Some Climate Initiatives May Harm Biodiversity, Climate Czar Says

Solutions to the world’s converging environmental crises may not always align, the Biden Administration’s climate czar said last week.

“There are a lot of hard conversations around the clean energy transition that we haven’t figured out yet, that there’s certainly not a global consensus on, let alone an American consensus on,” White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi said in a fireside chat March 13 at Stanford University.

“The one example of that is conflicts with species, not with humans but with biodiversity. If anything the biodiversity crisis is blinking brighter, faster than aspects of the climate crisis. I don’t want to pit one crisis against the other, but we are seeing precipitous decline of species diversity, and when we have conversations about things like transmission—and we have live projects now that are facing this issue—it’s a real big challenge.”

Studies have found that transmission projects can adversely impact wildlife, both during the construction and the operation phases, through habitat loss or fragmentation, electrocution, fire risk and disruption of animal behavior. The government may support projects that harm biodiversity now, Zaidi said, to reduce harm in the future.

“We value biodiversity, but at the same time if we blow through 1.5º, or 2º, 2.5º, 3º then we have fundamentally undermined in an irreversible manner biodiversity at a scale that we couldn’t probably have even imagined a few decades ago.”

About 1,800 gigawatts of power were waiting at the end of 2022 to connect to the grid, according to UtilityDive, which reported this week that the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission is working feverishly to reform transmission and interconnection bottlenecks.

Zaidi’s comments followed a recollection by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Zaidi’s interlocutor at the Stanford event. Chu recounted that his efforts to speed up approvals for transmission lines, seen as critical for connecting and delivering clean energy across the U.S., were stymied by opposition within the administration.

“When I was secretary it was 11 years between the siting of a transmission line and (construction). I said can we get this from 11 years to 3 or 4 years?”

“The answer is sadly still no,” Zaidi interrupted. “We’re working on it.”

Chu continued, recounting a meeting with former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico:

“Ken Salazar says if we’re going to do this, somebody’s got to be in charge. And so I say, Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll be in charge. So he says great, and he calls me up half an hour after the meeting, and he says ‘I can’t support this.’ Why not? ‘Because people in my department don’t want it to happen.’ Who’s against it? ‘Fish & Wildlife, Game, they don’t want transmission lines where they hunt and fish.’

“And it was dead.”

Salazar has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Chu, who led DOE from 2009-13, appeared less concerned about the conflict between environmental solutions than the need to overcome obstructions from entrenched interests.

“The groundswell of actually transforming America, getting jobs, bringing prosperity, very very important to help overcome the incumbents,” he said. “It’s much easier to stop things than to start things.”

The two Stanford professors—Chu teaches physics and molecular physiology, Zaidi is a Precourt energy scholar and adjunct—agreed about the groundswell.

“If you do not have the unwavering prioritization of workers and communities, making sure all Americans in every zip code get lifted up in this transition, that will be the source of drag,” Zaidi said, adding he was attracted to his role in the administration by Biden’s optimism.

“This is an opportunity not just to put solar panels out, to make steel in America, perhaps even more importantly, to put steel in the spine of the American middle class, which has been systematically disinvested over the last couple decades.”

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