A chronic Nimby problem of the American left

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Joe Biden’s clean energy bill rightfully hit the headlines when it passed in August. This is the largest US action to combat global warming. Alas, there were some headlines last week that seemed to torpedo the bill’s considerable credibility. An unholy coalition of left-wing Democrats and Republicans sank a bill that would cut red tape to ensure clean energy projects move forward. The Republican mission is clear: kill anything with Joe Biden’s name on it. The motto of the Democratic Left is self-defeatingly familiar: “If it ain’t right, we’re against it.”

This trait is not the fault of America’s progressive left. In the case, 72 opposing Democratic lawmakers, including Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, objected that the bill would also enable the West Virginia natural gas pipeline, meaning fossil fuels. Yet it also would have shortened the Kafkaesque delays that hinder the construction of new solar plants, clean-tech transmission lines and wind farms funded by last summer’s legislation. The net effect of the permit bill’s demise is that it will now be impossible for Biden to meet his goal of a 50 percent net U.S. carbon reduction by the end of the decade.

This points to two problems with America’s left. The first is an instinct for moral gesture over practical action. Many theorists judge the goodness of an action by its consequences—in this case, drastically reducing carbon emissions. Others say that the morality of an action should be judged by its purpose—in this case, refusing to compromise your reputation for virtue. Why New York doesn’t have congestion pricing yet, or if California’s high-speed rail system is a white elephant, you have to confront the left’s moral preferences. Republicans are not the main problem with any of the blocked programs.

The second failing of the Left is hypocrisy. The “not in my backyard” instinct is hidden in plain sight everywhere. This explains why housing in ultraliberal San Francisco is so unaffordable: the rich don’t want their property values ​​eroded by construction or neighborhoods filled with misfits. This explains why residents of the wealthy vacation island of Nantucket are blocking an offshore wind farm on the flimsy claim that it will disturb local whales. The truth is, they don’t want to spoil their vision. It may have been the first large offshore wind farm in the United States. An earlier attempt on nearby Cape Cod was partially killed by the late Ted Kennedy, a local senator and heir to the family’s Hyannis Port compound.

Nimbyism captures both of the worst characteristics of the left: those who often articulate their policies so loudly that they can quickly veto any disruption to their own lives. Economist Tyler Cowen labels this problem “bananas” — don’t build anywhere near anything. Leftists and Republicans are throwing banana peels in the way of America’s clean energy transition.

Under the Environmental Policy Act of 1970, projects take an average of 4.5 years to complete their impact assessments. That is before litigation and other violations. A major drawback of the law is that it emphasizes the views of local communities over the benefits to millions living elsewhere. Repeated experience has shown that “community participation” has time on their hands with wealthy retirees and lawyers. The law was written before global warming became an issue.

The same applies to US nuclear regulations. Almost nothing has moved in the US civil nuclear industry since the Three Mile Island spill in 1979. Although no one died in that accident, Washington’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made building a new plant nearly impossible. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s biggest mistake in 2011 was collapsing the country’s nuclear industry. This gave Russia an even greater grip on German energy and helped embolden Vladimir Putin.

America’s allergy to new nuclear power is as slow-burning as Merkel’s mistake. Just 10 Americans have been killed by civilian nuclear power, none by radiation. Tens of thousands of Americans died from air pollution last year. It is obvious that the United States must expand nuclear power if it is to achieve net zero. Wind and sun alone are not enough.

American progressives rightly assert that global warming poses the “greatest existential threat” to humanity. That line should be extended to ” . . . except for our overblown fears of nuclear meltdown”, or ” . . . but not if it damages our property values”. At some point, America’s left will have to choose between having its cake and eating it too.

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