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Reckoning with climate change will demand ugly tradeoffs from environmentalists — and everyone else

Being a climate hawk is not easy for anyone.

Beaver Valley Power Station Wikipedia

Climate change is a crisis. Serious damages are already underway, there’s enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to ensure more damages to come, and if carbon emissions continue unchecked, species-threatening damages become a non-trivial risk.

Lots of people acknowledge this. But it’s one thing to acknowledge it and another to follow all the implications, wherever they lead. Very few people have let the reality of the situation sink in deep enough that it reshapes their values and priorities. Being a consistent climate hawk, it turns out, is extremely difficult.

Let’s take a look at an example, then pull back to ponder the broader problem.

Zero-carbon energy vs. environmentalists in New England

The operators of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, the only remaining nuclear plant in Massachusetts, have said that they will close the plant no later than June 2019. It has long been plagued with maintenance and safety issues, and nuclear is having a hard time competing in wholesale energy markets.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station
Howdy, Pilgrim.
Pilgrim Power

Pilgrim is a 690-megawatt plant that has been producing 5.12 terawatt hours of energy per year — around 4.1 percent of the New England region’s energy. (These numbers are courtesy of Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst and MIT PhD candidate, whose tweet thread got me thinking.)

That represents an enormous amount of carbon-free energy about to vanish from the grid, which any climate hawk must surely view with alarm.

Take the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club (SCM). It proclaims that “climate change is an existential threat.” But it is not fighting to find new ownership or better safety procedures for the Pilgrim plant, or ways for the plant to be compensated for the lack of CO2 it produces (as it would be in New York). It advocates that Pilgrim be closed immediately.

OK, well, Pilgrim is a pretty poor performer, safety-wise, so maybe it’s best to replace it as quickly as possible with clean energy.

So how about this idea? As part of an effort to clean the grid, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed the Northern Pass transmission line, which would bring around 9.45 TWh/year of hydroelectric energy down from dams in Quebec. That would replace the lost Pilgrim energy and add more carbon-free energy to boot.

SCM ... opposes that too. “Not only will we be contributing to ecological destruction on a massive scale,” it writes, “we will be furthering the exploitation of the indigenous people of Canada.”

Well then, what does SCM propose doing to replace all that energy from Pilgrim? Simple: It advocates getting all that power from renewables. But there are two problems with that.

First, it would cost more than hydro. Lots more. Jenkins pulls together a rough comparison:

You can quibble about the exact numbers (check the thread for more discussion), but the point is that existing nuclear and hydro are both extremely cheap. Closing off both possibilities raises the cost of decarbonization substantially.

Second, even if New England citizens were willing to pay that much more for energy, even if procurement and construction went perfectly and the region was covered in solar panels, that energy would be replacing the energy lost from Pilgrim (and rejected from Quebec) rather than adding to it. There would be less progress toward decarbonization in Massachusetts than otherwise possible.

And it wouldn’t even be a one-to-one replacement. Because it is variable, a megawatt of sun or wind does not play the same role as a megawatt of nuclear or hydro; it would have to be backed up by lots of natural gas (or oil).

Yes, it will be possible someday to run an energy grid almost entirely on wind and solar, using demand-shifting and energy storage for the role natural gas (the dominant energy source in the state) plays today. But Massachusetts needs energy soon, and of the options available, natural gas is the cheapest and most available, so that is, in practice, what’s likely to fill the gap.

In short, losing Pilgrim (and rejecting Northern Pass) would almost certainly result in a net increase in New England carbon emissions. This isn’t speculation — something similar already happened: When the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closed in 2014 (amid promises from environmentalists that it would be replaced by renewables), the region’s energy-sector emissions subsequently increased by 5 percent, after years of decline.

Long story short, as Jenkins says, SCM does not seem to be acting like a group that views climate change as an “existential threat.”

Before moving on, let’s touch on a few necessary caveats here.

First, it’s fine if an individual or group chooses to prioritize rivers in Quebec or the safety risks of existing nuclear power plants over the threat of climate change. Sincerely: It’s fine. I don’t personally agree with that ranking, but people are entitled to their own values and priorities.

But an individual or group should not do so while also proclaiming climate change an existential threat. By doing so they are deceiving themselves, their members, or both.

There are tradeoffs among priorities, and eschewing 9.45 TWh of carbon-free energy is a big-ass tradeoff. To make that tradeoff is to prioritize being an environmentalist over being a climate hawk. It should be done with open eyes.

Second, SCM is not a stand-in for “environmentalists.” Environmentalists (even within Sierra Club!) and the broader left are split on nuclear power, hydro, transmission lines, and many other things. They differ on broad strategy, on policies, and on individual regulatory and siting decisions. It’s a fractious, diverse community. This post is not meant to stereotype or bash environmentalists, only to draw attention to the tensions between climate and other problems.

Third, what to do with existing nuclear or hydro power plants is a different question from whether to build new nuclear or hydro power plants. There are climate-based arguments for and against new ones, with good-faith positions on both sides, but it is difficult to think of a plausible climate-based argument against the ones that are already built, running, and paid off. They are generating carbon-free power and we need all the carbon-free power we can get.

Fourth and most importantly: SCM is far, far from alone in prioritizing more immediate and visceral concerns over the somewhat abstract threat of climate change. Almost all of us do it.

solar in the desert
Headstones for desert voles.

Environmentalists aren’t necessarily climate hawks

When I first started covering climate change, I kept running into the same problem. The only term available to describe those concerned about climate change was “environmentalists,” and that just didn’t work. Not all environmentalists prioritize climate change, and not everyone concerned about climate change would self-identify as an environmentalist.

Climate change will damage natural systems, yes, but it will also be an economic drain, a cause of migration and conflict, and a driver of social inequality. Anyone who cares about any of that ought to care about climate change — even if they have no particular love for nature and don’t recycle. There ought to be a word for people who care about climate change that does not commit them to all the cultural and ideological presuppositions of environmentalism.

So way back in 2010, I introduced “climate hawk.” (You can read the origin and rationale in this post, or in shorter form in this tweet thread.)

“Climate hawk” implies no particular value system, and it certainly implies no position on organic food or camping. One can be both a climate hawk and an environmentalist (some of my best friends...), but as the story above shows, they do not always jibe. They are not the same, not only demographically but in terms of real-world political and policy decisions.

Being a committed, consistent climate hawk will occasionally put one at odds with the rhetorical tropes, policy preferences, and priorities of environmentalism. Think solar panels in fragile desert ecosystems. Wind turbines that kill birds. Transmission lines that bisect species habitats.

And my personal obsession: urban density and public transit (both crucial to decarbonization). The wealthy developed world, but especially the US West Coast, is filled with liberals and environmentalists who are perfectly willing to drive a Prius and buy organic veggies but raise holy hell if anyone tries to build a bike lane, light rail station, or new housing anywhere near them.

It’s one thing to go to the occasional march, but giving up on-street parking? Let’s be serious.

NIMBY Cole Burston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Being a climate hawk is a challenge to everyone, eventually

Here’s the thing, though. Being a climate hawk and an environmentalist at the same time is occasionally challenging, but being a climate hawk and anything else is occasionally challenging. Anyone who really digs in and follows the logic of climate change, who understands both the risks and the extraordinary mobilization required to avoid them, will eventually find that climate concern bangs up against their other values and priorities.

I have called this climate change’s “totalizing tendency” — the more you absorb it, the more it eclipses everything else.

It is genuinely difficult to wrap your head around the scale of action needed to avoid catastrophic changes in the climate.

A chart showing carbon neutral and carbon negative scenarios. OCI

It would mean an immediate, sustained global mobilization of a sort that has no precedent in human history.

If something like that mobilization were to happen, it would not be gentle or pretty. It would not unfold according to the best-laid plans of wonks. Some people, landscapes, and legitimately worthwhile priorities would suffer in the short- to mid-term.

One example: Environmentalists often cite studies showing that high penetrations of renewables are possible in the US. But those studies all show that achieving high penetrations requires a country-spanning network of new transmission lines.

If there’s a study showing how to fully decarbonize without tons of new transmission lines, I haven’t seen it. So yes, transmission lines connecting zero-carbon power sources and loads might disrupt some people and ecosystems, but systematically opposing them simply isn’t commensurate with being a climate hawk.

Another example: Full decarbonization would require, among other things, an enormous industrial shift. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of jobs in polluting industries would be wiped out and workers displaced. There would be new jobs in clean energy, but the US has not typically handled such workforce transitions well. Being a climate hawk means accepting serious social and economic disruption.

Decarbonization will also involve a mind-boggling amount of manufacturing, building, and retrofitting. Multiple solar and wind gigafactories would be built every year. Renewables would cover every open surface. Every city would be as dense and transit-served as possible. Being a climate hawk means accepting that some natural areas will be turned over to energy production and that “the character of the neighborhood” is going to be disrupted by infill and multi-modal transportation systems.

Conservative climate hawks may have to tolerate climate solutions that involve heavy government intervention. Farmer climate hawks may have to tolerate swaths of their land being claimed for transmission lines or wind turbines. Wealthy climate hawks may have to tolerate restrictions on their consumer purchases or airline travel. Environmentalist climate hawks may have to tolerate large-scale carbon sequestration or new rivers given over to dams. And so on.

That’s what “crisis” means. It’s what “existential” means.

climate spiral gif Ed Hawkins

It might seem that environmentalists who fall short as climate hawks are uniquely annoying because they say they prioritize climate change. After all, everyone loves to bash (other people’s perceived) hypocrisy.

But that’s backward, if you think about it. I would certainly rather someone claim climate as a priority and occasionally betray that claim in action than ... not claim it at all. At least environmentalists are getting closer to taking it seriously than the vast bulk of the populace, which doesn’t take it seriously at all (and that includes liberals and Democrats).

Just about nobody is taking climate change completely seriously at present, because, let’s face it, doing so is traumatic. To absorb the full implications of climate change is to realize that even a level of action beyond what’s reasonable to hope for can at best avert the worst of the damage.

Changes in ecosystems that are effectively permanent and irreversible are already underway; within the century, we will enter a range of climate conditions entirely new to our species. There is no “safe” space available anymore.

To take that seriously is to support massive, immediate carbon reductions, not only at the level of theory, not only in statements and proclamations and pledges, but in the sense of preferring the lower carbon strategy in every local, city, state, or federal decision, whether it’s about land, housing, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, taxes, regulations, or lifestyle habits.

It means preferring the lower carbon strategy even if other things you value must be sacrificed, even if the lower carbon strategy is suboptimal in light of your other preferences and priorities.

Judged by that harsh criteria, genuine climate hawks are a rare species indeed. None of us can claim purity on that front, so we should show one another compassion. But we should also, at every opportunity, drag our eyes back, unflinching, to the terrible truth.

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