An Emerging Divergence: A New Form of Environmentalism

From an environmental communications perspective, we are at a notable point in time. After decades of work, environmental advocates have made tremendous strides, particularly in the area of increasing public acceptance of renewable forms of energy.  At the same time, we see instances where allies that have long campaigned side-by-side to advance such environmental causes drift apart at the execution phase, creating rifts that risk the very projects for which they have long advocated.

Historically, environmentalists have come up against a singular adversary, typically an industry that is committed to defending a practice or a product with potentially harmful consequences. Today, environmentalists can find themselves at odds with like-minded allies that agree in principle to certain causes (e.g., adoption of renewable energies) but strongly disagree on execution (e.g., where they are sited). Some recent news reports regarding wind and solar projects dedicate attention to both the benefits of renewable energies and the growing divergence among erstwhile allies.

Take, for instance, Cape Wind, this country’s first offshore wind project to be sited approximately five miles off the coast of Massachusetts in Nantucket Sound, a prime location due to consistently strong winds that make generation of wind energy more feasible and cost effective. On paper, Cape Wind makes sense: Use wind, a plentiful and renewable resource, to crank 130 turbines that will generate about 170 megawatts of clean electricity per year, about the same amount of power demanded by three quarters of the average electricity demand for Cape Cod and its adjacent Islands. 
Under review since 2001, Cape Wind has garnered significant attention and has consumed substantial public and private resources.  Over the past eight years, after nearly $30 million, eight lawsuits, extensive public hearings, thousands of pages of studies, reports and analysis with involvement of 17 governmental agencies, a final permit has yet to be issued. 

A leading issue seems to be the fact that the turbines would be visible from certain vantage points along Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.  This dispute embodies the characteristics of a typical NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) campaign, executed through public, media and government relations strategies and tactics that include changing regulations, creating an alliance, engaging grassroots activities and outreach, letter writing, third party endorsement, and online strategies including a robust Web site, videos, tweets and blogs, among others.  Engaged in the process are residents, businesses, vacationers and dozens of interest groups that embody a new environmental activism reality: environmentalists against preservationists and conservationists. 

Through a communications lens, the language used by the opposition, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (supported by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy and others who generally support renewable energy) is noteworthy because it frames Cape Wind as anything but good.  They call it not a wind project, but an “industrial project.” Environmental review and public participation is not deemed a process, but rather a “battle” that is “far from over.”  In its ads, the Alliance says it favors wind, but not Cape Wind.  To justify its opposition, the Alliance notes there are better alternative sites and the risks (e.g., deteriorated views, negative economic impacts and threats to public safety) are too great.

The roster of Cape Wind supporters include equally notable names, including national organizations such as Sierra Club, Greenpeace, NRDC, among other activists and local and regional political, academic, industry representatives. On its Web site, Cape Wind presents a polar perspective of issues in contrast to those raised by the Alliance, noting that Cape Wind offers clean energy solution that will benefit the region through cleaner air, improved economic and employment opportunities.

The truth is there are numerous similar divergences where communications campaigns are central to defining this new form of environmentalism. Consider the Mojave Desert where environmentalists advocate capturing the power of the sun and wind to generate renewable energy.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leads the opposition, saying that this desert location is “unacceptable” as it threatens the desert tortoise population.  Accordingly, such energy facilities should be installed in other “suitable lands.”  Also, in the mountains of upstate New York and Vermont, advocates of wind turbines are similarly pitted against those wanting to keep mountaintops pristine.

President Obama has mandated that 10% of the nation's power be generated from renewable sources by next year and that 25% be renewable by 2025.  That means there is more to come, particularly when considering information published by Project No Project, a Web site created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (, where it notes that numerous sustainability-focused projects are at risk due to people “thinking globally” but “often acting locally to stop the projects that would create jobs and reduce CO2 emissions.” 

For the public relations professional, it is useful to know that renewable energy is also generating a new form of environmentalism.

This article was written by James G. Duffy, a senior vice president of MWW Group. He can be reached at