Will you protect the trees or the forest?
Two summers ago, my family received a heartbreaking “prepare to evacuate” call from CALFIRE, which might as well have been from Mother Earth herself.
As the sky above my childhood home in Northern California turned from ashen gray to phosphorescent orange, I felt shock, sadness, anger, and fear—common emotions when shelter and basic life are threatened.
Emotions can be catalysts, and in my case, they led me to dedicate my career to stemming the tide of climate change. However, emotions can also cloud logic and lead to rash decisions.
One form of this irrationality has been prioritizing local, smaller-scale environmental protection over the vital goal of combating global climate change. This is a form of environmental NIMBYism (“not in my back yard”), where people and organizations who claim to support the environment, when the necessary infrastructure is planned for their backyard, wrenches and They have created obstacles in the way of dealing with global warming.
One such infrastructure project is the 850 MW Battle Born Solar Project in Mormon Mesa, Nevada. Since it’s the largest US solar project ever proposed and has the capacity to power 10 percent of Nevada through clean renewable energy, you’d think environmentalists would support the project. However, local residents under the auspices of the Sierra Club have raised their objections due to potential impacts on local desert tortoise populations, possible increases in dust and general unsightliness.
Resident Kevin Emerick used to work as a park ranger at Death Valley National Park and is a known supporter of solar energy. However, due to concerns about desertification and its effects on the desert tortoise, he says: “Approving this project would be a shame.”
Locals have banded together and created a Facebook group, Save Our Mesa, with the goal of protecting the area from any development, including clean energy. Another resident, Susie Rabich, wrote on Save Our Mesa: We’re not against giant solar farms, but we don’t want them in anyone’s backyard—especially ours.
The fact is that “there is no one in the backyard” is impossible. Clean energy requires land for solar panels, windmills, hydroelectricity, and transmission lines, so it literally has to go into someone’s backyard.
There was Similar discussion in Maine With the New England Clean Energy Connect project, proposed to move Canadian hydroelectric power to Massachusetts, removing millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually. However, environmental groups pushed back because of concerns about environmental impacts on the North Woods — a 53-mile stretch of land through which the transmission line would run.
The groups have won the support of fossil fuel companies and received more than $20 million from NextEra Energy—an energy supplier that owns some renewable assets but primarily oil and gas—in their mission to stop the Clean Energy Project. Delivers to Maine.
The issue became a statewide referendum in which Maine residents voted to halt the project last winter. Opponents of the project offered an alternative: run the transmission line through Vermont.
These discussions are taking place all over the country. Riverkeeper (NY), Nantucket Residents Against Turbines (MA) and Save North Livermore Valley (CA) are among the local conservation groups fighting renewable energy projects.
Clearly, clean energy is not entirely innocent from an environmental perspective because land development will certainly displace some trees or creatures. Patrick Donnelly, director of the Nevada Center for Biological Diversity, in addition to desert tortoises, lists lion’s three-cornered (a leafy plant) and white-bordered bearded tongue (a flower) as threats to solar development in Nevada. But of course these local restrictions are hardly comparable in environmental terms to burning natural gas, oil and coal. Almost 80% of US energy consumptionwith increasingly deadly effects on millions of people worldwide.
These exchanges are legally binding. What if the last surviving population is the beard language? What if this project is supposed to encroach on the sacred land of the natives? What if the solar farm could move 50 miles east to a less controversial area, but at a significant cost?
I don’t pretend to know how to properly weigh trade-offs in every case or situation. But what I do know is that while it may seem cruel to talk about ignoring local environmental issues, global warming is also cruel. Desert tortoises may be able to survive another 50 years on Mormon Mesa, but they too will suffer when climate change shortens the rainy season to almost none.
I accept the bias in this argument because the biggest driver of slowing catastrophic wildfires in my state is slowing climate change. And right now, I believe the movement to protect the trees has lost the forest. At some point, climate change will reach all of our backyards—like the wildfires that threaten my family. And while we managed to avoid disaster, many others were far less fortunate during California’s 2020 fire season.
Virtually everything has an environmental impact, and while we’re discussing rivers or turtle populations, Florida is sinking, Texas is freezing, Washington is burning, Montana is sinkingAnd California is burning.
So where do you stand? Will you protect the trees or the forest?
Allegra Reister is a student at Columbia University The science of sustainability Masters programs.