Environmentalists have scored big wins for the planet by saying ‘no’ to greedy corporations and myopic governments, but the time has come to embrace the right kinds of development with “a resounding yes,” says veteran climate activist Bill McKibben, offering guidelines for discerning which battles to fight—and when to yield.
To speed up the green transition, North Americans must prepare to build in a way that hasn’t been done since the Second World War, he writes for Mother Jones. “The consensus among scientists and engineers who study this stuff is that we need to replace about a billion machines in America alone—regular cars with electric vehicles or e-bikes, furnaces with heat pumps.”
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To power these machines, we need to build solar panels, wind farms, battery arrays, and lithium mines, adds McKibben, who co-founded 350.org—also known as the first global grassroots climate campaign. Then, for the sake of both efficiency and social justice, we must build denser cities with more affordable housing. Transmission lines may have to cross fields, and railroad tracks may need to transgress rights of way, among several other landscape changes to come.
“We’re at a hinge moment now, when solving our biggest problems—environmental but also social—means we need to say yes to some things,” McKibben says, speaking especially to folks like himself: “older white people, a class particularly used to working the system, and perhaps psychologically tilted toward keeping things the way they are.”
McKibben, who also founded Third Act to engage activists aged 60 and up, writes that a “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) mindset is the order of the day, replacing the prevalent NIMBY or “not in my backyard” refrain that has delayed clean energy projects across the United States.
Surprising Pockets of Support, Opposition
Renewables may gain widespread national support, but projects often meet resistance at the local level. It is a conundrum that researchers have tried to study and resolve. One 2021 study of new wind turbine projects in the U.S. Midwest tried to identify the community characteristics that drive opposition. Researchers found that areas that predominantly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election were less likely to oppose new projects, contradicting prevailing notions that U.S. liberals were more supportive.
Overall, the study found greater support for wind farms aligned with conservative values. And despite media accounts of rural opposition to renewable energy projects, the researchers said areas of greater agricultural intensity—with larger, production-oriented farms—were more receptive to new installations that could generate more revenue from their land, than areas with smaller and hobby farms.
McKibben is one of several voices urging a more nuanced, locality-specific understanding of the opposition, as community resistance holds back renewables expansion and undermines affordable housing projects. This calls for discarding terms like NIMBY and BANANA—“build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything”—which imply “selfishness, ignorance, and irrationality on behalf of residents,” says researcher Maria Petrova of Tufts University, who studied resistance to wind projects in Massachusetts, a state “known for its farsighted environmental and energy initiatives.” She proposes a novel framework, VESPA, to put community concerns into four categories: visual/landscape, environmental, socioeconomic, and procedural.
“VESPA seeks to help policy makers approach communities more effectively and thereby achieve wider acceptance of wind installations,” she writes.
Other studies have found that issues of governance make resistance more likely in some countries than others. One research team noted that in “social corporatist” Denmark, which has a “cooperative, bottom-up, and community inclusive approach” to energy planning, there is relatively little opposition to energy infrastructure. In the U.S., a “corporatist, top-down, community exclusive approach” breeds greater rates of resistance to new projects.
McKibben appeals to the good will and common sense of his fellow campaigners to make a case for urgent, wide-scale clean energy development. Another good way to reach people, studies find, is to engage them in the planning process—and the best way to miss the moment is to shut them out, as researchers Louise Comeau and Louis-Charles Vaillancourt of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) reported in their study of the failed Anse-Bleu wind project in New Brunswick.
In 2022, researchers attempting to explain socially-oriented opposition to energy projects found public participation was key to a project’s success. “By including community members and relevant stakeholders in location, design, finance, mitigation, and other decisions, we believe it should be possible to resolve many of the conflicts that tend to arise,” they wrote.
When to Fight, When to Fold
Not all resistance is equal. McKibben shares two anecdotes of environmental action from his former hometown to explain why. In one instance, he lauds local opposition to a landfill that prevented a greed-driven profit scheme. In another case, he reveals how the area’s largest environmental group—supported by people who lived at a distance and vacationed in the town, but not so much by locals—held firm to protect the town’s aesthetic from a wind turbine installation. The environmental group won, nothing was built, and fossil fuels continued to burn for energy production, out of sight and out of mind.
Environmental ideals are often also wielded to shoot down affordable housing proposals. In California, for example, there is a well-documented history of the state Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) being deployed as a weapon against new housing developments.
Recognizing the potential for the climate toolbox to be exploited, McKibben offers general principles to determine “when we should protest change and when we should just be quiet.”
The simplest guide is that “if something makes climate change worse, then we shouldn’t do it,” he says. That’s the logic former president Barack Obama used when he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, and the rule that President Joe Biden ignored in March, when he approved a massive new oil development in the Alaskan wilderness.
Next, “protecting one’s backyard from any change has to be balanced against the cost it will impose on the larger whole,” McKibben cautions. “Maybe you don’t want to look at a solar panel,” but nobody wants to see footage or the face-to-face reality of floods, cyclones, wildfires, and more, all increasing as the climate crisis deepens.
But even consensus for new green energy installations will not “magically erase” past behaviours, McKibben warns. The U.S., which makes up 4% of the world’s population, has put 25% of the entire world’s carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and “we don’t get to pretend that isn’t relevant,” he says. And the leafy suburbs housing affluent Americans got to be the way they are because the government helped “redline” other communities nearly a century ago.
“That’s our history—and if we fight to keep affordable housing out of our communities, we deny the reality of that history.”
A related lesson from history: proposing new developments on land that’s all that Indigenous communities have left “should warrant a much harder look,” McKibben says. The same goes for Black and Latino communities that have been systematically stuck with the shortest straws.
“If Indigenous groups don’t want a lithium mine on sacred territory in Nevada, that’s a reasonable argument,” he writes. “Repeating the mistakes of our history at this point is truly unforgivable.”
Two final points to bear in mind: all idealism must come with an acceptable level of realism, and the climate emergency calls for urgent solutions, though maybe not permanent ones. “If you build, say, a solar farm now, it doesn’t need to be forever,” McKibben suggests. “In a generation, if we’ve actually started using less energy, or we’ve actually figured out cheap, safe fusion reactors, then the people who come after us can take it down.”
[We can have a conversation about cheap, safe fusion reactors—Ed.]
But “if we delay, then we won’t get to that moment intact—we will break the planet.”