I subscribe to an email list operated by the Sierra Club and devoted to the topic of desert conservation. The majority of the active participants on the list are horrified by the Club’s support of desert public lands energy development, but every now and then someone will post a note saying that we need to remember how serious climate change is, with the unspoken message that we should not be too upset when a beautiful piece of desert is needlessly sacrificed to the energy industry. This weekend, as we were reeling from the news that the first Ivanpah Valley solar project had been approved and tortoises were already being relocated, someone made just such a comment.
I dashed off an angry reply, took a few moments to decide whether I would likely regret hitting “send,” decided that I didn’t care if I regretted it, hit “send,” then went to the desert for the weekend. On my return last night I found that I did not regret it. That reply, with minor grammatical corrections, follows.
I know that compared to some of my beloved compatriots on this forum I am a relative youngster a mere half century old, but I have been watching cherished and important pieces of the landscape be lost to foolishness or greed or random accident for most of that time. From the increasingly old second-growth hardwood forests of my native Western New York, to fragments of the chaparral and oak savanna ringing the San Francisco Bay area destroyed for housing now unoccupied, to the vernal pools plowed up to build UC Merced, to the old-growth redwood savaged in an orgy of junk-bond logging in the early 1990s, I have — as have many of you — lost landscapes I care about before, far too many times.
But this is the first time I can recall losing a landscape while being chided by ostensible allies that I am being short-sighted.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the (then) Buffalo Evening News warning about the threat of catastrophic climate change from fossil fuel burning in 1973. In 1980 I publicly refused to register for the draft and got air time on news stations from New York to Colorado to California talking about the manifold costs of our addiction to fossil fuel — “no war for oil” was a catchphrase even then — and among other issues I spoke about the inevitability of climate change if we didn’t change our ways, risking five years in Federal prison to do so. In 1989 I started working as an environmental advocacy journalist and worked to educate people about the climate effects of car dependency, of power generation, of destroying rainforests. I was the first magazine editor that I know of to publish a story on the threat of methane clathrate release from warming tundra and seafloors. I helped publicize the insane generation of power from coal stripmined at Black Mesa and shipped at a huge energy cost to Laughlin, there to be burned in a plant that turned the Mojave Valley skies the color of chocolate. I have mourned the seemingly inevitable fate of the pika and talked about it and written about it since 1992. I have mourned the seemingly inevitable fate of the red spruce forests since 1985.
And in the last two decades of falling in love with the Mojave, I have watched as the southern edge of that biome unravels, fire and invasives and drought and the whole interrelated nest of landscape disruptions either caused by or worsened by increasing temperatures. I watched in horror in 2005 as climate-driven fires burned more than a million acres of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in a mere six weeks, including land that had not burned since the Pleistocene.
I have devoted the last 15 years to writing a book about how climate change will almost certainly consign the Joshua tree to extinction in the wild, and my obsession with writing that book has consumed my life, contributed to my divorce, prompted my permanent moving away from the Bay Area, which aside from the Mojave is the only place that has ever felt like home.
And so I must ask: How much more goddamn perspective on the severity of climate change would those ostensible allies suggest I cultivate?
We have limited time and limited resources — both financial and political — to address the reality of climate change. We must absolutely find the quickest means by which we can reduce our burning of fossil fuels. If people read what we’ve put together over at solardoneright.org in the briefings section, they will see that we advance and support the argument that remote solar, especially concentrating solar, is no longer as efficient as distributed PV at generating power in terms of engineering, of cost per installed kilowatt, of environmental impact on the landscape, and of time elapsed from conception to power generation. One might disagree with that argument, but so far I have seen no rebuttals to it that have any facts to back them up. Rather, I have seen dismissals based on assumptions that economics and technology have not changed since 1985, when CSP was more efficient in most ways.
California has installed more generating capacity this year in rooftop PV than Ivanpah would offer. That in the presence of significant disincentives to rooftop PV, and with green groups relegating their support of the industry to parenthetical, afterthought status.
I maintain that if people treat concentrating solar and remote, utility-scale PV as anything but a last desperate and ineffective resort, they do not fully grasp the magnitude of the threat climate change poses us. They have not paid sufficient attention. They have not thought things through. They have not listened.
But those of us grieving over Ivanpah, or Imperial, or Lucerne Valley: we’re the ones subject to lectures about realism. About needing to be pragmatic and constructive and team-playing and possessed of sufficient perspective and ready to accept some development in the desert. Despite the fact that not a peep of protest has been made in this forum about Abengoa Harper Lake, or Beacon, or Palmdale. Despite the fact that Sierrans in this group have played fair and by the rules and remained loyal to the Club, even as National has undone decades of their work. Despite the facts being unambiguously on our side, should anyone care to note them.
And atop all this — atop all this! — the bulldozers at Ivanpah are merely the first pebbles in an avalanche. In a month we will look back wistfully at this week, when it was just a few acres of Ivanpah Valley being killed, and the mainstream groups restrict their response to regretful noises about trade-offs and sad perspective and doing things better in the future.
So damn straight I’m grieving. And furious. And despondent.
But never mistake that for giving up. Ivanpah is not yet killed. There are still things we can do to stop the project, including offering support for the local tribes as they bring their forces to bear, and supporting any group with standards enough to sue, if there are any.
And should the worst come to pass there, I will work to make the name “Ivanpah Valley” a bone in the throat of any organization willing to explain away its complicity in killing it, the way the name “Glen Canyon Dam” has been for Certain Organizations.
Because I’m just that unconstructive, and lacking in perspective, and short-sighted. And I am just one of many.