False equivalencies on renewable energy

VTDigger’s commentary page recently featured a call to Kumbaya by Brian Tokar, UVM lecturer and board member of 350Vermont. His argument is that our debate over renewable energy has been toxified by extreme positions taken by both sides:

On one hand, groups like VPIRG and Renewable Energy Vermont have staked out a position that any possible limitations on large-scale projects represent an existential threat to our appropriately ambitious renewable energy goals. On the other side are those who view all utility-scaled developments as an assault on our precious lands and wildlife habitats, among other concerns.

His characterization of pro-renewable advocates is 100% pure bullshit. Nobody from VPIRG or REV or Iberdrola or The Secret Blittersdorf Cabal is opposed to “any possible limitations” on renewable siting. In fact, they just spent a laborious 2016 legislative session working with all interested parties on a revised siting bill that allows for local input.

It was the other side that refuses to come to the table, insists on nothing less than full veto power for local governments, and depicts anyone who disagrees with them as corrupt toadies of rich, powerful, foreign interests.

There’s a lot of false equivalency on this issue — the “both sides do it” meme about national politics that’s so persistent among Beltway types. Remember the first two years of President Obama’s tenure, when he repeatedly tried to reach across the aisle and open a dialogue, only to get slapped down by intransigent Republicans?

That same dynamic is at work in the renewable siting debate, no matter how strongly Mr. Tokar wants to play the Obama role in a campfire singalong.

An almost identical, and inaccurate, call to Kumbaya was sounded shortly before the Vermont primary by the guy who got me into the blogging business, John Odum. He used descriptors like “roiling hysteria”, “visceral fury”, and “electoral rabies” for the reaction by environmentalists and others (me) to Matt Dunne’s belated “clarification” of his position on renewable siting.

The reactions to Dunne were harsh, to be sure — although I think John may have been exaggerating for polemical effect. (Something I never do, cough, choke.) But they sprung from understandable causes, to wit:

— As stated above, those environmental groups had worked long and hard to pass a siting bill that addressed the reasonable concerns of local officials and residents. They saw Dunne’s position shift as undermining all that work and reopening the debate.

— Dunne’s maneuver was so transparently political that it activated the latent but widely-held view of him as an opportunist who couldn’t be trusted.

— The reaction was compressed due to Dunne’s timing — less than two weeks before the primary. Didn’t help that Dunne issued his statement on a Friday afternoon. It was a complete surprise, and there was no time for dialogue. The reaction built over the weekend, and was at full throat by Monday morning.

— Advocates of renewable energy are properly sick and tired of getting tarred and feathered by their opponents, and of this false-equivalency narrative employed by Dunne, Odum, Tokar, and others.

Because truth be told, one side and one side only is responsible for virtually all of the roiling hysteria and visceral fury. It’s the people on the other side of the issue.

They’re the ones who peddle junk science. They’re the ones who stage angry confrontations with renewable advocates. They’re the ones who’ve alienated most of the Statehouse* with their intransigence. They’re the ones who will accept nothing less than full capitulation to their demands. They’re the ones, just as a for instance, who found Dunne’s new position completely unacceptable and rebuked him in the strongest possible language.

*Even some of their legislative allies wish they’d STFU.

The development of Vermont’s renewables policy has been a slow, steady accretion over two decades or more, and three separate gubernatorial administrations. Nothing has been rushed or sneaked. The process has been painstaking, and it has been transparent.

You can look at the record. Every issue about renewable energy has been studied and studied and studied again. Environmental impact, human health, wildlife habitat, water runoff, lasting impacts on land, even the old “whirling blades kill birds” shibboleth. The science is clear, and virtually all of it is on the side of renewable energy.

This leads to another whole aspect of this false-equivalency stuff. It’s how the media generally reports on issues related to renewable energy. They quote one person on one side and one person on the other and call it “balanced” as if the two sides are equal in weight and worth.

It’s fundamentally misleading when the media do it about climate change, and it’s just as wrong when they’re writing about renewables and tacitly give oppositionalists the same stature as advocates and state policymakers.

So, if people like me sometimes get a little cranky about this stuff, maybe now you know why.


4 thoughts on “False equivalencies on renewable energy

  1. Norm Etkind

    Once again I feel I should weigh in on the part that is missing from the dialog. Vermont’s most cost-effective carbon-neutral renewable is biomass. But you won’t find anything about it on the Energy Independent Vermont website or on VPIRG’s (based on a quick perusal of their site). Yet, 38% of Vermonters are currently using wood for all or part of their heating needs. The newer stoves and boilers are efficient and nearly pollution free. Sustainably managed forests ensure carbon neutrality when viewed with a long-term perspective (and climate change is a long-term problem). Biomass, a form of stored solar energy, is an important part of addressing climate change in Vermont along with the other options. It creates more jobs, helps maintain the value of our forests and reduces costs. It is unfortunate that some prefer to ignore this asset that is all around us.

    1. duaneletourneau

      Calling biomass “stored solar energy” seems disingenuous considering what’s released during combustion is carbon, not light.

      Stored solar energy is called electricity and /or heat, not carbon.

  2. johngreenberg

    Well said, John.

    One minor quibble, which you have noted in the past. Here you say: “They quote one person on one side and one person on the other and call it “balanced” as if the two sides are equal in weight and worth.” In fact, in most stories, they quote three people opposed to renewables development for every one (including government officials) who supports it and call that “balanced.” This is repeatedly the case at VT Digger, which gives the issue a LOT of coverage.

    Allow me to vent just a bit more. I’ve been following and writing about this issue for several years now. I finally decided to organize myself and keep a file of my writings, because I found that I was replying to precisely the same false allegations over and over again, sometimes coming from different people, but too often coming from the very same person in the very same (or very similar language).

    Rational discourse is impossible if you can make up anything you want and assert its truth and then, when confronted with documented counter-evidence, simply ignore it and re-assert your “facts” somewhere else. For any dialogue to progress, there has to be willingness to recognize error and correct it, rather than mindlessly repeat it at every opportunity.

    In the old days, either I’d be paid to do what I do as a “fact-checker,” employed somewhere in the media, or there would be SOME kind of filter on the ability to repeat lies.

    Donald Trump is the incarnation of what happens when you remove both from political discourse and this has nothing whatsoever to do with his “politics” or “political ideology;”

  3. odum

    Heh. I tellya, I miss a few days and find out I’m an anti-windy now.

    Okay, was gonna do a snarky, quick response, but… meh. Too much reductivity going on already.

    It’s interesting – and I think meaningful – to be lumped in with Brian Tokar. Despite our divergences over the years in regards to on-the-ground politics, I think it’s no coincidence that Brian and I both have our political ethics strongly influenced by Social Ecology, for which democracy is the ultimate ethic. I haven’t read Brian’s piece yet (going to next), but I suspect his discomfort with this debate springs from the a similar well.

    My piece was really an analysis of the conflict arising from trying to reconcile the twin ethics of modern-day crisis-driven environmentalism and democracy. As with any issue and democracy, its great when they dovetail – but they dont always, and the feedback can be…challenging… especially for those of us like myself (and I was pretty explicit about my views, including my disagreement with Matt Dunne) who would be fine with lots and lots and lots of wind turbines.

    The nature of Democracy is that sometimes the good guys lose. It’s not a problem, per se, it’s just the nature of the beast. It can be frustrating. Sure, you build in a Constitutional framework to protect the minority and provide thus-far-and-no-further parameters to hold back the occasional mushrooming of voter mobs, but wind turbines aren’t going to be covered by that, so we’re working without a net.

    This particular friction point of this issue is all about that; it’s a struggle about where to set the democratic dial, and you may try to water down the wild emotion connected to any turns of that dial with cries that “it was political” and “bad timing,” but this one was going to 11 no matter what, who or when. The democratic dial is the third rail of this debate. One side wants to turn the democratic dial as far to the “representative” side of the dial as possible, and the other wants to turn it as far to the “direct” side as possible. In both cases, they see doing so as necessary to winning. I don’t necessarily think that either side is 100% correct on that, but they are correct insofar as what would make their jobs easier.

    But don’t fool yourself; its an ethical balancing act. The issues at stake are way bigger than those faced by individual towns, so – like building a highway, or an electrical grid – the local towns cant have all the say. That’s just the way it is. But as we both know, it’s all too easy to segregate governmental decisions so far into the executive branch cloud that they become undemocratic. That’s just the way THAT is. I’d love to be able to say everything can just be vetted by the towns through direct democracy, but I’m too cynical for that these days. Matt (and maybe Brian?) isn’t. That’s where I disagree.

    I would argue that Mr. Dunne’s biggest sin – emotionally speaking – is that he reminded us of that aforementioned friction. It’s not pretty, and it makes things complicated, both intellectually and emotionally. For my part, I say too bad. Not everything can be as simple and easy as Trump=fascist=bad.

    But if you think what greeted Mr. Dunne was a rational critique and a meaningful engagement on the issues, you’re in denial. And, my friend, you exhibit two telltale signs of losing yourself in emotionalism over the issue.

    First: The ad honinem. The classic logical fallacy. It is very difficult to find anyone – yourself included – who responded to the Dunne statement with an actual counterargument. Instead, it was all about him; panderer, flip-flopper, anti-wind, phony, etc. It especially stands out when, frankly, his position is a fairly simple one to counter. All the more telling that nobody took the easy two sentences to do it.

    Second: Reading for content. When people read in anger, they… miss things. Anger-brain doesn’t like nuance, so things get, shall we say, mentally overwritten. Sometimes even an article’s very thesis.

    Case in point: “An almost identical, and inaccurate, call to Kumbaya was sounded shortly before the Vermont primary by the guy who got me into the blogging business, John Odum.”

    I don’t doubt that Brian’s message was a “kumbaya,” which is a word used to evoke can’t-we-all-get-along hand-holding. Brian is a wonderfully optimistic guy with a utopian’s goodwill.

    But my entire thesis was that this issue, at this point in time, is comparable to the issue of guns; irreconcilable. Impossible to discuss rationally. Where Brian is an optimist, my “identical” (?) piece was 100% cynicism, for good or ill. A complete anti-Kumbaya. I was unmistakably direct in that regard.

    Just sayin’.


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