Sunday, March 22, 2009

What are you For?

I'm sure many of us have had the experience of being in a meeting with someone who constantly shoots down every idea in the room, but can't come up with an alternative.  It's beyond frustrating - it is obstructionist.

For too long, the modern environmentalist point of view seems to have been defined more by what they oppose, than by what they support.  And when they (as a sector or group) can agree on support for something, it is usually so filled with caveats and unworkable engineering . . . or is so insanely costly that it is worthless in the practical world.

This is part of why it is so important to re-define the environmentalist movement.  Real environmentalists want progress - both for the environment and for the people it supports.  We have the crazy situation before us today where wind projects can't get built because ENVIRONMENTALISTS oppose them.  They don't want coal-fired power, nuclear is a dirty word (even though it has ZERO ghg emissions and kills far less people in its production than coal or natural gas), wind kills birds and is "unsightly," solar is ok -- but people, we can't power our way of life on solar alone -- and if there was an actual proposal to do so, there would be opposition to that because the physical footprint you generate with solar for large projects is huge.  We can't focus on biogas generated power because that would "reward" large animal feeding operations . . . and the list goes on and on.

To be fair, not all enviros oppose all these energy types, but dig a little deeper into most enviro organizations and I'll bet you'll find that most of them have at least internal disagreements about what to support.

The point is that there seems to be an obsession with calculating every wrong impact that could come from energy source a or b, while forgetting the fact that WE WILL USE ENERGY, so the issue should be minimizing the impacts not picking a "perfect" winner that doesn't exist!

The environmental movement as a whole needs to get comfortable with the concept of a "net environmental benefit" which makes the hard choice sometimes, that while there may be damage caused by a wind turbine, lets say, its a hell of a lot less than a coal plant, so, let's all get on board with supporting wind.  Perhaps this could happen if the environmental movement diversified itself to include a few more engineers and businesspeople instead of constantly alienating them.

The exact same problem is unfolding over electric transmission.  Environmentalists want renewable energy, but not the new transmission lines it will take to bring it to electrical users.

The Wall Street Journal is doing stories on the "green tape" that holds up renewable energy projects . . . And now, we have the chamber of commerce out there calculating all the energy projects that are being blocked by environmental opposition.  The chamber of commerce is hardly a helpful ally when it comes to environmental issues.  But they have a point on this issue.  And when environmentalists oppose everything, they set their opponents up to look like the reasonable ones.

You can't be FOR the environment in theory and oppose every means to make some improvement on the ground merely because there are trade-offs.  

Life is filled with trade-offs.  The only alternative, is to do nothing -- and tell me, how is that reducing pollution? 

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Environmental Divide

When times are tough, as they are now, there often emerges an even sharper contrast of visions.  In some ways, the extremists for any cause thrive in the crisis times when they can use the "urgency" of the underlying crisis as reason to stop compromising and give in to the feel-good approach of self-righteous ideological grandstanding.  The justification becomes that "times are too urgent" for half measures.  

Let's think about this.  If times are so bad, doesn't it make more sense to work WITH other people?  Don't we need pragmatism now more than ever?  When you consider that extreme positions rarely if ever accomplish anything (other than fundraising and self-aggrandizement), you realize that when times are tough economically, that's when you need swift action . . . forward progress!  America's government is not designed for this - it is designed to require compromise and steady, thought-through action that has the agreement of a wide cross section of our very diverse country.  So in the end, it is pragmatism, bridge-building and finally, shared understanding that moves large issues forward in a sustainable way.

Keep all of this in mind as you read the article below from the Economist.
There is an interesting divide emerging within environmentalists with some using the urgent needs of the planet as an excuse to be as uncompromising and ideological as they want.  I feel the need to keep asking these folks:  "What actual good has your position brought?"  If you oppose new transition lines being built for a project that will increase renewable energy . . . how are you helping the overall environment?  

I've long been frustrated that there seems to be NO ability or willingness in the majority of the environmental community to prioritize!!  There are ALWAYS trade-offs -- and there are even for "good" energy projects.  The path of opposing everything leads us to actually support the dirtiest options -- SINCE THEY ARE THE ONES THAT ALREADY EXIST!  Enviros are forever engaging in intellectual puzzles that try to assess all the impacts of any action.  There is certainly a place for understanding impacts to the best of our ability -- but there is also a place for recognizing that if you wait until the "perfect" energy source is ready to be commercialized, you are in fact prolonging the life of the dirtier option because you are unwilling to take a more modest step forward.

I hope that the public and those that fund environmental organizations begin to see the real trade-offs from extremist rhetoric on both sides.  

I know I'm often hard on the environmentalists for their refusal to be pragmatic -- but let us also recognize that these groups would have far less power in our society if there had been more good-faith efforts from industry to address environmental problems head on.  So - there is plenty of blame to go around.

Economist  
Feb 12, 2009

Tree-huggers v nerds
Feb 12th 2009 | LOS ANGELES 
From The Economist print edition


As the planet heats up, so do disputes between environmentalists

LAST December California approved a power line between San Diego and the Imperial Valley—a spot blessed with sun, wind and geothermal energy resources. The Sunrise Powerlink would twist around a state park, an Indian reservation and much of a forest (see map). Its builders would be banned from harming burrowing owls or rattlesnakes. It is just the sort of green infrastructure project that might be expected to delight environmentalists. Their response? An appeal and a petition to the state Supreme Court.

“Environmentalists have never been a well-mannered lot”, says Terry Tamminen, who has advised Arnold Schwarzenegger on climate change. But they seem to be becoming more ornery. A growing fear that the environment is on the brink of collapse is making many greens less willing to compromise, even with each other. And George Bush’s departure from the White House has removed a common adversary.

The fiercest disputes are over electricity transmission. Many environmentalists, including Mr Schwarzenegger, argue that more power lines must be built to connect cities with potential sources of renewable energy. The governor strongly supports the Sunrise Powerlink project. The Sierra Club opposes it, along with another line that would run east from Los Angeles. Together with the Centre for Biological Diversity, the organisation is holding out for a guarantee that the line will be used to transmit electricity solely from renewable sources. Environmental groups in Nevada and the Midwest have issued similar ultimatums.

To an extent this is a dispute between pragmatism and idealism. Politicians like Mr Schwarzenegger tend to believe that energy projects should be judged on whether they improve on current practice. Activists, by contrast, prefer to measure them against an environmental ideal. “A little bit better than the status quo isn’t good enough,” explains Bill Magavern, the Sierra Club’s California director. He wants power to be generated close to those who will use it, and envisages a rash of solar roofs in San Diego.

A more profound difference has to do with how the problem is diagnosed. Although no big environmental group is unconcerned with global warming, they view the threat in different ways. The big divide is between those who fret about measurable changes in greenhouse-gas emissions and those who worry more about harm to natural habitats, whether caused by global warming or anything else. The first group—call them the environmental nerds—includes people like Al Gore and Mr Schwarzenegger. The second group—call them the tree-huggers—includes the Sierra Club, the Centre for Biological Diversity and other established conservation groups.

The dispute is likely to intensify in the next few months as Washington weighs in. This week Congress reached a deal on a stimulus plan that encourages the construction of yet more power lines. Barack Obama wants to create green jobs, but he needs to create jobs above all, and quickly. Environmentalists, who know how to hold up big projects better than anybody, will not be bounced so easily. A shame: after all, the greens are winning.