What TV news green activists should watch?

When environmental activists, government officials and corporate leaders descend on Glasgow for COP26, there will be plenty of articles, videos and books floating around that extol the virtues of being green. One piece of content unlikely to be circling much is Blown Away: The People Vs Wind Power, a documentary currently airing on Fox News in the US. But Glasgow attendees would do well to watch it, FT reports.

The film features Tucker Carlson, the genial-looking TV host with a dyspeptic streak who underwent a conversion from bow-tie-wearing prep into rightwing barker in the Trump era. In the 26-minute film, he travels across the country to “expose the hidden costs of the green energy agenda”. What he seems most angry about is the “death and destruction brought on by these monstrosities” known as wind turbines.

Never mind the fact that most Glasgow attendees view wind power as such a self-evidently wonderful thing that turbine photos plaster the COP26 programme. Carlson thinks that wind farms threaten the livelihood of fishermen (because turbines are being built offshore), harm pristine forests and jeopardise the safety of ordinary US workers, since they can sometimes fail and cause a power cut.

“This is about enrich[ing] the most powerful people in the country at the expense of the most vulnerable — it’s exploitation of the weak by the powerful,” says Carlson. “It’s foreign companies that will make a fortune.” More specifically, he hates the fact that companies from Spain, Norway and Denmark are running the turbines and that financiers such as Warren Buffett and banks including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are involved.

If you’re in Glasgow, you’re no doubt rolling your eyes by now or perhaps correctly retorting that, say, a coal mine does more damage than any Scandinavian turbine. But even if you disagree with Carlson’s attacks, it would be a mistake to ignore him for at least three reasons.

First, and most obviously, we live in an era when political tribes are losing the ability to empathise with others and when it is dangerously easy for anyone, particularly activists, to slip into groupthink. Not only has lockdown kept us trapped with our own social groups for a long period, but as we have dashed online we have tended to intensify our tribal affiliations. Technology, after all, makes it so easy to customise our identities and confirm our biases.

As a result, I suspect few Glasgow attendees even know that Carlson is so angry about wind turbines, or are likely to see clips of his diatribes in their social media feeds. Even though the show he fronts, Tucker Carlson Tonight, is the highest-rated on American cable TV, with 3.42 million nightly viewers.

Second, even if you dislike Carlson’s overall stance, there are grains of truth in some of what he says. Take his charge about elitism. 

As Blown Away reports, one feature of wind farms is that they tend to be located in remote, rural areas or places subject to what wind engineers call the “Starbucks Rules”. As one explains on camera, “Never try to site a wind project within 30 miles of a Starbucks . . . because the demographic that is willing to pay a premium price for Starbucks coffee has the education and wherewithal to organise to resist wind projects.” Nimby-ism — Not In My Back Yard — predominates.

This was recently on display in the Hamptons, the wealthy enclave near New York, when a wind farm company proposed running a cable through one beach town. Such was the local outcry that the project was shelved. This is far from the only inequitable issue haunting green policies. If gas prices rise because of a carbon tax, it is poor — not elite — voters who suffer relatively more. If coal mines are shut down, it will not be urban voters who lose their jobs.

Green activists ignore this at their peril; without government action to offset these effects, we will see more episodes like the gilets jaunes demonstrations against fuel-price hikes that erupted in Paris a few years ago. And more angry Fox News coverage.

Which leads to my third point: cultural issues and affiliations matter. Covid-19 showed us you cannot beat a pandemic with medical and computing science alone. You need to shift behaviour too. The same applies to green policies. People who fear that wind turbines are destroying their livelihoods — or who define their political identity by watching Fox — will not listen to lectures by scientists. Behaviour will only change if “green” issues are presented to different communities with empathy and respect — and proper incentives.

This will not be easy. Last week, the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team published a research paper urging ministers to use social science insights to “nudge” people to be green. However, it was withdrawn from the government’s website a few hours later.

Yet, even if the gulf between Fox News and the COP26 crowd seems hopelessly wide, neither can afford to simply dismiss or deride the other. Think of that when you see glossy photos of turbines in Glasgow; Carlson’s resistance isn’t entirely hot air.