Energy urgency pits tree-huggers against smokestack pluggers

If we want to put the brakes on global warming and reduce our reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels, we must look to renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and sustainable bioenergy.

If we want to put the brakes on global warming and reduce our reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels, we must look to renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and sustainable bioenergy.

Given what the world’s leading climate change scientists are saying about the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels, we have little time to lose.

But the rush to develop new sources of clean energy has created surprising division among groups that should be allies in the fight against global warming: “tree-huggers” who focus on the need to protect wildlife and wilderness and “smokestack pluggers” who advocate for a rapid and massive increase in renewable-power production.

In my home province of B.C., a coalition of environmentalists, resource nationalists, and public-sector unions is calling for a moratorium on new renewable-power production, citing concerns about impacts on biodiversity and the absence of proper government regulation, among other issues.

In response, Andrew Weaver, a Victoria scientist and lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued in a Vancouver Sun article that “some environmental groups have chosen to abandon science and campaign against clean energy and climate policies.”

Weaver went on to argue that, “We need staggering amounts of energy conservation, emissions cuts and renewable energy. And all need to be deployed at an unprecedented rate.”

He’s not alone in criticizing opponents of wind and run-of-river power. American environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben said in a recent article that “the environmental movement has reached an important point of division, between those who truly get global warming, and those who don’t.” He added that “when local efforts to delay or stop low-carbon energy projects come into conflict with the imperative to act urgently on global warming, they have to take second place.”

I’m worried about the escalation of rhetoric on both sides.

Yes, it is urgent that we find ways to tackle the problems caused by fossil-fuel use and excessive energy consumption. And it is true that some opponents of technologies such as wind power are motivated more by NIMBY self-interest than science or true environmental concerns.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the impacts of these projects and technologies. Nor does it mean that we should allow run-of-river power projects or windmills anywhere without proper government oversight and planning. Panic shouldn’t guide policy.

It’s ludicrous to think that we must sacrifice all environmental considerations to get green energy onto the grid. It’s not green if it causes negative ecological impacts. In British Columbia, BC Hydro and the B.C. Transmission Corporation have identified more than 8,200 potential sites for run-of-river hydro projects in B.C.’s 291,000 watersheds. That should give us plenty of choice, and surely we don’t have to harness all of them.

What we need, in B.C. and elsewhere, is to guide development toward areas that have high energy potential but are less susceptible to environmental damage. Governments must also act quickly to ensure that renewable-energy options are considered as a whole rather than in isolation. An individual project may appear to be environmentally benign, but the cumulative impact of many could be detrimental.

We also need a better system for water licences and Crown land licences to avoid the gold-rush mentality that is leading numerous private interests to stake claims on rivers for power projects. And we need strong environmental regulations, along with monitoring and enforcement, to ensure impacts are minimized.

It’s in our best interests to act quickly to get as much renewable energy into play as possible. As well as getting us off fossil fuels and combating global warming, renewable energy is also one way to dig ourselves out of the economic mess we’re facing. It’s good for business. But that doesn’t mean environmental safeguards should be relaxed in the name of green energy.

Global warming is, without a doubt, the most critical environmental issue we face.

Clearly, there’s no time to waste, but unless we tie our shoelaces before we race out the door, we’re guaranteed to trip ourselves up long before we get to our destination.

We need to ensure that our solutions don’t lead to the destruction of the very thing we’re trying to protect.

This column is co-written by broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

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