Opinion: US whale deaths illustrate how wind’s biggest challenge is misinformation

The past few months have been monumental for offshore wind development in the US but creeping misinformation threatens to derail it.

Biden's biggest challenge for the wind roll out could be misinformation, argues Shahid Mahdi (Image credit: Shahid Mahdi and Getty)

As part of President Biden's linchpin Inflation Reduction and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the nation has aggressively ramped up installation targets for further offshore wind projects, committing to the implementation of 30GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. 

A morbid storyline

Yet, a morbid storyline has overshadowed the otherwise prolific development of offshore wind: the unusually high number of whales that have been found dead in and around coastlines where turbine installation has been ramping up. 

Scientists, environmentalists, experts and pro- and anti-wind folk alike have been galvanised by the story, which represents a key inflection point: wind energy's first big test within the arena of misinformation and online tribalism.

As far back as 23 January a coalition of environmental groups lead by Clean Ocean Action wrote to President Biden demanding an investigation into the deaths of a variety of whales between Cape May in New Jersey, to Montauk Point in New York. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that 18 whales from five different species have been found perished since November 2022. 

Conspiracy occupies information vacuum 

The prevailing issue: the root cause of these mortalities has not been ascertained. 

But opponents to the renewable tidal wave – notably conservatives like Fox News host Tucker Carlson – have latched onto the story, quick to scapegoat the increasing number of offshore wind projects as the main contributors to the dilemma that has shocked and enraged many. 

Acting in what must be a synthesis of panic and a sense of duty, the mayors of the coastal towns called for a moratorium on the construction of new offshore wind projects.

The NOAA reports that there is no conclusive link between the development of offshore wind turbines and the tragic deaths that have been occurring.

Greenpeace's oceans director, John Hocevar – who has championed the preservation of whales as a key objective – told USA Today in an interview that there is no evidence that wind turbines are bolstering whale death figures; but that rather disturbances caused by shipping and mass-fishing are to blame.

Misinformation: the enemy of wind

But the most extreme voices tend to drown the logical ones. 

In a world where facts are selectively extracted and refashioned to promulgate a specific truth to reinforce a tribalist point; renewable energy, and particularly offshore wind, are facing a test they perhaps didn't anticipate: gearing up to do battle against the enemy of misinformation. 

This is nothing new. Theories about the derogatory effects of solar panels, wind turbines, and even electric vehicles have been pervasive from their infancy.

Whether it's former President Donald Trump chastising wind turbines for "killing all the birds", or the so-called "free energy suppression" conspiracy which claims that governments are deliberately shadowing unlimited free energy sources from public access; unfounded skepticism has unfortunately always coupled itself with any novel technology.

Venn diagram of conspiracy

A study lead by Professor Matthew Hornsey at the University of Queensland found that “moderate-to-large” relationships between opposition to wind farms and conspiracy beliefs exist. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, those who subscribed to anti-vaccine beliefs were very likely to harbour opposition to wind farms. 

The main arguments posited by conspiracists are a litany of usual-suspect afflictions: wind turbines cause fatigue, spread toxic radiation, lead to birth defects, and of course affect the welfare of natural life. And all of this doesn't even start the discussion surrounding conspirators' doubts toward whether wind turbines actually reduce carbon emissions.

Real world effects of misinformation

But the problem isn't the presence of conspiracists; it's the misinformation that manifests outside of the Facebook pages and mass-relayed WhatsApp warning messages. Contrarians exist all over the internet and there is nothing any amount of education can do to lessen their vociferous, untrue claims. 

However, when rallies and protests organised in the digital ether can disrupt and lead to renewable projects being delayed or even dismissed, angst and tribalism begins to fester. 

Local opposition works

The conspirators know that local opposition actually works in curtailing the installation of renewable technology. Professor Josh Fergen at the University of Minnesota-Duluth published a paper which reported that two Facebook groups had been instrumental in promulgating falsehoods about a nearby Republic Wind Farm. The Ohio Siting Board - whose permission was needed for the project to proceed - rejected the proposal. 

Their rationale? "Geologic concerns and local opposition".

At a time when President Biden's administration has outlined the most audacious renewable energy targets in history, time is of the essence. 

Should the federal government and states alike fail to adhere to the timelines they've set, misinformation will have been a key culprit. 

The truth ‘doesn’t matter’

The renewable energy revolution will join presidential politics and the COVID-19 pandemic as yet another arena where the truth doesn't quite matter, and whatever narrative is convenient can quickly emerge without any scientific basis. 

The moment renewable tech went from grassroots to government, it was inevitably going to be targeted. 

Legislators and activists may have to first look to tech platforms as the key energy battleground. 

The ramifications of the misinformation campaign to hinder the renewable tidal wave may well determine Biden's legacy.

Shahid Mahdi is platform product manager at EnerKnol & an M.S.c in cybersecurity and cybercrime at N.Y.U