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Explaining NIMBY Opposition

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1 Explaining NIMBY Opposition to Wind Power Eric R. A. N. Smith Department of Political Science University of California, Santa Barbara [email protected] Holly Klick Department of Political Science University of California, Santa Barbara [email protected] Abstract Public opinion polls show that the American public strongly supports the development of wind power as an alternative to fossil fuels. Yet when specific wind farm proposals are made, they often meet local opposition, which is usually described as Nimby ("not-in-my-backyard") opposition. We examine public toward wind power in depth using an internet survey. Instead of only asking about support for wind power, we investigate how people respond to advantages and disadvantages of wind power. Our data show that questions asked in national surveys about proposals such as wind farms exaggerate the support for wind farms because the answers are typically superficial, top-of-the-head responses. When people think about the advantages and disadvantages of wind farms, as they would if a wind farm were proposed for their community, their support diminishes. Therefore, to explain NIMBY effects, researchers must look at both local and national opinion. Revised version of a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, Massachusetts, August 29, 2007 We would like to thank the Institute of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research, U.C. Santa Barbara, for funding to support this research2 Introduction According to national opinion surveys, Americans overwhelmingly support government investment in renewable energy resources in general, and in wind power in particular. Despite this general popularity, proposals for specific wind power farms often face resistance from individual citizens, political leaders, grassroots organizations, national interest groups, and in some cases, even environmental groups. When local resistance occurs, observers typically compare the strong national support for a proposed project to the weak local support, and describe the opposition as being motivated by the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) syndrome. Yet the label only describes local resistance it does not explain it. Moreover, describing the opposition to a project such as nimbyism implies that the focus of attention should be on the local resistance, rather than on the general public’s support. National public opinion about wind power has been studied, but not in much depth. The survey questions used to gauge public opinion about wind power are broad, often single-item questions which oversimplify issues. In addition, the analysis of these surveys is limited. Few researchers have gone beyond reporting simple frequency distributions such as the percentage of the public in favor of wind power (e.g., Farhar 1994; Saad 2001). We propose a new, broader conception of nimbyism, one that gives equal attention to both supporters and opponents of projects such as wind farms. We argue that part of the gap between national and local levels of support stems from the fact that national surveys reflect superficial, top-of-the-head responses. Once people begin to think carefully about ideas such as wind power, their support often diminishes. To test our hypothesis, we conducted a national internet survey. We began by asking about support for a variety of conventional and alternative forms of energy. We then asked a series of questions about the pros and cons of wind power. We concluded by asking about support for wind power again. We found that support for wind power fell substantially when people considered the issue in more depth. In this paper, we present our argument for a broader conception of nimbyism, the results of our experiment, and an examination of why people changed their minds about wind power after more careful consideration. We believe that our paper helps to explain both the political obstacles that wind power must overcome in order to expand and, more broadly, the nature of nimbyism itself. Nimbyism and Wind Power Wind power receives overwhelming support public support in national surveys. For example, in a recent CBS/New York Times Poll (2007), 75 percent of the respondents said they would be willing to pay more for electricity if it were generated by renewable sources such as wind or solar. In addition, over 60 percent of respondents supported requiring government office buildings to use renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, even if this kind of regulation resulted in higher taxes (Carroll 2007).3 However, these are curious findings, indeed, because they are contrary to the strong opposition that wind proposals sometimes face at the local level. These local protests are characterized as Nimby responses. Nimbyism is an “intense, sometimes emotional and often adamant local opposition to site proposals that residents believe will result in adverse impacts” (Kraft and Clary 1991; 300). This local opposition—stemming most notably from conflict between developers and activists—is cited as one of the fundamental challenges facing the wind industry (Bosley and Bosley 1990, 1992). The criticisms presented by opponents are many. Most notably, critics identify noise, visual intrusion, electromagnetic interference, harm to birds and other wildlife, distrust of developer objectives, and lack of local ownership as the foremost reasons why they oppose wind farms (Erp 1997; Krohn and Damborg 1998; Simon 1996; Wolsink 1996). Almost all of these reasons were cited by those who opposed the now infamous Cape Wind Project—a 130-unit wind turbine plant proposed to be stationed on a 24-square-mile area of Nantucket Sound (Williams and Whitcomb 2007). The Cape Wind Project has in many ways become emblematic of the opposition to wind farms at the local level. A group of Massachusetts residents formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound—a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the landscape off Cape Cod. Members and locals alike claimed that the project would ruin the pristine landscape and was environmentally unsound. Most importantly, these groups opposed the plan because it placed the public’s ocean in the hands of private developers (Ebbert 2006; Kempton et al. 2005, 128). Political leaders—including Governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass), Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Robert F. Kennedy, a senior attorney


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