Republicans: Save the Whales, Kill the Wind Farms

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What would it take to get present day American conservatives to care about an environmental issue? Like, say, “saving the whales”? How about this: a stupid pseudoscientific conspiracy theory spread by the oil and gas industry to convince people to stop supporting clean energy? Yeah, that should do it. Let’s dive in.

You might know that I’m a pretty big fan of the ocean: I’m miserable if I live more than an hour away from a coast, I support efforts to reduce plastic pollution, I clean up trash from my local beaches, and I surf, like last weekend when I got to share the water with a pod of porpoises. Or maybe dolphins, I don’t know, I’m not a marine biologist, though obviously when I was in 5th grade I was sure that I was going to be one, after a school trip to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey.

I didn’t become a marine biologist, but I’m still a “Save the Whales” kind of hippy. I support sustainable fishing regulations that attempt to limit bycatch, and I definitely support the outlawing of eating them (at least for non-indigenous people who don’t have to eat them for survival).

So I was surprised to learn recently that there’s a “Save the Whales” campaign that I do NOT support: check out this event that happened at Point Pleasant Beach last week, where two conservative US congresscritters representing New Jersey got on stage to assert that whales are dying in droves right now due to offshore wind farms. To be clear: that is not true.

In the past few months, there HAVE been more than 20 humpback and right whales that have washed up on East Coast beaches, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has counted 174 “unusual mortality events” up and down the coast since 2016.

Biologists don’t necessarily know why each one of these whales died, because it turns out whale autopsies are pretty tricky, as Dr. Sarah Taber noted in a thread on Twitter: whale blubber keeps their internal organs warm even after they die, which means everything breaks down into mush a lot faster than they would otherwise. But in the 50% of corpses that scientists are able to examine, they find that they can definitively say about half of them are dead because they were struck by vessels or caught in fishing gear.

Many researchers think the number of deaths is rising because of the way we’re changing our environment: it might be cleaner habors inviting more bait, or as I reported last year, surveys show that due to climate change, the distribution of phytoplankton is changing, and changing quite drastically in some places. Regardless, it means that baleen whales like humpbacks are changing where they need to go to find food. More whales are now seen close to shore, which means that more whales are at risk of being caught by fishing boats or hit by traffic moving in and out of our harbors. That’s what happened, for instance, to the most recent whale found dead on a New Jersey beach, which was able to be examined by my very own 5th grade love, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Surprisingly, even though there were no outward signs of damage, an internal examination revealed the animal had been hit by a boat, though the researchers are still working to figure out if that happened before or after she died – it’s tricky due to the whale’s “advanced state of decomposition.”

So while researchers have a good hypothesis for what’s happening to most of these whales, a lot of these deaths remain not-fully-explained. As always, wherever scientists admit a lack of omniscience, bad actors pop up to offer conspiracy theories that fill in the gaps. In this case, the bad actors are people who want to stop green energy from putting the fossil fuel industry out of business, so they’re claiming that wind farms create noise that are disrupting whales’ navigation, despite the fact that these whale deaths predate any wind farms off the east coast of the US and despite the fact that NOAA has stated that there is zero evidence wind farms have had any role in any of these whales’ deaths.

As Taber pointed out in her thread, wind farms do use sonar to map the ocean floor and determine what kind of foundation will be needed to build for the turbines, but that sonar pales in comparison to the heavy duty machinery used by the military and (surprise surprise) the oil and gas industry, who uses ground-penetrating sonar to pierce bedrock looking for new places to drill.

But you won’t hear Republican lawmakers like Jefferson Van Drew and Chris Smith complaining about the oil and gas industry’s impact on whales, nor will that argument be appearing anytime soon on Sean Hannity. What you will hear is that if you want to save the whales, you will vote against new off-shore wind farms, which will provide an extremely stable renewable source of energy to population centers up and down all of the US’s coastlines.

It’s worth noting that right now, this seems to be more of a localized topic in seaside towns targeted by Republicans, but with Fox News getting involved, be prepared for this to become a much bigger, national issue. Previous attempts to stop wind farms have focused on them ruining the view, but it didn’t catch on because apparently most Americans don’t really give a shit whether or not billionaires can see evidence of human progress from the bay windows on their beach houses. But saving the whales? That one might actually catch on.

I’ll end with a quick note about how wind energy isn’t perfect. A lot of people responded to my video about electric school buses with extremely ignorant and wrong takes on how “electric is bad, too,” and you know what, that’s on me for not ending THAT video by linking to the copious amount of research that shows that the overall cost of wind and solar is far less than that of fossil fuels, and that the Earth has more than enough resources to support 100% of our projected future energy needs with wind and solar despite their respective carbon requirements, and if you’re worried about the health of workers extracting those resources than your problem is not with solar or wind but with capitalism, lack of regulation and oversight, and economic inequality, and I agree with you.

Ahem. So, wind isn’t perfect: the location of wind farms must be chosen carefully to avoid disrupting the migration patterns of both sea life and (perhaps more importantly) birds. Studies suggest that wind turbines in the US in 2013 and 2014 killed somewhere between 140,000 to 680,000 birds. To put that into perspective, a study published in 2013 found that free-range domestic cats in the US killed somewhere between 1.3–4.0 billion birds. That’s billion, with a “B.” Half a million birds over here, 4 BILLION birds over here. So. Yeah. Save the birds. Keep your cat inside. They also killed 6.3–22.3 billion mammals, and you know what’s a mammal that has been dying a lot? That’s right, whales. Clearly if New Jersey residents truly care about the Earth’s creatures, they’ll impeach Jefferson Van Drew and replace him with Alf.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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