There is no shortage of folksy and fancy ways of expressing the idea that the universe is transactional; to get something, you have to give something.
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” “No pain, no gain.” “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
It’s true when it comes to physics, investing, physical fitness, relationships and beyond.
Given the universality of this concept, it is unsettling to witness our collective failure to accept that there will be trade-offs when it comes to addressing the greatest challenge of our time: climate change.
All but the most stubborn among us have accepted that a) human activity is responsible for the warming of Earth’s climate, b) this warming is a direct threat to “human health and safety, quality of life,and the rate of economic growth” (according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment) and c) we’ve got until roughly mid-century to make the big changes necessary to stop it.
Most of us have also accepted the science that confirms how the warming climate is the result of greenhouse gas emissions that act like a heat-trapping blanket around our atmosphere. These emissions come largely from the combustion of fuels made from crude oil, coal and natural gas – burned to run our vehicles, power our industries, heat our homes and generate our electricity.
As the scale of the problem comes into focus and as real-life solutions take shape, Mainers are now confronted with what role we’re willing to play. A significant question: What are we going to do about the largest clean energy project in Maine history?
The New England Clean Energy Connect is a transmission project proposing to deliver a huge amount of low-carbon hydroelectricity from Québec into the grid we share with the rest of New England.
This energy is as clean as wind and solar, is the equivalent to the annual demand of 93% of Maine homes and is cheap enough to undercut the price of all our other electricity sources. It will displace generation from existing coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power stations, and will be a leap toward vital emission reduction goals.
No, it’s not a free lunch; we already know there ain’t no such thing.
Still, the Maine Public Utilities Commission concluded that the benefits “ significantly outweigh the costs.” Now the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Land Use Planning Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy are each conducting impartial reviews. These layers of process exist to protect the public interest – methodically evaluating whether the benefits are worth the trade-offs.
Meanwhile, a particular array of interests has aligned and coordinated against the project, telling Mainers that we don’t need to consider tradeoffs at all; whether this project gets built is not our problem; someone else will take responsibility.
These groups include people who fear the change the project may bring to their communities, a subset of conservation groups who fear impacts on discrete eco-systems, fossil fuel electricity generators who fear loss of market share, and one particularly big-spending group that refuses to disclose whose interests it represents.
Setting aside the eyebrow-raising alignment between certain conservation groups and fossil fuel interests, what’s revealing about their joint opposition is that it suggests they believe we can prevail over climate change without having to sacrifice anything. These are good and honest people, but what they are selling us boils down to “no pain, no pain.”
That gets us nowhere.
We’re already seeing that inaction too has a corresponding reaction. With each passing day, global warming emissions are on the increase, worsening the types of tradeoffs we’ll be forced to consider down the road. It is a dangerous gamble to think we’ll have better choices if we just wait for a better solution, ignore the problem or leave it for someone else to fix.
Just how expensive can we afford this free lunch to be?
Benjamin Dudley is the director of Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, a coalition of individuals, businesses and associations advocating in support of the New England Clean Energy Connect. He is a former legislator from Portland and a former chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.