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Eco-smackdown: GreenPeace and RFK, Jr. tussle over wind farm

Here’s something you don’t see very often. Greenpeace (see campaign) pulls up in a zodiac next to Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s sailing ship to protest his opposition to the Cape Wind project. Their banner reads:

“Bobby, you’re on the wrong boat. Say yes to Cape Wind”

Planned as the second largest offshore wind farm in the world, the 130 turbine farm will be placed just 6 miles off the shallow Nantucket sound. Location is RFK’s main objection, as he writes in his impassioned NIMBY op-ed in the New York Times.

Kennedy recites a laundry list of minor criticisms of the project, and spends an unfortunate amount of time waxing poetic about the unsullied views from the beach:

I invite these critics to see the pods of humpback, minke, pilot, finback and right whales off Nantucket, to marvel at the thousands of harbor and gray seals lolling on the bars off Monomoy and Horseshoe Shoal, to chase the dark clouds of terns and shorebirds descending over the thick menhaden schools exploding over acre-sized feeding frenzies of striped bass, bluefish and bonita.

Now, we are not against emotional appeals for causes, but it concerns us when important environmental issues get reduced to this sort of squishy marketing campaign. Is environmentalism just about appealing to people’s emotional connection with animals? Can’t we have a spirited and hardnosed debate about our environmental priorities?

Economics has a long history of cost benefit analysis — and yes, as much as it is disturbing, economists even put a price on human life in these analyses (currently $4.7 million). Public health policymakers rely heavily on these tools to inform decisions about large scale programs and measure the results of their choices.

Why then is the environmental community so often unable or unwilling to put hard numbers around choices that involve both benefits (wind farms that give us more sustainable future) and costs (impact to local environment, Robert Kennedy’s view)? Note that Kennedy is not alone. The Sierra Club still refuses to buy green power, due to internal disagreement about avian impacts.

We have a humble suggestion for the wind power debate. Find locales that welcome wind farms, and change the regulations to support the export of wind energy from those states. Wind farmers in the Midwest are expanding a good clip, and don’t face any opposition. Currently, they only sell their carbon credits into the voluntary market — to folks like TerraPass and WholeFoods — and also use the credits to fulfill their state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards.

What if Massachusetts woke up and said, “Listen, it is not economical for us to produce wind energy in Massachusetts. So let’s just buy it on the open market. We’ll achieve our environmental goals through market mechanisms.” I know some wind farmers in Minnesota that would be more than happy to take that call.

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