A Catch Up: Native Tree Species, Renewables, Southern Politics, and the Dangers of Over-Politicizing Climate Change

By Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo

Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own and may not represent the views of my employer.

I’ve been absent from this space lately because of travel.

Specifically, I was in the United States building content for a forest carbon project that seeks to convert marginal agricultural land into a carbon sink through afforestation.

The project ticks many boxes in terms of community, environmental, and biodiversity benefits, and the people implementing the project are second to none.

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I learned a number of things I’ll share before getting to my main point about renewables. Be patient with me, and I’ll tie it all together.

Native Trees

The first idea is that, in the forest carbon space, we place a lot of emphasis on restoring native tree species.

Oftentimes, when we’re declaring we’ll plant native tree species, we’re really declaring we won’t be simply mislabeling a timber project.

In addition, we all love the idea of restoring native forests because it offers us redemption for our sins, to put in one way.

The problem with native species, as one person put to me, is that the trees of the past may not be the best-suited species to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow.

In many places in the United States, regional hydrology has changed either by human engineering or by the effects of climate change.

When considering how we build forest carbon projects that exemplify the permanence of carbon storage, native species may not be well adapted to the current and future conditions.

It might be hard to convince a corporate buyer that a non-native tree species is in the best interest of the local environment and biodiversity, but it’s something we need to think about when considering how we can maximize the net impact for the earth.

Southern American Politics

Second, as a non-American, I am used to arriving at conclusions about the United States through the lens of media and politics, and every once in a while I need to have interactions that remind me how limited such perspectives can be.

Yes, I lived in the United States for a number of years, and during that period I realized just how complex the US is. From the outside, everything seems black and white; from the inside, however, the US reflects so many colors of gray some can only be accessed through the power of psychedelics.

For example, outside the United States, we’re led to believe that Republicans, especially those in the Southern States, are climate deniers. From my experience, this idea is patently untrue.

Anyone who lives and works the land understands that human-induced climate change is real.

Whether it be the excessive number of natural disasters, low water levels, or unpredictable weather patterns, no one I spoke with denied that humans were having an impact on the climate, and everyone was deeply worried about the long-term consequences (I know, a quick trip doesn’t represent a regional census. I am trying to explain an idea, so bear with me).

What I encountered on my trip more than climate denial was skepticism of the individuals and solutions being proposed as the answer.

First and foremost, few people like being guilted about their lifestyles and told they’re the reason the ice caps are melting, especially by individuals whose lifestyles don’t differ that much. Ok, you don’t drive a truck, but you do fly 4 times a year to conferences, whereas the guy who drives the truck never flies anywhere.

I’ve stated previously that finger-wagging and demand-side shaming won’t get us far in fighting climate change and are counterproductive, and I found some validation in that argument.

When people are told they’ll have to give up their trucks or stop eating meat, especially when that message is delivered through voices that have tended to condescend in the past, they turn off. The medium is the message.

Others are skeptical that government will provide the solutions because they’re afraid that the climate is just an excuse to put forward a big-government agenda. Again, I’m sympathetic here.

Balaji Srinivasan argues that your politics often boils down to which elite group you feel most comfortable with, and despite my being skeptical of the motives of big business, I am also skeptical of big government to solve climate change. Why?

Solving climate change requires a high degree of technical knowledge, and I question our legislators' ability to capture that complexity and convert it into public policy that achieves what it sets out to achieve without causing dire side effects.

Second, the people who are extremely pro-government tend to act like the hammer seeing every problem as a nail. What’s the solution to X problem? Government! To me, that type of thinking simply lacks imagination and is based on distrust of everyone who is not a government actor. If you’re a true free-thinker, you can’t come to the answer to every solution is the same.

Third, when public policy fails, it's very difficult to unwind. Rather than debating the merits of any given public policy, we too often end up debating the intention. When this happens, well-meaning people will defend to the death failed legislation and massive waste because of what a law sets out to do, rather than what it actually does.

To summarize, though I do believe that government must play a role in fighting climate change, I am willing to listen to and engage with people who think the government is not the answer.

During my recent trip what was making headlines were the nutjobs throwing soup at works of art. These individuals baffle me. In my conversations with locals, many suggested that the environmental movement is led by people of this ilk. Let’s unwrap their argument for a moment.

Environmental Soup Throwers

The UK, where a number of these stunts have occurred, is currently experiencing a cost-of-living crisis thanks to inflation derived from increased energy costs due to scarcity caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Imagine we were to heed their call and drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption tomorrow. What do these protestors think will happen to the cost of everything?

Inflation is a tax that falls disproportionately on the poor since the poor have less protection and fewer means to adjust to rising prices.

Are we willing to put the cost of radical decarbonization on the poor?

I suggest not, because when the cost of living drastically increases, politics tends to favor the wackiest.

Even if the UK government were to react to these stunts with a unilateral decarbonization effort, would it put a dent in global emissions?

Not really.

Lastly, like any movement, the most radical elements do not have the right to ownership over conviction.

Being the most radical of any religion, for example, doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone who chooses to practice a moderate version of that faith.

I refuse to be told by the people willing to glue themselves to a wall that they’re doing more than me or anyone else working towards any number of environmental solutions.

Gluing yourself to a wall is easy. Building a machine that extracts carbon from the air, that’s hard.

My larger point though is that when people from many walks of life witness sabotage and destruction in the name of environmentalism, they can easily be turned off.

They don’t relate to the action and don’t understand its purpose, and while the authors congratulate themselves for their PR victory, they fail to see how many people they’ve alienated in the process.

Information Bubbles and The Renewable Pickle

Finally, we also have to appreciate how we all live in different information bubbles, and that information bubbles shape how we see the world.

Many people in the south live in an information bubble that focuses on different sides of the climate argument, and as the good book says, we should focus on removing the log from our own eye “and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

In my information bubble, I’ve been told time and again that renewables like wind and solar are viable alternatives to carbon-burning energy sources.

Yes, there are things like intermittency that make it difficult to operate a grid entirely on renewables, but then there are advances in battery technology and pumped hydro energy storage that is making it easier and cheaper to solve for intermittency. The debate ends there, right?

Not quite. Close to a successful afforestation project, I visited during my stay was a sad example of deforestation. A few acres had been cleared, and when I asked why, I got the answer I didn’t want to hear, “a solar farm”.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the landmark US climate legislation passed recently, provides a lot of incentives for solar energy development, which in theory should be a good thing.

The problem that most renewable enthusiasts don’t consider is how much land will be required to cover existing energy demand.

In a conversation with Ezra Klien, Jesse Jenkins, one of the authors of the IRA quantified the impact: “The most cost-effective of our net-zero scenarios (for wind) spans an area that is equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee put together. And the solar farms are an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.”

Land in the United States is scarce. If the US is to build out massive solar and wind infrastructure, it’s going to need a lot of land.

That land is either currently occupied by forests, which we need to both sequester carbon as well as to clean our water, prevent excessive chemical runoff into our water systems, create predictable rainfall, host our biodiversity, etc., or it’s being used to grow food. Any significant competition we create for land use with agriculture without corresponding crop yield improvements threatens to increase food prices, which again results in inflation inflicted on the poor. As we say in Spanish, no va por allí.

Deforestation is only one negative consequence of wide-scale renewables. As Bret Stephens recently pointed out in his environmental mea culpa,

“For the world to achieve the net-zero goal for carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, we will have to mine, by 2040, six times the current amounts of critical minerals — nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, graphite, chromium, rare earth and other minerals and elements — needed for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. And we will almost certainly have to do it from sources other than Russia, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other places that pose unacceptable strategic, environmental, or humanitarian risks.”

Like everyone, I consume rare earth metals, but I really don’t like mining, especially when it destroys pristine environments. Again, Bret Stephens, “A single industrial-size wind turbine, for instance, typically requires about a ton of rare earth metals as well as three metric tons of copper, which is notoriously destructive and dirty to mine.”

In addition to mining, we also have to deal with waste. When we think of environmental waste, our mind might immediately travel to nuclear energy, but solar panels produce 300x the waste per unit of energy when compared to nuclear energy.

And if we want to get to a net-zero planet, we have to consider nuclear energy, which means freeing ourselves from misinformation and disinformation we’ve been spoon-fed in the past.

Nuclear energy is remarkably safe.

Spent nuclear fuel can be reused.

Yes, nuclear reactors in the past have overrun their budgets and their deadlines, yet nowadays we have small, modular nuclear reactors that can be built offsite and then assembled at the location.

I’ll leave it for another post to make the larger case for nuclear power.

Suffice it to say here that we do not have the luxury to leave any emission-reduction option off the table, even if its initial consideration requires we suspend previously held beliefs in order to truly educate ourselves.

After spending time in the south, talking to people about the environment, and actually listening to them, I had to question a lot of my own assumptions.

What stands out from this exercise is that we can’t keep talking past each other.

We can’t keep assuming everyone else is living in a bubble designed by politicians and we are the enlightened free-thinkers.

If you believe the same things as all of your friends and favored political candidates, you’re not on the outside looking in. You’re in the cave convincing others that light is overrated.

En fin, The environment is too important to become cannon fodder in the zero-sum game of politics or small-minded thinking.

We can’t claim that others are politicizing climate change when we ourselves are not willing to think critically about the ideas we bring to the table.

Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own and may not represent the views of my employer.

I apologize for any errors that may have resulted in my trying to finish this post while also watching the final of the Ecuadorian Football Championship.



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Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

Ecuador/Canada. Working on Carbon Origination. Ex@Google, Ex@Twitter. Founder of @CentricoDigital. Contributor @TechCrunch @TheNextWeb.