By Richard Callanan.
Some hundred people gathered in October in a Portlaoise Hotel for a private meeting to plan joint action against what they perceive to be the government’s “flawed energy policy”. Reports from those in attendance variously concluded that these hundred people represented forty or possibly eighty-five different groups from across sixteen or seventeen Irish counties.
These groups have found common cause in their opposition to wind turbines and pylons. Some describe themselves as action, awareness or information groups while others identify themselves more overtly as being opposed to energy infrastructure by being ‘Against Turbines’ or ‘Against Spin.’ Not a few have adopted titles which come with snappy acronyms such as TWIG (Tubber Wind Information Group) or POW (People Over Wind).
This week a very different gathering took place in New York where the UN Climate Summit once again called on the world to step back from the brink of irreversible and catastrophic climate change by reducing our carbon fuel consumption. Enda Kenny’s address to the summit was rich in unprepossessing climate-change cliché: “stark reality…fair and achievable…the clock is ticking” but mostly it avoided any suggestion that Ireland might set an example for small nations by unilaterally instigating local change, even though for historical reasons is a country which can provide global leadership on certain social issues. With the line ‘Leading nations have to step forward. Others will follow’ our Taoiseach firmly placed Ireland among the followers on the subject of climate change and gave succour to those in this country who have foresworn any responsibility for addressing our own disproportionate carbon fuel use.
It is in the nature of wind farms that remote sparsely populated areas tend to be chosen for their location so opposition to their construction invariably relies on a relatively small pool of local inhabitants. The sense of isolation and powerlessness felt in many of these remote communities becomes heightened in the face of the perceived financial and political muscle of wind farm developers.
Accustomed as they are to generally both ignoring and being ignored by the tentacles of state and corporate Ireland, the residents of such out of the way towns and villages as Ballycommon, Garbally and Luggacurran are invariably distracted and somewhat overwhelmed to suddenly find themselves – with the prospect of wind turbines being erected in their locality – in the spotlight.
Indeed more substantively it is arguable that the scale of climate change requires solutions of a dramatic size – such as vast solar farms in the Sahara or southern Spain, geo-thermal from Iceland and wind from Ireland, linked by an enhanced continent-wide renewables grid. Not one-off solutions designed to fuel rhetoric not substance, of the sort that have always had particular appeal in this country of ad hoc rationalisations.
All of which makes it entirely understandable that a small number of these disparate and isolated groups should seek to find greater strength and influence through solidarity in coalitions of the like-minded.
But apart from their being formed in response to the prospect of the arrival of some bit of energy infrastructure in their previously unencumbered neighbourhoods what is it that these groups have in common?
The arguments to be made either in support of or in opposition to the particular wind turbine location proposals are most valid when they are made in reference to the particular environmental, topographical and the other local factors. These factors are unique to each proposed site and rarely lend themselves to credible extrapolation to refer to all wind-farm proposals. So in the context of a gathering of a multiplicity of disparate local action groups such as that held at Portlaoise the unique arguments which apply to particular wind farm proposals become largely irrelevant or at least not generally applicable.
In this situation generic as opposed to particular arguments come to the fore such as the pseudo scientific writings of paediatrician and long-time opponent of wind energy, Nina Pierpont. In 2009 Pierpont authored a book in which she coined the term ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome.’ The premise, methodology and conclusions of the research on which Pierpont based her findings for the existence of a range of deleterious health symptoms all attributable to the proximity of wind turbines have all been entirely discredited by subsequent peer reviewed scientific papers. Despite this, such is the scarcity of credible scientific witnesses that Pierpont has since made something of a career for herself as an ‘expert witness’ for hire to the opponents of wind energy around the world and has testified or been cited at hearings in the US, Canada, Australia and Slovenia which has become a case study in wind power opposition for the Irish group Wind Aware Ireland (WAI).
Pierpont is a darling of one of the most radical and effective anti-wind groups in the US. They are the Wisconsin Independent Citizens Opposing Wind Turbine Sites who go by the contorted almost-acronymous label, WINDCOWS who in a further branding twist have adopted a logo depicting some very angry looking cows in front of a wind turbine.
WINDCOWS has become much more than a campaign group against the erection of wind turbines in the state of Wisconsin and is now an international resource for those arguing against wind power in all its forms. A merry-go-round of conflated and inflated articles recently saw WINDCOWS cite an article by a Donegal group arguing – in a considerable exaggeration of even Pierpont’s writings – that the deleterious health effects of her ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ could now be felt up to 10 km from a turbine. Their rhetorical flourishes – ‘Big Wind Is Today’s Big Tobacco’ – have much in common with the language adopted by the Tea Party and are similarly peppered with conspiracy theory, xenophobia and invective against the evils of ‘Big Government’.
Examples of mission-creep from initially simply giving voice to concerns over local environmental and amenity degradation into the realms of the catch-all protest movement are evident in the postings and publications of many of the groups represented at the Portlaoise gathering – “a stand against the Irish Government, the EU, the IMF. To send a message that we have had enough and we are not taking anymore”.Part general dissenter agitation, part misquote from the Peter Finch character in the 1976 film, ‘Network’.
Irish groups which had previously identified themselves as explicitly non-political now find themselves in an alliance which has committed itself to the ‘targeting’ of Fine Gael seats. Here again we see the seeds of something akin to the origins of the Tea Party with some of the very same founding doctrinal influences from such organisations as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute, also in the US.
In her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’, Naomi Klein turns her attention to the Heartland Institute which she identifies as an amalgam of oil and coal lobbies combined with super-rich ultra-conservatives who have spent close to $1bn a year building and supporting a network of right-wing organisations dedicated to blocking attempts to cut emissions often by denying that climate change is happening at all. Heartland advocates are active proponents of what they term ‘free market’ for which read unregulated ‘environmentalism’ while being at the same time excoriating in their condemnation of what they refer to as ‘far-left environmentalism’.
Heartland sponsored papers and speakers through organisations including WINDCOWS provide the specious arguments attacking the environmental and economic sustainability of renewables which find their way into the claims of Irish wind energy opponents.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently awarded its Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award to Charles and David Koch who are among the largest contributors to this right-wing public-policy organisation which brings state and federal legislators together with large corporations to push the legislative agenda which most beneficial those corporations. One of the Koch brothers’ primary aims through ALEC has been the dilution of state and federal anti-pollution legislation to the benefit of their massive oil and coal interests. So malign is the perceived influence of ALEC on the body politic that dozens of global brands including Google, Facebook, McDonalds, Unilever and Coca-Cola have withdrawn from the organisations following public awareness campaigns. The fossil-fuel interests among its members continue almost single-handedly to support its legislative and lobbying activities, most particularly in the area of climate-change denial and the suborning of environmental-protection legislative agendas.
Denmark’s recent commitment to becoming fossil fuel-free by 2050 and its role as one of the world’s biggest wind-turbine manufacturers and exporters primarily through Vestas Wind Systems, has made the country a regular target for the invective of both the Heartland Institute and Wind Aware Ireland. WAI with its usual rhetorical restraint dismissed Denmark as being “an unmitigated social and financial catastrophe….a tale of greed and phoney environmentalism overpowering rural interests”.
Our default response to the prospect of any utility or public service infrastructure being located in our neighbourhood is absolute and unqualified opposition. The notion that there is always somewhere else, somewhere better suited to the generation of electricity, the disposal of waste or the siting of communications infrastructure has given rise to a myopic school of activism which at times unwittingly lends itself to advancing a remote and very narrow band of socio-economic interests.
The plutocrats of the fossil-fuel industry have made little effort to disguise their financing of the advocacy groups which dedicate themselves to generating and disseminating arguments refuting 97% of climate-science research and attacking every aspect of renewable-electricity generation. Our use of these arguments in the parochial prevention of public infrastructure developments in our own neighbourhoods serves to both polarise the debate and imperil all of our futures. •