Bill McKibben loves the climate. Unfortunately, he hates the environment.
For proof of that, consider McKibben’s recent cover story in The New Republic, where he asserts that the U.S. must mobilize to fight climate change with the same fervor the Allies used to defeat Hitler during World War II. After citing a few examples of recent weather events, which, in his view, prove that global warming is happening now, McKibben writes, “If Nazis were the ones threatening destruction on such a global scale today, America and its allies would already be mobilizing for a full-scale war.”
While Nazi analogies can be fun, the climate cure that McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and his friends are pushing would result in the despoliation of vast swaths of the American landscape. Indeed, it would require that an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined be covered with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.
The strategist behind McKibben’s climate crusade is Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who has published papers arguing that the U.S. doesn’t need oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy. According to Jacobson, the U.S. can rely solely on energy derived from wind, water, and the sun.
Jacobson has an entire claque of admirers. During his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, (I., Vt.) adopted Jacobson’s all-renewable scheme whole cloth and made it his energy plan. That move immediately won praise from the leaders of both the Sierra Club and Greenpeace USA. In addition, the recent Democratic-party platform claims that the U.S. should be running entirely on “clean” energy by 2050. Jacobson’s all-renewable dystopia is also being promoted by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as well as by anti-fracking activist Josh Fox. In addition, Jacobson has formed a group call the Solutions Project, which is avidly promoting his 100 percent–renewables plan.
In his essay, McKibben adheres to the liberal-left orthodoxy by completely ignoring nuclear energy’s pivotal role in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, he praises Jacobson’s work, claiming that it “demonstrates conclusively” that the U.S. could be running solely on renewables by 2050. Achieving that, says McKibben, would need about 6,448 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity.
As usual, the devil is in the details. Jacobson’s 50-state scenario, which is available on a Stanford University website, needs about 2,500 gigawatts of wind-energy capacity and another 3,200 gigawatts or so of solar capacity. Those are staggering quantities, particularly when you consider that current U.S. generation capacity — from nuclear to geothermal — totals about 1,000 gigawatts.
Jacobson and McKibben downplay their scheme’s impact on land use. Without providing any sources, McKibben asserts that the all-renewable plan would cover only “four-tenths of one percent of America’s landmass.” That claim is patently false. Studies published by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as published data on more than 50 onshore wind projects, show that the capacity density — that is, the project footprint — of an average wind-energy facility is three watts per square meter.
The math, then, is simple: 2,500 gigawatts is 2.5 trillion watts. At three watts per square meter, that much wind capacity would cover roughly 833 billion square meters of territory, which is 833,000 square kilometers, or more than 321,000 square miles.
In his blitzkrieg against climate change, McKibben wants to cover entire regions, including his home state of Vermont, with wind turbines. That’s newsworthy because, as McKibben surely knows, the Green Mountain State has become the epicenter of the backlash against Big Wind.
McKibben, who lives in Ripton and teaches at Middlebury College, doesn’t want his fellow Vermonters to have veto power over wind projects being proposed for their neighborhoods. Local control over wind-project siting was probably the most important issue in the recent gubernatorial primary. Four of the five candidates — both of the Republicans, and two of the three Democrats — favored restricting or prohibiting new wind projects in the state. Just before the August 9 primary, McKibben switched his endorsement from Matt Dunne to Sue Minter — both are Democrats — after Dunne announced that he favored local control over wind projects. Minter doesn’t. (Minter won the Democratic nomination and will face Republican Phil Scott in November. On August 22, in their first head-to-head debate, wind energy was, again, one of the most prominent issues.)
McKibben didn’t respond to my e-mailed questions. But by endorsing Jacobson’s scheme, he is advocating a 20-fold increase in wind capacity in Vermont, from 119 megawatts to 2.5 gigawatts. Other locales, too, would be covered with forests of turbines. The all-renewable scenario requires — get this — nearly 1,200 megawatts of wind-energy capacity to be constructed in Washington, D.C. Perhaps Jacobson and McKibben are planning to surround Capitol Hill with turbines. Or perhaps they are eyeing Georgetown?
The duo’s climate plan includes a 150-fold increase in onshore wind in Massachusetts, from today’s 105 megawatts to 16 gigawatts. Where will those thousands of turbines be erected? Harvard Yard? The shores of Walden Pond? If that weren’t silly enough, the McKibben-Jacobson climate cure relies on 30 gigawatts of wind offshore Massachusetts. That’s remarkable given the backlash that greeted the 468-megawatt Cape Wind project. That proposal was killed after meeting fierce local resistance, including opposition from climate-change activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who didn’t want a wind project near his family’s Hyannisport hacienda. Despite this history, McKibben and Jacobson want to install the equivalent of 64 Cape Winds offshore Massachusetts! They also want the equivalent of 70 Cape Winds offshore California — Malibu residents are certain to welcome them — and another 120 Cape Winds offshore New York.
What about wildlife? Biologists have repeatedly documented the deadly impact that wind turbines have on birds of all kinds, including bald and golden eagles. They are also killing bats.
In January, a paper published in Mammal Review found that wind turbines are now the largest cause of mass bat mortality. The lead authors of the paper were two scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey: Thomas J. O’Shea and Paul M. Cryan. Last month, a report by Bird Studies Canada, a bird-conservation organization, found that wind turbines in Ontario killed an estimated 42,656 bats over a six-month period in 2015. The carnage included several species of rare or endangered bats, such as the little brown bat and northern long-eared bat. Ecologists have long recognized the critical role that bats play as pollinators and insectivores. Economists have estimated that, in Texas alone, bats save the state more than $1 billion per year in avoided costs for pesticides.
Despite these facts, McKibben wants to erect hundreds of thousands of new wind turbines on the Great Plains, on our coasts, and offshore. The result would be even deadlier impacts on birds and bats.
In short, McKibben and his fellow travelers are anti-environment environmentalists. McKibben claims we need an all-renewable war on climate change. Such a scheme would, instead, result in a war on people, landscapes, seascapes, and wildlife.