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Climate action and birds

By Dave Elliott

“There is no habitat that benefits from coal pollution”, says David Roberts, commenting on an article in New Yorker last year by Jonathan Franzen, who was worried that, in the rush to deal with climate change by using renewables, local impacts on birds would get ignored, given the argument that global climate change due to fossil fuel use would hurt them much more than wind farms or whatever:

Franzen had taken exception to the US Audubon Society’s estimates that roughly half of all North American bird species faced serious and possibly existential threats from global warming in this century. He said “What upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon’s could lead to indifference toward birds in the present”. He argues “not every species will manage to adapt. But the larger and healthier and more diverse our bird populations are, the greater the chances that many species will survive, even thrive. To prevent extinctions in the future, it’s not enough to curb our carbon emissions. We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now”.

Fair enough. But, in the face of the threat of wildlife extinction from human activities, he goes further and backs an eco-centric deep green view, “choosing to preserve nature at potential human expense”. It is a big jump from climate impacts to impacts from mitigation, but he seems to see them as just as bad: “We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe. One advantage of the latter approach is that, if a miracle cure like fusion energy should come along, there might still be some intact ecosystems for it to save”.

This seems to wildly overstate the case. Wind and solar have very small impacts on birds compared to coal plants and the resultant air pollution and, increasingly, climate change: Some mitigation measures may have significant local impacts, and may need to be reconsidered: for example large hydro plants can have major local ecosystem impacts and there is a debate on large-scale biomass use and biodiversity. And as I noted in an earlier post, large Concentrating Solar Power plants can kill birds that fly into the focused beams near the power tower, though it now seems that problem can be cracked:  Basically, “don’t cross the beams”! But in general, the impacts of using renewables are small and local, very different from the large and global, as well as local, impacts of burning fossil fuel. Moreover the green NGOs are on the case, challenging any inappropriate projects. For example, the Audubon Society responded to Franzen, in effect insisting that there was no question of ignoring local impacts: it was active on all fronts, and suggesting that Franzen had misread the situation, perhaps wilfully:

He certainly seems to have a fairly negative overall view of the future: “The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy”.

Franzen, and the Audubon Society, were both concerned about the large number of birds being killed when they flew into windows, the case in point being the proposed glass walls in a US football stadium. Windows certainly do result in many bird deaths, nearly as many as are killed by cats, who evidently kill 1 billion or so birds in the US each year: It’s hard to see what to do about that but, for windows, there are options:

What about wind farms? Poorly sited wind turbines located in seasonal bird flocking/migration paths have in some cases proved to be particularly problematic in the past. That is easily dealt with by avoiding wind farm location in such areas. Most birds in normal flight avoid moving objects and modern large MW-sized wind turbine blades move relatively slowly compared to earlier kW range versions, allowing birds more time to avoid them. However, some clearly do not, although the numbers are usually small. A recent US study, updating the data from earlier studies when smaller higher rotation-speed wind turbines were the norm, found that avian mortality among most species of small passerines was probably biologically insignificant, compared to the death rate from other causes. The study estimated that 134,000 to 230,000 small passerines collide annually with turbines across the US and Canada. Using conservative estimates, this, it said, amounts to less than 0.01 percent of the population of small passerines, while an estimated 30 percent die of natural causes yearly.

In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) looks critically at each project on merit and has opposed some, but has said that, overall, “climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife, and the RSPB recognises the essential role of renewable energy in addressing this problem”.

This has not endeared the RSPB to anti-wind groups but, as in the US, it does seem clear that most green NGOs agree that mitigating climate change is as important for wildlife as it is for humans. That does not mean we can ignore the impacts of renewable energy technologies on wildlife. Some are quite tricky to deal with, for example bats evidently think stationary or slowly moving wind turbines are trees and head for them, only to be injured or killed when and if they start up. There may be solutions – subsonic start-up warning systems, for example. Interestingly, sonar has been used to warn operators of the SeaGen tidal stream turbine in Northern Ireland of the approach of large sea mammals, although they seem to naturally avoid the turbines. In general there should be technical fixes, design changes or locational or operational adjustments available to limit problems with wildlife.

Franzen ends his New Yorker article by saying, in relation to protecting wildlife from human follies, “the animals may not be able to thank us for allowing them to live, and they certainly wouldn’t do the same thing for us if our positions were reversed. But it’s we, not they, who need life to have meaning”. If we human beings are to survive on this planet, and perhaps perversely continue to shape it to meet our needs, it behooves us to take more care of how we do this. That applies both to energy extraction and use, and to the impacts on wildlife and the rest of the ecosystem of which we are part.

For more on wind and birds see this interesting overview:



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