Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Secret knowledge, storm surge, & nuclear reactors

When I go to a used book fair, I usually beeline to the “nature” and “science” sections and search for books on climate change. There’s always random color-coded environmental department manuals, faded how-to conservation guides, wonky reports on energy policy. But sometimes, I’ll find buried gems with some obscure title referencing human impacts on the climate. I hurriedly flip to see the publication date. It never fails to shock me: 1967, 1978, 1981, 1994 — for every year, it seems, there was a warning. Or denial of that warning.

At a recent book fair in Chicago, I found an odd one: “Climate and the Affairs of Men,” published in 1975. Author Iben Browning, a researcher who studied climate and earthquakes, was well-known for predicting an earthquake along the New Madrid fault that never occurred. He also believed that changes in climate, particularly cooling, were linked to famine and war.

The theories he and his co-author make are strange and outlandish — the book is definitely one of my more ridiculous finds. Still, it’s one of many examples I’ve seen of people hypothesizing, researching, and publishing work on climate change and renewable energy throughout history, long before the government took substantial action.

It wasn’t entirely surprising, then, to find out that electric utility companies have known for over three decades about climate change and the dangers of fossil fuels. According to a new report from the Energy and Policy Institute, scientists started warning utilities about climate change in 1968. Utilities sponsored climate change research throughout the 1970s and 1980s. By 1998, a major industry organization said there was a “growing consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real.” Multiple times over the decades, Congress was told by researchers and utilities that fossil fuel extraction would be “essentially unacceptable, an important justification for expanding the nuclear and solar energy options.”

Atlanta-based Southern Company — the parent company for 11 utilities in many Southern states and in several other states around the country — has been the worst offender. Southern sponsored research into the effects of carbon on the environment in 1971, but soon joined the Global Climate Coalition, a group of businesses that lobbied for years to challenge the science of climate change. In 1991, Southern Company and other utilities created the Information Council on the Environment ad campaign, “which listed as its top strategy an effort to ‘reposition global warming as theory (not fact).'” And that was just one part of the decades of public relations campaigns that trickled down to Southern’s subsidiaries and other Southern-based utility companies, including Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, which reportedly scrubbed references to climate change on lobbying documents. Officials from Tennessee Valley Authority and Arkansas Power & Light were also made aware of climate change and refused to act, according to the report.

Information about long-held climate change knowledge by powerful industries keeps leaking out. Two years ago, InsideClimate News started an in-depth reporting project on how Exxon knew about climate change for decades and led efforts to block solutions.

But, as utilities and oil companies knew it would, energy markets shifted, and despite their best efforts to stop it, science continued and the public caught on. Utilities have since refocused their public relations on climate efforts, renewables, and lowering carbon emissions (here’s a look at Duke and Tennessee Valley Authority, for example). But their language is still careful; the projects they tout are slow-moving.

Many utilities are trying to move towards a lower-carbon future — there’s just usually a catch. For instance: Duke has utility-scale solar projects in North Carolina, a state that has the second most installed solar capacity in the country, but state regulations (like the one recently signed into law) ensure that Duke benefits the most. In Georgia, Georgia Power says it is pushing forward with the Vogtle nuclear power plant, but because of cheap natural gas, many other utilities across the region are ditching important nuclear projects. With the help of utility companies, some Southern states have adapted energy policies to welcome solar and wind projects, but companies like Alabama Power impose high taxes and fees on its residential solar customers. And Southern Company, which tells customers climate change is a “challenging issue” and says it is diversifying fuel sources, has a CEO who says he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is a main contributor to climate change.

It’s easy to fall down this rabbit hole, trying to figure out who knew what and when, who failed to take action and why. The point is: even if all this new information — the stories, studies, adaptation plans, books — are gathering dust in a drafty library in 30 years, the truth is still worth telling.

Stories worth your time 

Tampa Bay is due for a major hurricane. The Washington Post’s interactive storyillustrates how a storm could devastate the area, where city planners and lawmakers have done virtually nothing to prepare for sea level rise and storm surge.

Finding themselves in the middle of the pipeline debate, some farmers and ranchers in North Carolina are refusing to sign easement agreements with Dominion Energy, the company behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The News & Observer talked to people across the state with diverse perspectives on the issue.

With the backing of a new state law, a conservative group in Florida is challenging books used in Florida schools. Most of their concerns are about climate change and evolution; one member of the group says there’s “political indoctrination, religious indoctrination, revisionist history and [a distorting of] our founding values and principles” in many required readings. NPR dives into the complications this causes for school districts.

News flying under the radar 

A decade after South Carolina utility companies started work on two nuclear power reactors, they’ve pulled the plug on the projects, saying they are economically unfeasible.

Along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a North Carolina environmental group is suing the federal government over its suspension of a regulation requiring states to monitor and set reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions from highway vehicles.

A massive pipe off the coast of Florida intended to dump partially treated human waste deep into the ocean far from Miami has instead been leaking in shallow water for at least a year. It’s unclear how much is leaking, but the pipe is capable of pumping 143 million gallons of the waste per day.