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How To Address Community Opposition To Renewable Projects


This week Greta Thunberg joined the protests in Norway against wind farms that power 100,000 Norwegian households but operate on land used by Indigenous Sámi reindeer herders. The community asserts that the flickering of the turbine blades and the noise they create cause distress to reindeer. Importantly, in 2021 Norway’s Supreme Court ruled that these farms violated Sámi rights under international conventions. Greta noted: “Indigenous rights, human rights, must go hand-in-hand with climate protection and climate action. That can’t happen at the expense of some people. Then it is not climate justice in Norway.”

Earlier this year, Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB announced the discovery of 1 million tons of rare earth minerals which are critical for renewable energy technologies. Moreover, from the national security perspective, China controls 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 onshore important supply chains, including those pertaining to critical minerals. The rare earth deposits are located in Kiruna, near the Arctic Circle. The proposed mine is opposed by local Sámi communities who believe that it will threaten the traditional reindeer migration routes.

Thirty mayors of tourism-dependent New Jersey coastal cities want a moratorium on offshore wind because they claim these projects have caused the death of humpback whales in the Atlantic. These Mayors have been joined by the Native American Congress which wants offshore wind moratorium both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Native groups are concerned about procedural inequity rooted in inadequate consultation about offshore wind projects.

Nevada’s Thacker Pass Lithium mine is opposed by Native American and environmental groups. Native American nations want to halt the project because their ancestral graves and cultural sites are located in this area. Environmental groups point out that this mine will deplete and contaminate groundwater and harm the habitat of threatened species such as the Greater 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 are opposing the 1,200 megawatts Goldendale pumped hydro project because it would harm their cultural and spiritual practices.

Opposition to renewable projects is sprouting in many places, including rural U.S. counties seeking to restrict (and sometimes ban) solar and wind farms. Similar rural opposition to utility-scale renewables has emerged in other countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and South Korea.

What Should Climate Groups do?

Climate advocacy has passed through three phases. In the first phase, climate groups focused on fighting climate deniers and making sure that policymakers understood that climate change is real and anthropogenic. Much has changed in the last 10 years. Very few question climate science. Republican states lead the nation in renewable energy. Fossil fuel firms are investing in renewable energy, although greenwashing concerns remain. Importantly, the majority of the U.S. public, including younger Republicans, support climate action. Climate groups have prevailed in phase one.

In the second phase, climate groups focused on getting climate mitigation on regulatory and policy books. Depending on the political and institutional contexts, policy instruments have taken different forms including cap and trade, carbon taxes, renewable portfolio standards, and subsidy-oriented policies to support green technologies. Business firms are committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, sometimes as a part of their ESG-focused efforts. Although enacting policies has been uneven, and there is an organized pushback by Republicans against ESG, climate groups seem to be prevailing in this round as well. After much delay, the U.S. enacted the largest-ever federal climate program, the Inflation Reduction Act.

We are now in phase three of climate policy. New challenges have emerged especially with Russia’s 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 that S&P 500 tracks. Climate leaders such as Germany have reopened coal mines. In 2022, China approved the construction of 2 coals plants every week.

One might argue that the Ukraine shock will be short lived. Moreover, even as energy prices rose, the installed capacity of renewable energy has surged. The automobile industry, including laggards such as Toyota, have embraced electrification. These are important developments, but their success depends on countries and regions creating the infrastructure to produce zero emission electricity and to move it from generating- to consumption centers.

Many are giddy about the prospects of the recent Inflation Reduction Act drastically altering the energy landscape. But making laws does not guarantee their implementation, given the multiple veto points in the policy process. Also, rushing through drastic changes sometimes shortchanges procedural equity, which motivates a backlash. Specifically, it is not clear how renewable energy will be generated on the scale required to reach net zero emissions by 2050, given the community level opposition to many projects (supply chain issues are also important, but we focus here on political impediments).

The backlash is real and should not be dismissed as climate denialism or reflecting the typical NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics. Greta’s opposition should be a reality check: ignoring pushback from historically marginalized communities raises doubts about the importance attached to equity and justice issues in decarbonization.

Climate groups have been late to acknowledge the issue of “just transition” and climate adaptation. If decarbonization needs to accelerate—which it should—the climate movement needs to build local (as opposed to elite) consensus on decarbonization issues. The role of rural communities where the new infrastructure will be built is critical. But, if rural areas oppose hosting renewables, which will supply electricity to urban users, decarbonization will face a formidable hurdle. Climate groups will need to focus on listening to different voices, and thoughtfully co-developing solutions, which will invariably include compromises and concessions. The pivot from agitating to building consensus is necessary because otherwise the movement will find itself defending the unpopular, maybe even unjust dimension of climate transition.

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