. In these projects the issues are typically environmental impacts on local communities.

· Another difficult set of choices arises from the need to decide whether to pay for rebuilding flooded homes, often likely to be flooded again, or encourage relocation, or in the jargon of climate policy, promote “managed retreat”. Incredibly, there continues to be an influx of buyers to coastal locations at risk of flooding, despite the rising cost and decreasing availability of flood insurance. Some times even the offer of relocation assistance can backfire, giving resident greater motivation to remain.

· The most politically challenging choices will be between developing countries dependent on economic growth to reduce poverty and the urgent global need to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Or as a recent article in The Economist argues, “Growth is the best way to lift people out of poverty and improve average living standards. But in the developing world, more growth still leads to more emissions.” This conflict is most apparent in poor countries seeking finance to develop fossil fuel resources, a source of badly needed revenue, but a long-term commitment to further dependency on carbon sources of energy.

Some issues framed as serious choices are, however, based on misinformation or less compelling “not-in-my backyard” arguments:

· Some coastal communities, conservation groups, and many Republican politicians have become vocal opponents of offshore wind projects based on assertions they are the source of recent increased whale mortality. The issue has been thoroughly investigated by scientists and there is no evidence linking whale deaths to offshore wind projects. Ironically, climate change may be responsible for luring whales closer to shore leading to more injuries and deaths.

· Anti-solar and wind energy organizations, often with funding from fossil fuel interests, are promoting misinformation regarding alleged health and environmental risks. The frequency of such challenges has increased greatly in recent years, leading to delays in permitting and sometimes cancellation of proposed projects. Some rural communities have adopted ordinances to restrict renewable energy projects, while others use anti-solar lawsuits and media campaigns.

And finally, one source of opposition to offshore wind turbines that mystifies me:

· Visitors to Copenhagen cannot fail to be impressed by the spectacular sight of windmills generating power close to shore. Yet many coastal communities oppose offshore wind, even when located far from shore, because of asserted aesthetic objections. In Margate, New Jersey, just south of Atlantic City, the following sign has appeared all over town:

Stop the turbines, save the shore sign.
Picture taken by a friend of the author July 2, 2023, used with permission

Meanwhile visits to a large wind farm off the coast of Brighton in the UK have created a cottage industry and near Copenhagen climbing wind towers has become a tourist attraction. The unappreciated irony of the sign, of course, is that without a substantial increase in renewable energy sea level rise will continue leading inexorably to the demise of the shore!

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As Professor Gerrard observes, had the world acted sooner to reduce the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, hard choices would not have been necessary — modest and even beneficial measures such as investments in energy efficiency would have been sufficient. No longer. Analysis by the International Energy Agency concludes that for the world to have a 50/50 chance of meeting the Paris climate goal — to keep warming below 1.5C — annual clean energy investment will have to more than triple to around $4 trillion, much of it in solar and wind power projects. Finding acceptable places to put them will be the source of controversy, some difficult choices, others based on misinformation, ideology, and short-sighted versions of the demand “not-in-my-backyard.”

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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Comments

  1. These are extremely important issues. I will use this article in my Environmental Studies class as I think students need to be aware of the tough choices they will have to make as adults. Thank you for this.

      1. I am restructuring my new course, Climate Futures, around these tough choices and asking them to make decisions on each of them. After all they are the ones who have to make these choices. My best and thank you, Alan

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