Many environmentalists often cite the so-called "butterfly effect" - the meme that the flutter of a butterfly wing can touch off the turbulence that triggers a tsunami - as proof that, in our interconnected world, small actions can have large and unforeseen effects. That theory deserves a deeper look as some green activists train their sights on clean energy projects long offered as the planet's route to green salvation.
Case in point: a project planned by California's BrightSource Energy to build a solar power farm in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, backed by a $1 billion-plus loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Major California utility companies have already signed on to buy the sun-generated electricity BrightSource will provide.
A big win for America's fledgling green-energy industry? Not in the eyes of the Western Watershed Project, a conservationist NGO which has just filed a federal suit to stop the project. Watershed's complaint: the sun farm threatens the habitat of the Desert Tortoise, a reptile registered on the Endangered Species List. Or, to be precise, the project - a 6-mile square footprint in Mojave's 50,000 square mile expanse - threatens 25 Desert Tortoises documented by wildlife biologists in their site survey.
In fact, the suit takes aim at the government agencies responsible for permitting the project: The U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and sundry other federal officials. You can almost feel the timeline for BrightSource's solar panel start-up slipping further into the future.
Of course, the law's the law: if BrightSource showed wanton disregard for endangered wildlife, we ought to thank conservationists for holding the company to account. But that doesn't square with the fact that, in early 2010, BrightSource announced its intent to allocate $25 million to relocate the 25 turtles discovered during its site survey. While it's hard to fathom exactly what sort of desert digs might be had for $1 million per tortoise - pity the poor turtle who toddled out of the survey area just hours before the wildlife biologists took their count - that's apparently not enough. As Western Watershed's lead activist put it: "We want the project to go away."
Caught in the cross-fire is another American project key to wind turbine and solar panel production industries: Molycorp's restart of the shuttered rare earths mine at Mountain Pass, California - once the largest rare earths mine in the world. Western Watershed's suit also asks the federal court to stop a natural gas line that would feed power to the mining project, which Molycorp plans to open in 2012. The claim: Like the solar farm, the gas line would disturb desert turtle habitat.
Why should environmentalists worry about shutting down a mining operation? Because the availability of rare earths directly impacts an environmentalist's trifecta: solar panels, wind turbines and CFL compact fluorescent light bulbs, each of which requires rare earths.
And that's where the butterfly effect comes in: these actions to defend 25 desert tortoises (less than 1/10th of one percent of what the Defenders of Wildlife conservationist group estimates is a total population of 100,000 tortoises) make the endangered turtle an unindicted co-conspirator in the case for global warming, guilty of prolonging the planet's dependence on carbon-clogged fossil fuels - and driving green energy projects to countries with lax environmental standards.
Don't expect the People's Republic of China to file a Friend of Turtle court brief, though they may as well. Subsidies set up by China's state-planners have already succeeded in giving China nearly 50 percent of the global market in solar panel production. Lawsuits delaying U.S. solar projects will simply help China consolidate its control over this emerging source of clean energy.
As for rare earths, China currently provides 97 percent of global supply. Delays that slow or stop non-Chinese rare earths mining projects simply serve to keep prices high for Chinese metals; raising costs and hobbling development of America's green energy industry.
Ironies abound. Take a look at the environmental ruin precipitated the past few decades as a result of China's race to dominate rare earths extraction - a legacy of toxic mine tailings dumped into the Yellow River, with residues found as far as 1,300 miles downstream. Does anyone truly think Mother Earth would prefer to be mined according to Chinese environmental standards, rather than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
And while we're at it, count Myanmar's military junta as another Friend of the Turtle: they've just struck a lucrative deal to mine rare earths for countries and companies anxious to diversify dependence away from China, promising their reviled regime a steady stream of hard currency. Good news for a California turtle, but not such good news for democracy activists languishing in Burmese prisons. Perhaps Nobel Peace Prize winners like Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiabao should lobby to be put on the Endangered Species List.
Edward Lorenz, father of the "butterfly effect," famously asked in his seminal paper on the subject: "Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?" We may now be in a position to ask whether the flutter of a lawsuit landing on a California docket will still the shovels of projects critical to America's clean-tech future and turn the turbines of China's green industry.
And as we trace out the tangle of the geo-consequences of green activism, maybe it's time for the Butterfly Effect, Part II: "Does the Protection of a Turtle in the Desert Keep a Democracy Activist in Prison?"