A Really Inconvenient Truth: Choosing Between Climate Change and Wildlife


It’s a true dilemma. Some might even call it the “Sophie’s Choice” of the environmentally minded: You’re worried about climate change, but you’re also an animal lover. How do you choose between the two?

This situation is playing out in several parts of the country and as Business Week reported yesterday, there’s not an easy or inexpensive solution. “For a sense of how complicated it is to combat climate change without collateral damage, consider the $56 million spent so far to rescue and relocate desert tortoises from the upheaval caused by the construction of a Mojave Desert solar plant.”

“When completed next year, the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will use 173,500 computer-controlled mirrors to aim 1,000-degree rays at boilers mounted atop three 459-foot towers, turning water into enough steam-generated electricity to power 140,000 homes. Its developer, BrightSource Energy, sees it as a solar equivalent of the Hoover Dam.”

MORE: 10 Endangered Animals You Never Even Knew Existed

The problem is that these solar towers are uprooting a lot of desert tortoises from their burrows—and not just any tortoise, we're talking about gopherus agassizii, which is the state reptile of California and Nevada. They once numbered in the millions, but it’s now estimated that there are no more than 100,000 living in their native habitat in the U.S. and Mexico.

Business Week notes that there are a slew of pending lawsuits that have been filed by conservation and Native American groups to halt industrial-scale solar plants planned for public lands in the Mojave.

In fact, the lawsuits have been going on for awhile. Mother Nature Network reported in January 2011 that the Western Watersheds Project stated in court papers that the Ivanpah plant was approved, "In an ill-conceived rush to accommodate massive renewable energy projects.” And MNN notes that, “The complaint said the project's approval process failed to analyze and mitigate the Ivanpah plant's impact on migratory birds, the desert tortoise, which is a threatened species under federal law, desert bighorn sheep, groundwater resources and rare plants.”

Reporting on the tortoise controversy last month, Bloomberg said, “Similar disputes are playing out elsewhere and show a growing concern among green groups and willingness to block large-scale solar and wind projects when the cost to wildlife and habitat seem to outweigh the benefits of fighting climate change."

"Near the northern Florida Everglades, the Audubon Society has fought a 200-megawatt wind farm on 10,000 acres of private sugar land, saying its 475-foot tall turbines and spinning blades will form a death corridor for migratory birds and the endangered snail-eating Florida Kite . . . In the southern Sierra Nevada of California, Defenders of Wildlife sued in federal court to block the proposed North Sky River wind-power project [to be built] in Juno Beach, Florida, next to an existing wind farm where turbine blades killed eight golden eagles this year.”

Meanwhile, back in the Mojave, all but 19 of the adults tortoises have been relocated. Business Week notes that, “The tab for transplanting and building new burrows for this threatened species, which has a poor track record of being moved, is [the aforementioned] $56 million and counting. The juveniles are enrolled in what BrightSource calls a tortoise ‘head start’ program and will be pampered for five years before being put back in the wild."

"We’re doing the right thing," says Joseph Desmond [Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications for BrightSource Energy]. “But it’s expensive.”

Where do you fall in the renewable energy versus animals debate?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com