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The American left’s chronic Nimby problem

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Joe Biden’s clean energy bill rightly hit the headlines when it was passed in August. It was America’s biggest move by far to tackle global warming. Alas, there were few headlines last week to mark the torpedoing of that bill’s substantive hopes. An unholy alliance of leftwing Democrats and Republicans sank an accompanying bill that would have cut through red tape to ensure the clean energy projects can go ahead. The Republican motive was obvious: kill anything with Joe Biden’s name on it. The Democratic left’s motive was self-defeatingly familiar: “If it’s not perfect, we’re against it.”

This trait is a feature not a bug of America’s progressive left. In this case, the 72 opposing Democratic lawmakers, including Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, objected that the bill would also have enabled a West Virginia natural gas pipeline, which means fossil fuels. Yet it would also have shortened the Kafkaesque delays that stand in the way of building the new solar plants, clean-tech transmission lines and wind farms funded by last summer’s law. The net impact of the permitting bill’s demise is that it will now be all but impossible for Biden to meet his target of 50 per cent US net carbon reductions by the end of this decade.

This pinpoints two problems with America’s left. The first is an instinct for moral gesture over practical action. Many philosophers judge the goodness of an action by its outcome — in this case, sharply cutting carbon emissions. Others say an action’s morality should be judged by its intention — in this case, refusing to compromise on your reputational virtue. If you want to know why New York still lacks a congestion pricing system, or California’s high-speed rail system is a white elephant, you must confront the left’s moral preferences. In neither of those stymied projects are Republicans the main problem.

The left’s second failing is hypocrisy. The “not in my backyard” instinct is hidden everywhere in plain sight. It explains why ultraliberal San Francisco’s housing is unaffordable: rich people do not want their property values marred by construction or their neighbourhoods filled with the wrong people. It explains why residents of the wealthy holiday island of Nantucket are blocking an offshore wind farm on the flimsy claim that it would disturb the local whales. The reality is they do not want their view spoiled. This could have been America’s first major offshore wind farm. The previous attempt in nearby Cape Cod was partly killed by the late Ted Kennedy, the local senator and scion of the family’s Hyannis Port compound.

Nimbyism captures both of the left’s worst traits: it is often those who most loudly profess their principles who are quickest to veto any disruption to their own lives. The economist Tyler Cowen labels the problem “Banana” — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. The left and Republicans are strewing banana skins in the way of America’s clean energy transition.

Under a 1970 environmental policy act, projects take an average of 4.5 years to complete their impact assessments. That is before litigation and other overruns. The law’s key flaw is that it emphasises the views of local communities over the benefits to millions who live elsewhere. Time and again, experience shows that “community participation” is captured by wealthy retirees and lawyers with time on their hands. The law was written before global warming became the issue.

The same applies to America’s nuclear regulations. Virtually nothing has moved in the US civil nuclear industry since the Three Mile Island leak of 1979. Though no one died in that accident, Washington’s nuclear regulatory commission has made it nearly impossible to construct a new plant. The biggest mistake of Angela Merkel, Germany’s former chancellor, was to mothball the country’s nuclear energy sector in 2011. This gave Russia an even greater stranglehold on German energy and helped embolden Vladimir Putin.

America’s allergy to new nuclear power is the slow-burning equivalent of Merkel’s blunder. Just 10 Americans have been killed by civil nuclear power, none from radiation. Last year tens of thousands of Americans died from air pollution. It is beyond obvious that the US must expand nuclear power if it is to reach net zero. Wind and sun on their own will not be enough.

US progressives correctly insist that global warming poses the “greatest existential threat” to humanity. That line should be extended to “ . . . except for our wildly overdone fears of nuclear meltdown”, or “ . . . but not if it damages our property values”. At some point, America’s left must choose between having its cake and eating it.

edward.luce@ft.com

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