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Injustice in the name of climate action? The role of the public in renewable energy projects

Last week, at a conference on marine renewable energy, someone posed the question of whether the U.S. should instate emergency measures to speed up the deployment of new renewable energy installations. The quasi-rhetorical question prefaced with something like “this community stuff is all well and good, but in the context of worsening climate change…” Knowing that the question was inspired by ongoing frustrations over well-organized opposition to a proposed offshore wind project in Coos Bay, Oregon, I heard the implication of the question loud and clear: developers should be able to circumvent public process, removing local communities from the decision-making process, in order to replace fossil fuel energy systems with renewable energy as quickly as possible to address climate change.

As an advocate for the living world, I couldn’t agree less.

Many in the renewable energy space would prefer to never deal with the fisherman in Coos Bay or any of their counterparts elsewhere. Some because of climate. Many because of convenience. Maybe there are good ways to shrink the bureaucratic processes of permitting and approval, but emergency measures that constrain the power of the local community to object and have their voices heard, are not good ways.

I want to talk about why.

What assumptions underlie the argument?

Assumption 1: Climate science can tell us how we should act in response to climate change

Climate science enables us to predict, with varying degrees of uncertainty, the potential futures for life on this planet. It is a powerful tool. We use it to understand our planet and the impacts that we are having on it. But even with all its complexity, climate science does not, cannot, tell us what we should do. That is not a question of science, it is a question of ethics. To go from climate science to ethical obligation, as this argument does, one needs to invoke an ethical framework, which this argument does not.

So, let’s examine the argument with the tools of ethics, one of the most helpful of which is the concept of justice.

Should we remove the local community from the decision-making process for renewable energy to speed up the transition to renewable energy?

Procedural justice accounts for the implementation of a Just Process. It requires that all who are impacted by an action or decision are supplied with the relevant information, pathways for meaningful participation, and a role in the decision-making process. Substantive or distributive justice requires that the harms and benefits of an action or decision are fairly distributed. From a procedural justice standpoint, bypassing the local community is clearly unjust. This is regardless of whether a community’s concerns are with things that are likely to happen or if they are unfounded fears. For example, regardless of whether an offshore wind project would in fact harm fish stocks in Coos Bay, Oregon, planning and implementing a project without the fisherman’s input violates the rules of procedural justice. In the case where the wind farm does harm fish stocks, we also have a substantive injustice. The local fishing community suffers the harms, while the benefits of an incremental decrease in emissions are spread across the globe (unevenly, as is the nature of climate change).

At this point, you might be thinking, “sure, this approach is unjust, but is it as unjust as the impacts of climate change? Could it be OK to inflict a minor injustice on one community to avoid a major injustice on another, often much less well-off, community?”

But, would it be just one community? Or even just a few?

It wouldn’t.

In order to replace enough fossil fuel generation with renewables to have an impact on the future of climate change, there would need to be thousands of projects. And at that point, the scaled-up version of overlooking the local community’s role, is a situation in which the U.S. government—one of the largest continuing contributors to climate change through their excessive energy consumption and their staunch military and political defense of the capitalist economy which encourages that excessive consumption—passes off the burden of addressing climate change to thousands of communities.

Is it their burden to bear? And if it is, will it have the intended impact on emissions? Will they be moving toward climate justice? Or, instead, will the renewable energy projects just supplement (not replace) fossil fuels to satisfy and ever-growing energy demand? Or will the impacts of mining and industrial production of renewable technologies perpetuate global injustices? Or, most simply, would bypassing the local community speed up the process of deployment by a meaningful amount?

For the argument to work out. They had to make some assumptions about the answers to these questions.

Assumption 2: Renewable energy will replace fossil fuels

Assumption 3: Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will effectively address our climate crisis

Assumption 4: Bypassing local communities will speed up the process of deploying renewable energy

Assumption 1 is false, Assumptions 2 and 3 are unlikely without further government and community intervention, and Assumption 4 is tenuous at best.

With so many unknowns, it feels hard to imagine that a move by the government which results in a known, explicit injustice is the appropriate course of action. For renewable energy projects, we are better off involving the local community as early as possible in pursuit of Just outcomes and improved public understanding of possible energy futures. We can’t skip public processes.

When it comes to emergency action on climate change, might I suggest that those of us working in renewable energy encourage the U.S. government to, oh, I don’t know, meet basic needs so that more people have the capacity to participate in public processes and do not rely on economic growth (of their investments that they may or may not be able to afford to make) for survival in circumstances of old age or poor health, encourage massive decreases in energy consumption, fund communities to investigate and propose their own renewable energy projects, and support unions in the renewable energy industry? Don’t fast-track renewable energy projects over the heads of the people. And more importantly, don’t enshrine that fast-tracking into standard process because it is easier than taking the radical steps which are necessary to address climate change in a way that prioritizes justice and life

To our readers:

When you hear suggestion of what “we should do” about climate change that you are suspicious of, ask these questions:

1. Are they relying solely on climate science to make an ethical argument?

2. What are the implications of the argument in terms of procedural, substantive, and reparative justice?

3. Are there alternatives that they are ignoring entirely?

Silver Bay in Sitka, AK where Ali does research in community-driven design methods for marine energy

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