How to quit worrying and save the desert tortoise


A Gallup Poll taken a couple weeks ago found that Americans’ worries about environmental issues have dropped to a 20-year low, which the pollsters mostly attribute to economic concerns. I think there’s more to it than that, but first the poll findings.

The poll found that for each of eight environmental issues, the number of Americans who worry “a great deal” about them has dropped dramatically compared to a year ago. For six of the eight issues, the drop hit record lows.

In the case of three of the issues — waterways pollution, air pollution, and toxic waste contamination — the drops were 25 percentage points or more compared with 1989.

The poll also found that of the eight issues, Americans worried least about global warming. (They worried most about drinking water pollution.) The number of Americans who worried “a great deal” about global warming has dropped to 28 percent from 41 percent in 2007.

In a separate poll, the Gallup organization found a record number of Americans, 53 percent, say economic growth takes precedence, even if it hurts the environment, according to Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

“The economy is swamping everything,” he told USA Today.

Well, there’s more going on here than pocketbook issues.

For one thing, the poll likely contains some good news disguised as bad.

Chances are Americans are a lot less worried about water, air and toxic waste pollution than they were in 1989 because the country’s air and water are a lot cleaner than they were 20 years ago, and thousands of toxic waste sites have been cleaned up.

They may have concluded that environmentalists are incapable of distinguishing between minor impacts and
existential threats and of setting priorities.

That’s the good news. But then there’s this from the New York Times.

According to green energy writer Todd Woody, the staff of the California Energy Commission last week recommended approval for the state’s first new big solar power plant in nearly two decades — after a two-and-a-half-year environmental review.

Two-and-a-half-freaking-years to approve one lousy solar power plant to be built on desert land. And the process still isn’t complete.

The plant in question is to be built at Ivanpah, Calif., by BrightSource Energy, the corporate successor of the company that built almost all of California’s existing solar plants in the 1980s. It is designed to produce up to 392 megawatts of energy by using arrays of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a central tower, where it will produce steam that will be used to drive a turbine.

The plant will produce no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, NOX or mercury emissions. And it will use relatively little water, because, unlike some solar thermal power plants, it will recycle its cooling water. The nearby golf courses will use more.

So why the two-and-onehalf-year approval process? Well, it turns out environmentalists were trying to block the project. According to Woody, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity say the plant would harm rare plants and animals like the desert tortoise — all the while claiming to be all for solar energy.

Surveys have found 25 desert tortoises on the site.

Other environmentalists claimed that the thousands of acres of mirror fields and 459-foot
tower would mar the visual beauty of the desert.

The critics wanted
BrightSource to move the plant to a site with more disturbed land.
BrightSource demurred, because the current site is near existing high
voltage transmission lines. (California enviros have been fighting the
construction of new transmission lines, as well; their main complaints
are habitat disturbance and aesthetics.)

So in order to get an approval BrightSource
agreed to downsize the plant by 450 acres to accommodate the tortoises
and the plants, reducing its generating capacity from 440 megawatts to
392 megawatts — and prompting the environmental groups to complain that
it hadn’t done enough.

The California Energy Commission’s staffers disagreed, saying the
mitigation measures were sufficient as far as the critters and shrubs
were concerned. As for the visual impacts, they said they couldn’t be
reduced, but in view of “overriding considerations” (like saving the
planet) the plant should be built anyway.

And it took two-and-a-half years to arrive at
that point.

what has been going on during that two-and-a-half years?

Well, the world’s
environmentalists have been telling us morning, noon and night that
global warming poses a clear and present danger to both the planet and
civilization as we know it — and that there’s not a second to lose in
reducing our carbon footprint. And they’ve been telling the American
people that they are stupid for not embracing their warnings with more

during the same twoand-a-half years, the United States has burned
two-and-a-half billion tons of coal, producing about seven billion tons
of carbon dioxide.


do you suppose ordinary Americans make of all this? And make no
mistake, the American people, having been told they are stupid, are
paying attention.


they probably concluded there isn’t an environmental problem here that
couldn’t have been solved in 60 days had there been any real interest in
solving it. They are probably wondering (as am I) why the tortoises
weren’t moved or put in a captive breeding program or offered up for
adoption under an existing federal program. They probably also are
wondering if the shade, water and fenced sanctuary of a solar plant
might be attractive to them — kind of like marine life is attracted to
offshore oil platforms.

They may also have concluded that environmentalists are totally
incapable of distinguishing between minor impacts and existential
threats and setting priorities.

And when the Gallup Poll comes calling, they say: If
the Sierra Club doesn’t have any real sense of urgency about global
warming, why should we?