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Protecting Nature Is More Important Than ‘Quickly’ Building Renewables, Most Americans Say

Nearly 80% of U.S. adults believe conservation is more important than a speedy renewable energy rollout, our poll finds. That spells trouble for Biden’s climate agenda.

Birds and wind turbines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In Virginia, environmentalists fought a utility-scale solar farm that would rank among the largest on the East Coast.

In New Jersey, an ocean-conservation group is battling an offshore wind farm that could power half a million homes.

In Utah, Nevada, and even the San Francisco Bay area, green groups are threatening renewable projects that officials say are crucial to meeting local zero-carbon goals.

Around the country, self-described environmentalists are trying to stop some of the same solar and wind projects that experts say are crucial to solving climate change. They are sometimes dismissed as NIMBYs or accused of being stooges for the fossil-fuel industry, and some groups literally are funded by oil interests.

But a new poll shows that their views — at least at the surface level — resonate with nearly four out of every five Americans.

An overwhelming majority of Americans say that conserving local land and wildlife is more important than building new sources of renewable electricity, even if that slows down the world’s response to climate change, according to the inaugural Heatmap Climate Poll, a scientific survey conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group last month.

The poll finds that even though Americans love renewables in the abstract — with 94% endorsing the benefits of rooftop solar and 88% embracing large-scale solar farms — they are skittish about their potential trade-offs. Some 79% of Americans said that new renewable energy should be rolled out “slowly” rather than “quickly” and that the conservation of land and wild animals should be prioritized above rapid greenhouse-gas reductions

In contrast, only 21% of Americans agreed with the statement that “we should roll out renewable energy quickly to lower emissions as fast as possible, even if it means harming natural land or wild animals.”

In other words, you don’t necessarily need recourse to astroturfing schemes or secret fossil-fuel connections to explain why so many Americans oppose new renewable projects. The Heatmap poll surveyed 1,000 adult Americans in all 50 states during a five-day period in February.

The results offer a warning to the Biden administration — and for that matter, anyone who seeks to decarbonize the American economy before the world sails past the 1.5-degree mark. In order for the United States to meet its goal of eliminating carbon pollution from the power system by 2035, the country’s physical infrastructure must transform at a pace and scale that has no peacetime precedent. Solar and wind capacity must quadruple nationwide, according to one estimate from the National Renewable Electricity Laboratory; up to 10,100 miles of new power lines might be required to hook those renewables into the grid. That build-out will be extremely difficult if Americans are susceptible to arguments that renewables are harming local flora and fauna.

“When you think about renewables you’re talking about an impact on the landscape that is beyond the scale of anything this country has ever seen before,” Larry Selzer, the president and chief executive of the Conservation Fund, one of the country’s largest buyers of conserved land, told me. “The IRA explicitly contemplates up to a million miles of new transmission lines and 65,000 miles of new pipelines.”

In contrast, the country’s last major infrastructure project — the Interstate Highway System — is about 48,000 miles long, he said. And much of it was built half a century ago.

“People intuitively understand the scale of investment [in the Inflation Reduction Act], even though it’s going to help save them and their communities” and ultimately protect wildlife, he said. “For most Americans, the idea of climate change is relatively amorphous and distant from their lives, yet they feel the loss of wildlife in a proximate way.”

Although the Inflation Reduction Act contains at least $25 billion to support conservation programs on agricultural and forestry land, this has not attracted as much attention as its clean-energy programs.

For climate advocates, the most upbeat finding in the poll might be that most Americans would be happy to add renewable energy near where they live, even if they want those facilities to have few trade-offs. More than 70% of Americans said that they would welcome the construction of wind turbines or large-scale solar farms in their community; more than 60% expressed comfort with a local geothermal power plant.

The only energy technology that most Americans did not want to live near is, ironically, the same technology that virtually guarantees local conservation. About one-third of respondents said that they would not welcome a new nuclear plant in their community, the poll found. Many nuclear facilities — such as the Calvert Cliffs power plant in Maryland — are surrounded by acres of protected parkland in order to ease local concerns. They also need far less space than other clean energy sources, like solar panels or wind turbines, to generate the same amount of power.

But perhaps that’s not so surprising: Americans’ view of the clean-energy future differs significantly from experts in several areas. Recent reports from a Princeton University team and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have projected that the IRA will reduce the cost of producing electricity nationwide. Yet nearly half of Americans said that they expect the move to renewables will raise their costs. Only about a third expect lower costs in the future.

This story was updated at 2:36 p.m. ET on Thursday.

The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted via online panels by Benenson Strategy Group from Feb. 15 to 20, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. You can read more about the topline results here.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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