This paper examines ethical issues entailed by wind power, a technology that holds great hope for reducing the threat of human-induced warming but like all climate change solutions has several potential adverse environmental impacts. Recently opposition to wind projects has grown in the United States and several other countries as opponents have objected on the basis of potential adverse environmental and social impacts from proposed wind projects.
Wind power is a hopeful solution to the threat of climate change because it consumes neither fuel nor water and emits no greenhouse emissions strictly related to electricity production. Yet wind power can cause some adverse impacts to wildlife including deaths to birds and bats and some potential harms to people living near wind projects through the aesthetic degradation of natural landscapes and noise irritation to nearby residents. Transmission lines built to move wind power from project sites to electrical grids can create adverse land impacts of several different types. However, care in locating wind power projects can minimize or sometimes eliminate these potential adverse environmental and social impacts.
II. Ethical Analysis of Wind Power Project
A. Ethical Issues That Arise Because Wind Power Is a Potential Solution to Climate Change
Because climate change is a civilization challenging threat to human health and ecological systems on which life depends, solutions to climate change including wind power must be evaluated in relation to the problem for which they are a potential solution. Because climate change has existing and growing devastating impacts on current humans, future generations, ecological systems on which life depends, any ethical analysis of solutions to human-induced warming including wind power must take into account the responsibilities of those who are causing or contributing to climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate in great detail the magnitude of potential adverse environmental impacts from wind power. Without doubt, wind projects have been known to kill some birds and bats, interfere with the aesthetic enjoyment of some landscapes, and create some noise problems for people living very close to large wind projects. However, proponents of wind power argue that wind power’s adverse environmental impacts are minor compared to other energy technologies that would constitute alternatives to wind power or that are currently the source of electrical generation. Thus they argue that wind power is very environmentally benign compared to available electricity generating alternatives. In addition they argue that any adverse impacts that could be caused by wind power can be avoided or greatly minimized through thoughtful project siting decisions.
To the extent that wind power projects can be implemented in ways that minimize or avoid adverse impacts to wildlife, aesthetic values, or harmful land uses, wind power projects should be located, designed, and constructed to minimize these adverse impacts. Yet the adverse impacts to wildlife and birds, landscapes, water, human health, and ecological systems are likely to be much greater from human-induced warming than from wind power projects. Wind power projects may kill some birds and bats if unwisely located, but climate change is likely to kill entire species of birds and bats and other wildlife not threatened by wind power. In addition fossil fuel generated energy causes adverse impacts to human health and ecological systems that are not caused by wind power.
Climate change is not only a future catastrophic problem, it is already believed to be killing people around the world in increased vector borne disease, droughts, heat waves, floods, and intense storms. Wind power has not caused these problems at all.
Some regions of the world are already clearly affected by human-induced warming. For instance, according to the IPCC, precipitation that can cause deadly floods is already increasing significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, while precipitation is declining in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia
and contributing to diminished food supply and freshwater needed for agriculture and drinking (IPCC 2007: 17). Climate change-caused harms that are already being experienced by some people are of many types including, but not limited to, death, disease, ecological harm, floods and droughts, rising seas, more intense storms, and increased heat waves (IPCC 2007). These harms will grow in the years ahead even if it is possible for the international community to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That is, increased warming will continue even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are held constant because of thermal lags in the oceans and other delays in the climate system. It is simply too late to prevent additional climate change-caused suffering. To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels will require huge reductions from current emissions levels. Therefore those who are opposing wind power projects are very likely already contributing to environmental destruction and human suffering around the world. This fact, as a matter of ethics, should disenfranchise those opponents of wind power who object because of potential harms to themselves as long as they are contributing to much worse environmental harms to others from climate change.
All major ethical systems hold that people have obligations not to harm others, regardless of where they are located around the world. That is, utilitarian, rights-based theories, and justice-based ethical theories hold that humans have duties to not harm others regardless of their location (Brown 2012: Chapter 7). Different ethical theories will reach different conclusions about how duties should be allocated among people who are causing great harm to others but almost all ethical theories agree that human beings have duties to not harm others without regard to where in the world they live. Because individuals have duties to not harm others, governments have duties to not harm others outside their jurisdictions because these governments are the locus for creating policies that achieve the duties and responsibilities of their citizens (Brown 2012: Chapter 8). For this reason, both the governments themselves have duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their control to their fair share of safe global emissions and individual citizens have duties to do all in their power to assure that their governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by distributive justice because: (a) governments in a democracy can be understood to be a means of implementing the collective responsibilities of their citizens, and (b) individuals also have responsibilities to not harm others. For this reason, individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases in excess of their fair share of safe global emissions not only have duties to generate their power needs from more climate friendly technologies such as wind power, they have duties to support government policies to reduce the threat of climate change through greater reliance on renewable energy.
It is quite clear that the vast majority of regional and local governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in developed countries may not reasonably argue that they are not far exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions because of the enormous reductions in current levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.
Climate change will put into jeopardy the very lives, health, and indispensable natural resources upon which lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world depend, while most gravely threatening the poorest people who are also usually the most vulnerable. And so, climate change is a threat to things that are the minimum material conditions for human life and it is interference with the dignity of human life that is usually the predicate for recognizing that human rights have been violated. In fact, climate change is currently threatening the very existence of nations like the Maldives and Kiribati. These facts demonstrate that excess greenhouse gas emissions violate basic human rights, a conclusion that strengthens the obligations of individuals and governments to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. And so wind power projects not only satisfy the ethical obligations of individuals in regard to future energy consumption, they help individuals meet their obligations to reduce the harms that are coming from their existing energy consumption practices.
For these reasons those who object to wind power projects on the basis of some adverse harm to themselves may not object to wind power projects or other comparatively benign renewable energy technologies that could lower their carbon footprint unless they can demonstrate that they are not currently exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This is particularly the case when the adverse impacts from wind power on which they base their objection are harms to themselves while they to continue to engage in activities that are generating significant levels of greenhouse gases that are undoubtedly exacerbating great harms to tens of millions of people around the world. For this reason, no person who is responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions at levels greater than their fair share of safe global emissions should be able to object to wind farm projects other than to assure that any new wind power project minimizes avoidable adverse impacts.
B. Other Ethical Issues Entailed By Wind Power Projects
So far we have only discussed ethical issues that arise because wind power has the potential of significantly reducing carbon footprints of those who are contributing to human-induced warming. There are other ethical issues that arise when wind power projects that have not been adequately considered in this paper thus far, but, which are beyond the scope of this paper. These ethical issues include:
- The need to assure that the process of approving wind power projects with ethical norms designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the approval process (for a good discussion of these issues see, Sutton 2012)
- The need to assure that all potential adverse environmental and social impacts that could be caused by proposed wind power projects are adequately identified (see Sutton 2012)
- Ethical issues that arise because of the deceptive practices of some corporations and free-market fundamentalist organizations thathave created front groups and astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups) that disguise the real parties in interest. (Goldenberg 2012) This funded opposition is ethically troublesome because it uses deceptive tactics designed to give the false impression that opposition to wind power projects is a spontaneous “bottom-up” citizen opposition when it has sometimes been funded by those who have economic interests in maintaining or increasing fossil fuel consumption (Goldenberg 2012).
Brown, Donald (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, Routledge Earthscan, London, in press
Goldenberg, Susan (2012) Conservative Thinktanks Step Up Attacks Against Obama’s Clean Energy Strategy, The Guardian, http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2012/may/08/conservative-thinktanks-obama-energy plans
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Summary For Policy Makers, Synthesis Report, Contribution to Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, Available at: http://www. ipcc.ch/publications and data/ar4/syr/en.contents.html.
Sutton, Victoria (2012), Wind Energy Law and Ethics: A Meeting of Kant, Leopold, and Cultural Relativism, http://www.sjel.org/vol1/wind-energy-law-and-ethics. html
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law