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The pandemic has driven a lot of people outdoors: reports show that park visits are up around the world and parking lots at hiking trails are packed. That’s understandable—by now you’d need to chop down a sizable forest to print out the studies showing that time in nature reduces stress, cuts healing times, and enhances the functioning of the immune system. As Sadie Dingfelder wrote in the Washington Post in December, “I’ve always found it relaxing and rejuvenating to be outdoors, but the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic, the uncertainty of civil unrest and, oh, I don’t know, the potential crumbling of American democracy have made me crave nature like a drug.”
That’s good news for the planet and for people. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that kids who spend more time outdoors grow up to become more environmentally inclined. If you love something, you’ll protect it: from the day that the Sierra Club was founded, that’s been the mantra of the conservation movement. But there’s one trapdoor here: if we’re going to build out renewable energy in the ways that the climate crisis requires, it’s going to require intruding on some of that landscape. A new report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law finds that state and local governments across the country have been passing laws designed to restrict the expansion of solar and wind projects. Sometimes, they’ve acted at the behest of the fossil-fuel industry—as Molly Taft reported in Gizmodo last week, the Koch front group Americans for Prosperity played a part in blocking a major Texas wind farm.
But some of the push came from local people who just didn’t want to look at wind turbines. As the Sabin study concluded, “ ‘not in my backyard’ and other objections to renewable energy occur throughout the country, and can delay or impede project development.” I’ve definitely seen that phenomenon at play in Vermont, where I live. Plenty of people with no apparent allegiance to oil or gas have managed to impose a de-facto moratorium on new windmills on ridgetops, and challenged construction of solar farms for being eyesores. Their arguments are often absurd—the idea, for instance, that windmills cause cancer was adopted by Donald Trump from NIMBY opponents of turbines, even though the medical evidence is clear that windmills don’t cause harm. (Just as it is clear that particulate pollution from fossil fuels now accounts for nearly one in five deaths worldwide, ahead of H.I.V./AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.) Yes, wind turbines kill birds—perhaps a quarter of a million every year in the United States, compared with the 6.8 million that die after colliding with cell-phone and radio towers and the billions that succumb to domestic cats. (And, if we keep raising the temperature on the current trajectory, two-thirds of American bird species will be threatened with extinction by 2100.)
There’s a bad reason that some of this resistance will eventually dissipate: bigger players are coming into the renewable-energy industry, and eventually their clout is going to match the Kochs’—NextEra Energy, a Florida-based renewables provider, briefly passed ExxonMobil in market capitalization last autumn, and one assumes that it is hiring lobbyists. But a better method for converting—in the words of a Clean Energy Wire analysis—NIMBYs into P(lease)IMBYs would be to give locals a stake in the economic success of the enterprise. The simplest way is through ownership—early German solar and wind expansion, beginning in the nineteen-nineties, was eased by the fact that much of the equipment was owned by local coöperatives and even by churches, which made money off it. But, as the scale of Europe’s renewables industry expands—wind power may need to grow by a factor of twenty-five this decade to meet the Continent’s targets—it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small players to buy into projects. As Paul Hockenos reports at Yale Environment 360, the European Union is trying to spur more community ownership of renewables, but, as huge offshore wind farms begin to sprout, only large corporations have access to the billions of dollars required for construction.
There are probably other ways to turn renewable energy into something that economically benefits the people who live with it—watching New Mexico face the potential loss of oil and gas revenues, as Joe Biden calls for a temporary ban on new drilling on public lands, is a reminder that we should think of sunlight and wind power as community assets, and make sure that those who exploit them are, at the least, paying a hefty price to communities for the right. But we shouldn’t give up on the idea of democratizing energy ownership as much as possible: the sun and the wind are omnipresent, giving us a remarkable chance of reducing the influence wielded by those who control the energy supplies. As the invaluable Institute for Local Self-Reliance pointed out a full decade ago, “With new rules, we can unlock the potential of distributed generation and the potential of people to power the clean energy future.”
This is not the only NIMBY battle that needs fighting. In California, the reluctance of too many otherwise committed environmentalists to allow denser cities, which would decrease the use of cars, is a hypocrisy of the highest order. And, in both cases, part of the answer is a new aesthetic that reflects the reality of the world we inhabit. We need to see dense, vibrant cities as more attractive than scattered suburbs, and we need to look at wind turbines and see the breeze made visible. Much depends on it.
Passing the Mic
Having watched a winter storm bring Texas to its knees (or to Cancún), it seems the right moment to talk with Saket Soni, the executive director of Resilience Force, which has been described as “a national initiative to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening and securing America’s Resilience Workforce” and one that is “the national voice of the millions of people whose work, heart, and expertise make sustainable recovery from disasters possible.” He’s currently at work on the idea with Craig Fugate, who was the administrator of FEMA during the Obama Administration. (Our conversation has been edited for length.)
Obviously, even if we do everything right from here on, we’re going to be dealing with climate-related disasters for the foreseeable future. How should we prepare?
Even if we slashed emissions to zero tomorrow, a certain amount of harm is locked in, particularly for front-line communities. We see that in the record hurricane seasons, the wildfires in forested states, the crisis in Texas. So climate resilience has to be an organizing principle of the federal government. Our future depends on rebuilding our homes, cities, communities, and social infrastructure not just back to the way they were but stronger, better able to withstand the next storm, fire, quake, or drought. And none of that happens without a skilled, secure resilience workforce. The federal government can—and must—unlock billions in adaptation and resilience.
But here’s the thing: that money will compound inequality if we don’t intervene. The current rules of federal-recovery investment disproportionately channel money into wealthier communities. As a result, white homeowners’ wealth tends to increase after disaster recovery, while low-income Black and brown communities fall further behind. I call this the resilience divide. Building true resilience has to mean bridging that gap.
Did we learn anything about this from the COVID year?
COVID was a dress rehearsal for our climate future. The questions we faced in responding to a global health disaster are the ones we face in preparing for the even greater threat of climate change. That includes how to repair historical inequalities through disaster response.
I learned a lot in New Orleans, an epicenter of both the climate crisis and COVID. We partnered with the city to build a New Orleans Resilience Corps. We took Black and brown workers who had lost their jobs during the economic shutdown, retrained them for COVID– and climate-related work, and put them on new career paths.
It’s a glimpse of what’s possible if we invest in the resilience workforce at scale. A national resilience corps could work on climate adaptation and mitigation year-round and provide a path to the middle class for workers, the way manufacturing once did. Lawmakers looking for answers should take note.
It seems as if immigrants often play a big role in this hard work. Why, and what should it teach us about a new ethic of solidarity?
Every time America is rebuilt for a new generation, immigrants play a big role in that rebuilding. This time is no different. I saw it myself after Katrina, and after dozens of climate disasters since. After fires and floods, through hell and high water, immigrants drive the rebuilding that lets others come home. “We are America’s white blood cells,” one of them told me.
What’s new is the outpouring of solidarity during the COVID crisis. Suddenly, workers at the bottom of America’s labor caste system—grocery-store clerks, care workers, delivery drivers—were being applauded. The workers dismissed as unskilled had a new name: essential. The climate crisis, too, has its essential workers. A vast portion of them are immigrants.