our climate

Will Local Politics Cook the Planet?

Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

One of the more depressing lead sentences I have ever read in a news story was published on January 11. “A temporary moratorium on developing large-scale, ground-mounted solar projects, defined as ones that generate at least 250 kilowatts of power, is winning support from residents,” begins the article. From there, the report only gets worse. The solar moratorium “originally came in response to a proposal for an 11-megawatt project on about 100 acres of wooded land owned by W.D. Cowls Inc.,” and even though that project has since been withdrawn, residents feel inspired to impose a moratorium anyway just to make sure. The article proceeds to note that the opposition includes the local Sunrise chapter, the militant left-wing youth activist group, which is reportedly concerned about “deforestation” that would take place in order to build the solar plant.

Perhaps the most depressing detail of all is the article’s dateline: Amherst, Massachusetts. Yes, in a liberal university town located in one of the bluest states in America, it’s impossible to build a solar plant. Because of grassroots opposition.

Surreal as it may seem, episodes like this have grown depressingly common. A county in Indianapolis just approved a moratorium on solar farms in response to objections from local landowners. “We love to watch our sunsets on the horizon,” complains one. “But we will no longer even see the horizon. There’ll be 20-foot-tall solar panels.” Voters in Maine nixed a transmission line that would have allowed Massachusetts to import hydropower from Canada.

In many of these cases, environmentalists themselves have taken a lead role in blocking green-energy projects. Residents in Nantucket, Massachusetts, filed suit to block the construction of offshore wind turbines, claiming they would endanger the whales. Two enormous solar plants in the Nevada desert are fighting environmentalists who complain they will destroy animal habitat. Desert-based solar plants “are increasingly drawing opposition from environmental activists and local residents who say they are ardent supporters of clean energy,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Their objections range from a desire to keep the land unspoiled to protection for endangered species to concerns that their views would no longer be as beautiful.”

If you wish to understand the barriers that have stopped the adoption of a rapid green-energy transition, several theories have generally prevailed. The left-wing populist analysis promoted by allies of Bernie Sanders blames owners of fossil fuels who have an interest in protecting their investments in oil, coal, and gas. Moderates would point a finger at voters, who are reluctant to pay even slightly higher costs. A third source of opposition is polarization, which turns Republicans (voters and elected officials alike) into knee-jerk opponents of any proposal to fight climate change, to the point where embracing coal becomes a way to win the culture war.

All these theories help explain the resistance to the green-energy transition. But none fully account for the wave of state and local resistance to the energy infrastructure needed to bring that transition about. You will not find the hidden hand of oil and gas behind the votes. Nor are the voters revolting at higher energy costs — to the contrary, they are blocking projects that require no increase in taxes or energy costs, and may even bring them down. Nor are these episodes restricted to red America. Polarization, if anything, ought to be driving support for clean-energy projects in these deep-blue areas up.

What’s needed to grasp these state and local revolts is a fourth factor: localism and fragmentation.

Forty years ago, economist and political scientist Mancur Olson wrote The Rise and Decline of Nations, which posited that economic decline occurred because nations fragmented into narrow-minded interest groups. The small groups would lobby to maintain any policy that benefited their members, whatever the expense to society as a whole. A dozen years later, Jonathan Rauch described the process by which accumulating interest groups slowly strangle innovation as “Demosclerosis.”

The Olson-Rauch theory seems to be an increasingly useful lens to understand why the American transition to green energy has proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. Decarbonization fundamentally requires unsettling established patterns. The United States already has settled systems for moving energy from producers to consumers. A green-energy revolution will mean not only displacing incumbent networks, but also building new ones. This requires lots of action on a regional and national scale, which in turn means subsuming localism to the broader interest.

Superpower, by Russell Gold, tells the story of Michael Skelly’s attempt to build a new transmission line to bring wind energy generated in the plains states to consumers in the East. Despite his resourcefulness and determination, Skelly was ultimately foiled by the difficulty of securing cooperation from all the local jurisdictions along his route. Even navigating a single jurisdiction can be impossible: New York has spent nearly a decade since Hurricane Sandy trying to floodproof one park, and has failed even to settle on a plan that various stakeholders won’t block.

What makes this all so discouraging is that these steps, while so arduous, are so plainly insufficient. The scale of transformation climate hawks have called for would generate change to the built environment orders of magnitude larger than these minor steps.

Democratic candidates spent the 2020 primary arguing about how many trillions of dollars in climate spending they would expend — but even if the government could allocate trillions in climate spending, it is hard to feel much confidence the stuff would actually get built.

Olson and Rauch did not have climate change specifically in mind when they argued that the fragmentation of the American polity into small-size interest groups would be the cause of its ultimate demise. But it may be that issue that vindicates their grim prophecy.

Will Local Politics Cook the Planet?