One night in late March, J Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University, stepped in to a high school gymnasium in a small seaside town in Rhode Island. He was there to speak at a town hall aimed at allaying concerns about a local offshore windfarm.
In the front row, he noticed a woman dressed as a whale, holding a sign that read “Save Me!”
The idea that offshore wind projects are dangerous for cetaceans has gained traction along the East Coast in recent years as higher numbers of right whales have been recorded washing up on beaches. NOAA says there are no links between these whale deaths and the early phases of offshore wind construction. Photo of North Atlantic right whales courtesy of NOAA.
The woman in the front row was Mary Chalke, co-founder of the Save Right Whales Coalition (SRWC), a group of organizations across the East Coast that oppose offshore wind projects, arguing they pose an existential risk to the endangered North American right whale.
In the classroom, Roberts and his students have been studying how such rhetoric can stop renewable energy projects in their tracks — despite experts who say recent whale deaths have no connection to wind power. That night at the town hall, Roberts also spotted Elizabeth Knight, who founded Green Oceans earlier this year, another anti-wind organization in Rhode Island. Roberts said he felt compassion for Knight.
“She thinks a train wreck is coming,” said Roberts, referring to Knight’s fears of how wind power will push right whales to extinction. “And when you see that, you want to do all you can.”
But he is concerned that Knight and Chalke are falling into a trap laid out by rightwing interests that are sowing doubt to fuel public discontent over renewable energy projects.
Also in attendance that night was Lisa Linowes, a member of the SRWC who has also served as a senior research fellow for the notorious Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a rightwing thinktank known for its crusade against the energy transition.
This roster of attendees shows how industry interests opposed to climate action are capitalizing on locals’ concerns over the right whale in an attempt to block renewable energy projects. The rhetoric used by anti-wind crusaders like Chalke, Knight, and Linowes posits nature against industry — but their reasoning is often flawed.
The SRWC’s strategy — exploiting gaps in scientific research or consensus to spread doubt — mirrors one long used by oil interests to delay the transition to renewable energy. Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway outlined how climate deniers and skeptics used this playbook in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt.
Today, organizations like the SRWC are calling into question the effectiveness of wind energy in an attempt to delay or suspend construction of wind projects. Knight, whose group Green Oceans is also a member of the SRWC, recently self-published a white paper on wind energy that Roberts called “full of cherrypicked data.” (In a response to The Guardian, Knight said that Green Oceans used “peer-reviewed publications to support our scientific claims” and “still welcome[s] the opportunity” to discuss the issue with Roberts’ students.)
The Guardian sent requests for interviews to Chalke and Linowes for this story. Chalke declined to be interviewed. Linowes did not respond to questions regarding her involvement with the TPPF in time for publication. Bill Thompson, who co-founded Green Oceans with Knight, said in a response that no member organizations within the SRWC accept funding from the fossil fuel industry.
Other organizations with similar goals to the SRWC have ties to conservative interests. The group Nantucket Residents Against Turbines has received “publicity, advice, and some money” from the Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI), a rightwing thinktank, according to reporting from the Cape Cod Times.
In response to a request for comment, Thompson said: “This is a standard talking point repeated ad nauseam to discredit groups like ours.”
The SRWC has other links to rightwing interests focused on blocking climate action. One of its member organizations, Protect Our Coast New Jersey, belongs to the American Coalition for Ocean Protection (ACOP), which was founded by David Stevenson, who formerly served on Trump’s EPA transition team. Stevenson also heads the Center for Energy and Environment Policy at the CRI. Under Stevenson, ACOP is fundraising to create a permanent wind energy exclusion zone along the East Coast. The SRWC did not respond to a request for comment on the organization’s connection to Stevenson.
The anti-wind narrative has gained traction as higher numbers of right whales washing up on beaches have been recorded in recent years, leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to designate an “unusual mortality event.”
NOAA has said there are no links between these whale deaths and the early phases of offshore wind construction.
That hasn’t stopped groups like the TPPF from trying to link the two, despite experts saying that these whale deaths are in fact caused by the climate crisis. As waters warm, food sources have shifted closer to the coast, leading whales to come into fatal contact with boats.
The TPPF has also used the image of the beached whale to further its claims about the downsides of wind power. Last year, the group used a doctored photo of a beached whale in front of wind turbines in its email newsletter. In response to a request for comment from The Guardian, a TPPF spokesperson called it “stupid” to refer to the image as “doctored,” arguing “the graphic was made to advance a point made in an article.”
Anti-wind circles in the Northeast have been following the TPPF’s lead, citing humpback whale strandings in their calls to stop state legislators from working with wind companies and messaging across their platforms that “offshore wind will drive whales to extinction.”
In 2021, the SRWC called for a moratorium on offshore wind projects pending more scientific research into their effects on right whales.
The SRWC often cites the NOAA scientist Sean Hayes as an example of how the scientific community and its research bolsters their cause. In 2022, Hayes expressed concern for how wind project construction near right whale foraging grounds could affect the endangered population. But Hayes did not recommend halting the project — only that it be shifted 20km (12 miles) away.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy is critical to lowering the heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that have spurred the climate crisis. Roberts, who worked with Rhode Island officials on the state’s net zero goals, says wind energy is vital to the state’s energy transition. And he says opponents of wind power risk blocking such meaningful climate action as long as they continue to align themselves with industry interests.
“They’re asking for perfection in a technology that, of course, like any technology, cannot be perfect,” he said. “And therefore, they are becoming unwitting pawns of the fossil fuel industry.”
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