America’s Top Environmental Groups Have Lost the Plot on Climate Change
A guest post by Wally Nowinski
I’ve written that fossil fuel companies are the biggest obstacle when it comes to decarbonizing our economy. And I still think that’s true. But especially in the United States, there’s another big threat: NIMBYism. Solar and wind power requires a lot of land, and the U.S. has a lot of land, but we also have a whole lot of people who are committed to opposing essentially any projects that would develop that land in any way.
So I asked my friend Wally Nowinski, who follows this issue closely, to write a guest post about it. Wally is the former CMO of Collage.com (sold in 2021), and former democratic ads director for House and Senate Dem candidates. He tweets at @nowooski.
Over the last few years, the U.S. has finally started making real progress on combating climate change. Battery and solar prices are falling faster than anticipated, electric cars are moving from niche to mainstream, and there has been substantial federal investment in grid modernization and clean energy research.
But as the pace of electrification picks up, new clean energy projects are facing opposition from what seems like an unlikely source: large environmental organizations.
America’s biggest green groups are over and over again lining up on the wrong side of decarbonization. The Audubon Society is suing to block California wind farms. The Natural Resources Defense Council supported closing nuclear power plants in New York and California.. The Sunrise Movement is supporting a moratorium on large solar projects in Amherst, MA. And the Sierra Club has organized opposition to solar projects in Florida, California, Maryland and elsewhere.
In Nevada, the Sierra Club and groups like it were the primary challenger to a 14-square-mile solar project. The reason? Affection for the plot of land, which also shelters endangered tortoises.
Big environmental groups frequently say they are ardent supporters of decarbonization. But all too often the groups also say that the tradeoffs needed to construct clean energy infrastructure are too great.
What’s going on here?
The core of the problem is that these groups were founded on principles of conservation—an inherently small-c conservative concept. That’s dangerous during a climate crisis that calls for radical action. Meanwhile, their structure has also made them vulnerable to NIMBYism—raising the temptation to value the fate of a few acres of land over potentially game-changing climate solutions.
Many of our largest environmental orgs gained prominence in an era when people thought the main environmental threat was development.
To understand how environmental groups became influential opponents of climate action, it’s worth going back to their renaissance during the 1960s and 70s. The U.S. was coming off of several decades of postwar prosperity. Families had bought cars and houses in the suburbs. But a growing number of folks were starting to notice and lament the negative side effects of sprawl–like smog, water pollution and the loss of wilderness areas close to cities. The cultural backlash against development in this era is captured by songs like “Little Boxes” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” with its now-famous refrain: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
The environmentalist response was simple and effective: conservation. Slow down development. Stop sprawl. Regulate or prohibit air and water pollution. Protect open spaces.
The movement was extremely successful, both in terms of impact and popularity. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts helped improve air and water quality. Groups like the Sierra Club and Audobon Society spun up local chapters across the country to lobby local governments. And environmentalists succeeded in institutionalizing many of their concerns about local development through legislation like the California Environmental Quality Act that instituted legenthly environmental reviews of proposed construction projects.
Now, though, the problems facing the environment are wildly different–and require more development not less.
Conservation is not the same thing as climate action.
Conservation is a conservative impulse, but right now, the climate threat calls for sweeping changes to our physical environment. Our best shot at mitigating the impact of climate change is to electrify every process in our economy as quickly as possible: We need to preserve clean energy infrastructure like hydro and legacy nuclear power plants. We need to build a ton of new wind and solar fast. And we need to find and harvest the raw materials needed for batteries.
All of these projects pose tradeoffs: They’re important from a climate standpoint, but bad from a conservation standpoint. To state the obvious: If you build a solar farm in the desert, it is no longer a natural desert habitat, it’s a solar farm. Meanwhile, wind farms do kill some birds. Hydro dams (though we aren’t likely to build more since we’ve already used the best sites), do disrupt fish, and nuclear plants still scare people.
So it’s not actually surprising that conservation groups like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the NRDC regularly oppose specific clean energy projects, even while they acknowledge the importance of a rapid energy transition.
The tradeoffs are a hard problem for organizations to wrestle with, particularly when many of our biggest environmental groups were founded specifically with a goal of conservation. The Audubon Society was created to protect birds and the Sierra Club was founded by mountaineers. The Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, grew out of opposition to a hydro-electric project on the Hudson River. Until very recently, their agendas were focused on protecting what already existed–not embracing rapid change.
For its part, the national Sierra Club leadership seems to be trying to put more emphasis on supporting clean energy projects than it did in the past. Its platform calls for 100% clean energy now, and the organization's national magazine even published a story about the threat NIMBYs pose to renewable energy. But when you have an organization that has fought for conservation for over 100 years, and whose entire playbook and tool kit is designed to stop or at least delay change, embracing clean energy development can be hard.
Many conservation groups have a structure that makes them chaotic, and vulnerable to NIMBYs.
One of the reasons the Sierra Club was so successful at advancing its agenda in the late 20th century is that it was organized as a chapter-based membership organization. Local chapters popped up across the country where the most passionate members could organize around local issues, lobby local politicians, and talk to the press, all with the credibility of the Sierra Club name behind them. The Audubon Society, and more recently the Sunrise Movement, followed a similar model.
This structure enabled the groups to take on many more fights than they otherwise would have, and helped broaden their influence within state and local governments across the country. Wherever you went, there was likely a Sierra Club chapter ready to weigh in on local development projects.
Now, that structure means that the groups’ power can be high-jacked to protect members’ backyards. For example, last year, the Sierra Club of Iowa came out swinging against a solar project. The weight of its message was increased by the imprimatur of the national brand—normie voters don’t know the difference—even though the national organization has said it’s pro-solar development. The phenomenon is particularly damaging when it comes to dense, walkable housing developments, which can radically improve each residents’ energy efficiency over single-family housing–but which local nature-lovers tend to object to on aesthetic or conservation grounds.
In 2017, the California Sierra Club helped defeat a statewide upzoning bill the New York Times described as some of the most ambitious climate legislation in state history.
Last fall, the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club and the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the Audubon Society sent a joint letter (Pg. 25) to the City of Mountain View, California opposing new housing. The reason? The development would reduce the number of trees motorists could see while driving down the highway. Then there was that time the San Francisco Sierra club fought to preserve a parking garage.
It’s not just organizations with a historic conservation mission that can be taken over by NIMBY interests either. Earlier this week the Amherst Chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a group whose tagline is “We are the climate revolution,” joined area NIMBYs in advocating for a moratorium on all large solar projects in the city.
Where do we go from here?
Big environmental groups have very powerful brands, particularly in blue states. Unfortunately, I think we should expect the trend of these organizations opposing clean energy projects to continue, at least in the short term. Because of their brand power, that opposition will carry a lot of weight, and it will likely be weaponized by conservatives and others to say “even environmentalists oppose this project.”
The solution will involve rethinking what it means to be “environmentalist.” The term is usually understood to encompass a wide range of different causes–from climate activism, to habitat conservation, to recycling and plastic straw bans. But it’s worth remembering that not everything coded as “green” helps fight climate change, and much of it is actively counterproductive.
The good news is there are some signs of an internal backlash within environmental groups. In 2019, a cadre of activists concerned about climate change took over the Ann Arbor, Michigan Sierra Club in a contentious election. In the Bay Area, different local Sierra Club chapters are fighting with each other about whether or not to support a big solar project. And while many chapters continue to be almost cartoonishly NIMBY on housing issues, the national Sierra Club changed its tune on housing construction and now supports infill development.
The most basic thing we can do now is simply to recognize we are not in an era where all environmental goals are aligned. Conservation and climate action are often directly at odds. And if we’re going to successfully prevent global calamity wrought by extreme weather and rapid warming, we’re going to have to displace many more tortoises.