How To Address Community Opposition To Renewable Projects

This week, Greta Thunberg joined protests in Norway against wind farms that provide electricity to 100,000 Norwegian homes but operate on land used by indigenous Sami reindeer herders. The community claims that the flickering of the turbine blades and the noise they make frighten the reindeer. Importantly, in 2021 Norway’s Supreme Court ruled that these farms violate Sámi rights under international conventions. Greta noted: “Indigenous rights, human rights, must go hand in hand with climate protection and climate protection. This must not be at the expense of a few people. Then it is not climate justice in Norway.”

Earlier this year, Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB announced the discovery of 1 million tonnes of rare earth minerals, which are critical to renewable energy technologies. In addition, from a national security perspective, China controls the mining and refining of rare earth minerals (the EU does not mine or refine them). After the Ukraine invasion and the tensions over Taiwan, the Biden administration and the EU want to land important supply chains, including for critical minerals. The rare earth deposits are located in Kiruna, near the Arctic Circle. The proposed mine faces opposition from local Sámi communities, who believe it will threaten traditional reindeer migration routes.

Thirty mayors of tourism-dependent New Jersey coastal cities are calling for a moratorium on offshore wind, claiming these projects have resulted in the deaths of humpback whales in the Atlantic. These mayors were joined by the Indian Congress calling for a moratorium on offshore wind energy on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Indigenous groups are concerned about procedural inequalities stemming from insufficient consultation on offshore wind projects.

Nevada’s Thacker Pass Lithium Mine faces opposition from Native American and environmental groups. Native American nations want to stop the project because their ancestral tombs and heritage sites are in the area. Environmental groups warn that this mine will deplete and contaminate groundwater and harm the habitat of threatened species like the Great Sage Grouse, Lahontan Cutthroat Trout and Pronghorn Antelope.

The Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Umatilla Reservation, and Warm Springs Confederated Tribes of the Warm Spring oppose the 1,200-megawatt Goldendale pumped hydroelectric power plant because it would harm their cultural and spiritual practices.

Opposition to renewable projects is stirring in many places, including rural US counties that are attempting to restrict (and sometimes ban) solar and wind farms. Similar rural opposition to utility-scale renewable energy has emerged in other countries, including the UK, Germany, Spain and South Korea.

What should climate groups do?

Climate protection has gone through three phases. In the first phase, climate groups focused on fighting climate change deniers and ensuring policymakers understand that climate change is real and anthropogenic. A lot has changed in the last 10 years. Very few question climate science. Republican states are national leaders in renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies are investing in renewable energy, although greenwashing concerns remain. Importantly, the majority of the US public, including younger Republicans, supports climate action. Climate groups prevailed in phase one.

In the second phase, climate groups focused on getting climate protection into the regulatory and policy books. Depending on the political and institutional context, policy instruments have taken different forms, including cap and trade, carbon taxes, renewable portfolio standards, and subsidy-oriented strategies to support green technologies. Companies commit to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, sometimes as part of their ESG-focused efforts. Although implementation of the policy has been patchy and there is organized Republican opposition to ESG, climate groups appear to be gaining ground in this round as well. After a long delay, the USA enacted the largest federal climate program to date, the Inflation Reduction Act.

We are now in phase three of climate policy. New challenges have arisen notably from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has revived the short-term fortunes of fossil fuel companies. In 2022, the energy sector was the top performer among the 11 sectors tracked by the S&P 500. Climate leaders like Germany have reopened coal mines. In 2022, China approved the construction of 2 coal-fired power plants every week.

One could argue that the Ukraine shock will be short-lived. Additionally, installed renewable energy capacity has skyrocketed despite rising energy prices. The automotive industry, including laggards like Toyota, has embraced electrification. These are important developments, but their success depends on countries and regions putting in place the infrastructure to produce zero-emission electricity and transport it from the centers of generation to centers of consumption.

Many are dizzy at the prospect that the latest anti-inflation law will drastically change the energy landscape. However, enacting laws does not guarantee their implementation given the numerous veto points in the political process. Also, rushing through drastic changes sometimes falls short of procedural fairness, leading to a backlash. In particular, it is not clear how to generate renewable energy at the scale needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, given community-level opposition to many projects (supply chain issues are also important, but we focus here on political obstacles).

The backlash is real and should not be dismissed as climate denial or reflecting typical (not in my backyard) NIMBY politics. Greta’s opposition should be a reality check: ignoring the opposition of historically marginalized communities casts doubt on the importance attached to issues of equity and justice in decarbonization.

Climate groups have been late in recognizing the issue of “just transition” and climate adaptation. If decarbonization needs to be accelerated – which it should – the climate movement needs to build a local (as opposed to elite) consensus on decarbonization issues. The role of the rural communities where the new infrastructure is being built is crucial. However, when rural areas oppose renewable energy powering urban users, decarbonization faces a formidable hurdle. Climate groups need to focus on listening to diverse voices and thoughtfully collaborating on solutions that invariably involve compromise and concessions. The shift from agitation to consensus-building is necessary, otherwise the movement will defend the unpopular, perhaps even unjust dimension of climate change.

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