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Climate Organizers Seize New Openings, Face New Opponents

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Offshore wind power can play a key role in the East Coast’s energy transition. The Inflation Reduction Act can help build it. Public ownership can keep it accountable. But organizers trying to make this promise real face an unholy alliance that is united by a false concern for whales.

After years of organizing for a Green New Deal, the Inflation Reduction Act—while far from perfect—offers major new opportunities for bringing about a just transition.  With generous subsidies pouring in, renewable energy development will become an increasing portion of the economy each year and organizing around these projects will become key terrain for climate organizers—both to guarantee that they actually get built and to ensure that the workers on the projects are well-compensated and unionized. But major obstacles remain for climate organizers contesting these new projects.

While the Green New Deal has largely been conceptualized as a popular policy program backed by a mass movement, the energy transition as currently constituted is far from this democratic, majoritarian vision. It is instead a piecemeal process, mostly led by private capital with some federal carrots (but no sticks), and subject to a near limitless number of veto points. This is fertile organizing ground for opponents of renewable energy, who can use this disorganized and opaque process to their advantage and stop projects. Without a broad democratic mandate for decarbonization, it is easy for opponents of renewable energy to delegitimize projects.

Furthermore, the nature and actions of for-profit companies present their own threats to the energy transition. Since a for-profit renewable energy company’s overarching goal is to turn a profit, not decarbonize the planet, many companies will pull out of projects that aren’t profitable enough.  Then there is also the fact that profit incentives breed skepticism. In fights against renewable energy development, opponents consistently bring up the fact that the companies building these projects are trying to make a profit and therefore, cannot be trusted. It’s a good point and one that is hard for renewable energy advocates to refute.

This slow, private industry-led development process threatens a just energy transition by empowering coalitions to form to block renewable energy projects. This is especially notable in fights against offshore wind development on the East Coast, where the fishing industry, some legacy environmental groups, and owners of beachfront property claim that efforts to build offshore wind turbines are responsible for a disturbing uptick in whale beachings since 2016, what NOAA calls an “Unusual Mortality Event.”

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These anti-wind coalitions claim that the sonar used to site offshore wind development is interfering with the whales’ sonar, causing them to get confused and beach themselves. Donald Trump brought up the deaths in a bizarre rant at a campaign stop in South Carolina where he said that wind turbines were “driving whales a little bit batty.” His antics aside, the uptick in whale deaths has caused a shift in public opinion against offshore wind. Polling out of New Jersey, which has been a focal point of whale strandings, shows that opposition to offshore wind projects is skyrocketing. This unholy alliance of fossil capital, industry, homeowners, and misguided environmental groups has effectively used environmental concerns to try to block action against climate change. Meet the NARDs, the New Anti-Renewable Development coalition.

Real vs. phony threats to whales

Concerns about the sonar used in offshore wind siting stem in part from a series of whale deaths that were caused by military sonar used by the US Navy. In 2001, the Navy admitted that radar from their ships was responsible at least in part for several whale deaths, some of which had bleeding ears. Their admission confirmed suspicions that marine biologists had for decades that there was a link between the Navy’s high-powered sonar and whale deaths. But, the sonar used to site offshore wind development is fundamentally different from sonar used to by the military or even offshore oil rig siting. It produces lower noise, higher frequency, and narrower beam width, meaning that the area that it might impact is “order of magnitudes smaller than the impact area for seismic airguns or military sonar.” And some developers are even mitigating those limited impacts with measures like “bubble curtains.” All told, marine scientists have affirmed there is simply no evidence that the sonar used in offshore wind development is responsible for the uptick in whale deaths. That hasn’t stopped the NARDs from claiming otherwise.

The real culprits behind the whale deaths are ship strikes from cargo shipping, offshore oil and gas production, overfishing, and climate change. Offshore wind energy will help stop whale deaths, both by helping to mitigate climate change and by reducing reliance on offshore oil and gas production, which uses much more harmful radar in siting. This is why it’s so disheartening to see some legacy environmental groups join with fossil fuel producers, homeowners, and the fishing industry to block offshore wind development, lending their credibility to help the NARDs greenwash climate denial. Luckily these attempts to block offshore wind via lawsuits have so far proved unsuccessful.

But offshore wind faces steep headwinds (pun intended) as rising interest rates tank the profitability of offshore projects, leading to a major spate of cancellations last year that threaten the Biden Administration’s target of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. In this context, lawsuits against projects, no matter how spurious, are one more obstacle towards offshore wind development in an unfavorable economic environment. While lawsuits against offshore wind have been unsuccessful so far, the NARD groups have successfully polarized Democratic politicians and voters against offshore wind, adding unfavorable political conditions to the unfavorable economics that offshore wind faces.

NARD coalitions pop up wherever there is renewable development, but given the downward trends in offshore wind, their involvement is particularly notable and troubling. It is unfortunately not hard to see a future, where moderate Democrats, spooked by tanking poll numbers, begin to stall or even outright cancel offshore wind projects out of fear of voter backlash.

Offshore wind and the just transition

Offshore wind is crucial for the energy transition and a key part of how East Coast states will decarbonize their economy. East Coast states lack the bright sun and ample land needed for solar development, which means that in order to fully decarbonize their economies, they must embrace wind power. Offshore wind is much more efficient than onshore wind, because wind is stronger and less variable offshore. Furthermore, offshore wind turbines can be built much larger and thus generate more electricity.

For over a decade, climate justice groups have embraced offshore wind development as not just a way to decarbonize the economy and mitigate climate change, but also an opportunity to bring good-paying, union jobs to working-class Black and brown communities. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the climate justice organization UPROSE has partnered with offshore wind developer Equinor to build a staging ground in the neighborhood. In a city where waterfront development usually means luxury real estate, this is a new model for equitable development. So far, a plethora of NARD lawsuits against offshore wind farms in New York have been thrown out, but if any gain traction, then it will bring wealthy homeowners in Long Island into conflict with working-class, Black and brown climate justice organizers in Brooklyn.

With private renewable energy companies stumbling through offshore wind development, there has been growing discussion of empowering the state itself to build renewable energy to meet climate goals. This is exactly what happened in New York State. A group of ecosocialists, organizing with the Democratic Socialists of America and the Public Power New York Coalition, correctly predicted that private companies would struggle to lead the energy transition. Their solution was simple: have the public sector do it faster and cheaper.

The promise of public power

What emerged was the Build Public Renewables Act, a bill that would allow the New York Power Authority, a state-owned public authority established in 1931 by then-governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to build renewable energy itself without a profit-motive. By mandating the state to directly build renewable energy, organizers could ensure a speedy buildout in line with New York’s climate goals, guarantee well-paying jobs, and direct the cost savings to low-income consumers.

During the New Deal, publicly owned companies, most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), built huge amounts of energy generation. In New York State, most of the hydropower, which provides nearly 25% of the state’s electricity, is owned by NYPA. The backers of the Build Public Renewables act took inspiration from these New Deal-era projects for the Green New Deal era.

For four years, organizers pushed first Governor Andrew Cuomo, and then after he resigned in disgrace, his replacement Kathy Hochul. They pointed out that New York had built a pitiful amount of renewable energy, easily losing to conservative bastions like Texas, and that the state was nowhere near on track to meet its 2030 climate goals. The gap between New York’s ambition and material reality proved a decisive rhetorical tool for organizers, who were able to get the Build Public Renewables Act passed in the 2023 state budget.

Passing the bill is not the end of the story, but the beginning. While removing the profit motive is a huge step towards building a Green New Deal, public power is by no means a panacea. The TVA, in particular, has a long history of poor planning and inequitable abuses that continues to this day. In order for public power to be truly transformative, organizers must use the levers of democratic power to ensure that public utilities operate in an equitable, democratic way. But unlike private companies, which are accountable to their shareholders alone, there are democratic pathways for organizers to hold public utilities, like NYPA, accountable.

Greenhouse gas emissions, the environment, the health and safety of our planet and its inhabitants, do not matter to private companies, whose decisions are governed by profit and profit alone. Public power can ignore the profit motive and take into account the climate crisis and the desperate need for decarbonization to create holistic plans for the energy transition instead of relying on the uncertain piecemeal approach of the private market. But to get it right, we need a mass movement pressuring the state at every step. That’s why instead of thinking of public power as a policy, it’s best to think of it as organizing terrain — one that is much more favorable to climate organizers than private power.

Humans are not the only creatures on the planet. But our study of ecology tells us that “an injury to one is an injury to all” applies far beyond the human species. Humans share a planet with not just whales, but all living creatures, and our destinies are bound together. The NARDs who claim to care about the whales ignore the most crucial fact of all: there are no whales on a dead planet. Conceptions of democracy do not have to stop at humans. Instead of human-centered extraction economies, nations of the world can and should develop economic systems that allow all creatures to thrive. But for now, the best thing to do for the whales and all marine life is get carbon emissions down to zero as fast as possible. Only through collective, democratic action can we save the whales. With public power, only the NARDs stand in the way.

Featured image: Supporters of wind power took to the streets of New York City on Jan. 13, 2022. They marched through midtown Manhattan and rallied outside the governor’s office. The NYC-DSA Ecosocialist Working Group organized the action. Photo by Michael Paulson.


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