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Inside the fight over dead whales and wind
New Jersey's environment chief explains what it's like being on the front lines of Republicans' newest culture war.
Dead whales have been washing up at a concerning rate along the Atlantic Coast since 2016. But it’s really only this year that Republicans nationwide have started talking about it.
For the last few months, conservatives from Marjorie Taylor Greene to Tucker Carlson have been popularizing the unsubstantiated claim that turbine construction is causing the whale deaths. Despite the fact that offshore construction hasn’t even begun on the vast majority of projects, House Republicans have introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on offshore wind development, citing whale deaths. They have also sought an investigation into whale deaths from the Government Accountability Office.
But the state level is where the most potentially impactful political fights over offshore wind and whales are occurring—and New Jersey has been the primary testing ground.
This fight could have very real consequences for the country’s effort to slow climate change by transitioning away from fossil fuels. That’s why today, we’re publishing our full interview with Shawn LaTourette, the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, who has been publicly arguing with state Republicans over this issue for months. (We published some quotes from that interview last week).
In the full, subscribers-only interview, LaTourette told HEATED about his experience at the front lines of Republicans’ growing culture war against offshore wind. He candidly divulged what made him the most angry at this month’s hearing on whale deaths; clarified my questions about the uncertainty of science linking climate change and whale fatalities; and explained other importing, brewing climate policy battles in the state that may have implications nationally.
That interview is below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
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Emily Atkin: In your opening statement, you were very clear—and it seems to me, passionate—about the way that climate change is hurting people in New Jersey. And you made a direct appeal to Republican lawmakers about how they've held the hands of disaster survivors, and how they understand the stakes of the climate crisis. Why did you do that?
Shawn LaTourette: I wanted to make sure that folks were consolidating the issue of marine mammal fatalities and the issue of climate change into a single narrative in their minds. These are not separate stories. They are deeply interrelated.
It's not appropriate for our lawmakers to sit idly by and have a hearing that professes its intent to save the whales, without also giving attention to the responsibility of saving people and communities from extreme weather and drought and punishing heat. So I wanted to put that in context.
EA: You were also clear in your statement that climate change, not offshore wind, is the greatest known threat to whales. In response, Republican Assemblyman Christian Barranco said it was “difficult” for him to “accept” that “affirmation.” He also said: “We're going to face convenient and inconvenient facts at this hearing today.” And you replied: “I understand. I face inconvenient facts every single day.”
The hearing was audio-only, so I couldn’t see your face. But in my notes, I wrote “Sounds angry.” Were you?
SL: Yes. Two things made me angry.
The first is that Assemblymember Barranco has never once, in my five years at the Department of Environmental Protection, engaged with my department. Never once have any of the assembly members that were most fierce in their questioning engaged with my department meaningfully about science. Not one single time in the last five years.
And in the last five years, we've done a lot of climate science. We produced the New Jersey-specific report on climate change, which explains in detail the existing and projected climate experience of the state. It was clear in their questioning that they never read it. So then, to talk to me about those findings as a “personal affirmation?” That is an affront to the many scientists who work their hearts out every day in this institution. I find it offensive.
Beyond that, we have produced hundreds of pages of recommendations on climate policy to the Legislature that have not been acted on. So to just sit there in the corner, and pretend that we have this one solitary, single issue of whale mortality, and that it's not connected to anything else—it’s really disingenuous.
And then on top of that, there was an implication that somehow the information they were eliciting about marine mammals was “inconvenient” for me. That was the implication. So it was a point of frustration, for sure.
EA: At the end of your opening statement, you said, “I welcome everyone to come into this movement.” Was that a read on Republican lawmakers? Because I think it could be interpreted as you saying, “Before now, you haven’t been part of the movement to save the environment.” But correct me if I’m wrong.
SL: That was entirely the intention. You would hear the same thing in my prior testimony. It was a call to action, but more so a challenge to really join us. Don't just join us when it appears that by doing so, you might score a political point. And that pertains to anyone of any party.
EA: It seemed there were many times during the hearing that you were defending not just the research, but the process of research itself. And not even just the process of research, but having to defend and explain your job. Those were the times that I felt you sounded the most exasperated. Why is that?
SL: What was most exasperating about this particular hearing is it came on the heels of two other hearings on my department's budget. At those hearings, I was asked these same questions. And I provided the answers to those questions exactly as I did.
But more deeply than that, Emily, what I found I was perturbed by is that, in these hearings, you would hear professed concern about the pace of offshore wind [development]. At the same time, those folks are complaining to me, asking what we are doing to stop all the flooding. It is unfathomable to me that the folks who are asking these questions are not putting the two issues together in their mind.
And then, add to that the fact that the majority of inquiries that I get from our Legislature are about why we have to take so much time on permitting, or why we can't get a permit to effectively destroy elements of the environment. That's the issues that I hear most often about. So when I hear newcomers to the quest to save our environment, and it is very clearly feigned interest, it is a point of frustration that I can't really characterize.
EA: I know you were very frustrated about many lawmakers not reading the New Jersey climate report—particularly the parts about whales. So I went into the report, and found the parts that very clearly say that the biggest climate concern for marine mammals is changes in their distribution of prey sources. There are many, many citations on that.
But then there's a section specifically on humpback whales and menhaden, the prey fish that you were talking about. And it says at the end that “Climate change may lead to mismatches between the arrival times of migrants and their food source…. However, in this case, this interpretation should be made with caution because of the changes in effort by researchers in sighting humpback whales over time.”
I read that and I thought to myself, “Oh, God—if [Republican lawmakers] did go and read that, how would you respond?” Because you seemed very confident, and this report says that the interpretation should be made with caution.
SL: Were I questioned on that—and I knew I wouldn’t be, because I wasn't going to suspect that folks would do their homework and cherry pick—I think the way I would have responded would have been along the lines of this:
In a scientific statement, there's always points of caution. It is rare in the scientific community that you have complete unanimity, that every data point is in agreement. But the basis for my assuredness, and the forcefulness of my statement, is a function of what we do in this work of protecting public health and the environment all the time, which is to to examine multiple lines of evidence. Not just from one state, and not just from one set of data points, but looking at the overall field.
When I say uncertain, I don't mean doubtful. I mean that complete certainty is elusive, but we have to decision make within a certain range. And so when you look at the trajectory of the prey fish, when you look at the increasing number of of whales, when you look at the migration patterns and the separation of the calves from the mothers, when you look at the science about sonar of offshore wind survey vessels and their ability to impact mammals, all of that evidence together suggests to me that this identification of offshore wind-related survey work as the cause of marine mammal fatality is a work of sophistry. To pursue this conversation is a folly. And I wanted to put that really forcefully upfront.
EA: It reminds me of many conversations about climate change. In the political realm, there's this weaponization of the word “uncertainty” when referring to scientific uncertainty, to equate it to like, when I'm uncertain about what color shirt to buy.
SL: I couldn't agree more. And I think that was on full display during the hearing.
EA: Speaking more broadly, you said earlier that the offshore wind development battle and this fight over saving the whales is not the only climate policy fight going on in New Jersey. You don't have to get into every single one very deeply, but are there any other state climate issues that you think are are pretty prominent for climate-concerned readers to know about?
SL: We are in the midst of a significant regulatory reform effort, one that I believe is probably the first in the nation. We are increasing our flood standards by using—it's going to sound silly—current rainfall data, because no one in the country does. We’re also projecting forward to use climate-influenced precipitation models in order to identify our flood zones and instill building standards so that, quite simply, what we build today will stand the test of time.
That’s called the Inland Flood Protection Rule. But we’re also doing a coastal piece, because New Jersey has a really significant risk of sea level rise two times greater than most other places on the planet. That is a significant and ongoing battle. There's a lot of press coverage about it.
EA: Do you find that there’s anything similar about these two battles? The offshore wind fight, and the fight over the coastal and inland flooding rules?
SL: Yes. It is something that is common to much of our climate and environmental justice work, which is that it is really difficult for people to imagine a future that looks and feels different from the one we experience today.
I spend a good part of my daily life thinking about that future. I know that the future of New Jersey looks and feels really different than it does right now. And professionally, as the Department of Environmental Protection, it is our job to think longer than everyone else.
For the average person, including the folks in our Legislature and trade groups that often oppose these types of changes, they're operating on a basis under which we all operate, which is the presumption that the past is an indicator of a future, and they don't want to do anything differently than the way they've always done it. So the notion of wind turbines out in the ocean—it's easier to see that as a disruption you'd rather avoid. I think what characterizes these things is our very, very human reaction to change.
EA: You cited this very human reaction to change as a reason, and I have certainly seen that in my coverage of climate policy over the last 10 years. But another thing that I've seen that's common is interference by industry, particularly polluting industries. Do you see any of that influence in any of these fights?
SL: I can't say that I see a specific large oil and gas player interfering directly. But it is no secret that a few industry merchants have launched a significant campaign in the state of New Jersey, and around the country, to oppose building electrification.
For example, if you were to attend any of the public engagement sessions that we hold on our changes to environmental rules to reduce climate pollution, you would see consistent opposition from the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. You would see opposition to our sea level rise standards from that institution as well, questioning the climate science.
EA: Last question, and I promise I’ll let you go. I recently did a survey of my readers, and overwhelmingly, the number one thing they wanted was more action items. They are sufficiently angry about stuff that's happening, but sometimes don’t know what to do. So what would you recommend for people who are reading about this and are frustrated?
SL: Engage beyond your screen. Show up physically in support of the things that you care about. And do not underestimate the significance of that showing up to people in halls of power who make decisions. It is important, far more important, than multiple sign-ons to an online petition. Show up and stand up, because you'll be seen.