Clean Energy’s Fate May Be Decided on the Jersey Shore

Earlier this summer, as my children splashed in the freakishly warm ocean waves by the beautiful Victorian seaside town of Cape May, N.J, angry protesters gathered a few towns away.

Over the past few months, hundreds of Jersey Shore residents have staged demonstrations opposing Ocean Wind 1, an offshore wind farm being developed by a subsidiary of Orsted, a Danish company. The 98-turbine installation, 13 nautical miles southeast of Atlantic City, would provide enough electricity to power almost 500,000 homes — a major step toward weaning New Jersey off the fossil fuels that poison our air and endanger our shoreline.

Some have painted these anti-wind crusaders as Jersey Shore versions of the Cape Cod residents fighting to preserve the view from their multimillion-dollar homes. But I think there’s something else at play. The transition away from fossil fuels in America is happening quickly, transforming landscapes around us. New wind turbines, solar panels and other clean energy infrastructure are being built before our eyes, and in some cases in our hometowns. It’s a lot of change — and still only a fraction of what’s needed. Such sweeping change, however beneficial, is inevitably going to feel a little disorienting.

Oil and gas companies, which have a lot to lose, have exploited this feeling to great effect.

Groups like Protect Our Coast NJ, which has filed lawsuits to thwart Ocean Wind 1, received support from the Caesar Rodney Institute, a think tank with ties to fossil fuel interests. Other groups fighting wind projects say they want to protect whales but are funded by oil interests. (There is no known evidence linking whale deaths to wind farms.)

The industry’s own advertisements have shifted away from talking about its products toward nostalgically evoking simpler times: a small-business owner wading through shoulder-high corn stalks; a woman cooking for her family; a gas-powered car freely speeding through the wilderness. They offer the reassuring promise that oil and gas can help return us to a less bewildering past — ironic, since the industry is a big part of what’s making the future so terrifying.

In part that’s because we’re dealing with our own anxieties.

The anxious pushback to greener energy sources is not just a phenomenon in New Jersey. From Illinois to New England, fishermen, business owners and residents are threatening legal action over proposed wind farms. In some cases, fossil fuel money is trying to influence the debate.

But environmentalists like me share part of the blame. We have not always done a good job of thinking about what these changes are like for the people experiencing them, and we have not always taken seriously the need to get them onboard before just barreling through with plans to rebuild the world. The ever-larger fires and floods and record heat stress us out. We feel an urgency to act. But our fears may also limit our ability to compromise.

To be sure, people who want to hasten the energy transition need to combat misinformation — but we also need to engage with people influenced by it. And at times we need to compromise, to find points of connection with those of differing views.

As a doctor, I’ve learned a few things from treating patients with entrenched beliefs based on misinformation. The anti-vax movement led to thousands of unnecessary Covid-19 deaths. I took care of patients gasping for air who swore they would never accept a vaccine. Sharing trial results or bombarding them with statistics wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Rather, I had to listen, remind myself that not everyone has scientific training and then try to understand why they opposed the vaccine. Is it a conspiracy theory about government overreach? Or maybe it’s a misunderstanding of how vaccines work?

Rather than dismissing their concerns, I would acknowledge them, and then choose a single benefit that can come from a treatment. “You are right that these vaccines were developed very quickly,” I’d say. “But at the same time, they use state-of-the-art technology and are really effective at keeping people out of the hospital.”

When it comes to transitioning to clean energy, I might say: “You are right that our world is changing and I agree that it is stressful. But one thing we can do to make sure we all have clean air to breathe is to switch to wind and solar energy.”

We need to meet people resisting clean energy with gentleness and curiosity. We need to have these conversations again and again, just as I do with my patients who smoke. They may not have contemplated change at one visit, but perhaps with repeated nudges, they will begin to consider why quitting makes sense, not just according to doctors and researchers, but according to the patient’s own values. Shouting and shaming do not work.

The potential payoff for building more support for offshore wind is significant. These huge farms are crucial to a healthier future of cleaner air and less global warming. Sometimes giving up a little ground can help too. For example, two of the four wind farms proposed for the Jersey coast would be built much farther off the coast than Ocean Wind 1 and, according to the developers, out of the sight of beachgoers.

The fight over Ocean Wind 1 is only one of many high-stakes conflicts over clean energy playing out across the country. The risk of losing these battles is nothing less than our very health and that of our children. Instead of shouting across a beach at our neighbors, we should focus on the fossil fuel industry that’s trying to kick sand into our eyes.

Elizabeth Cerceo is an associate professor of medicine and the director of environmental health at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.

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