Editor’s Desk: Megadams and hard questions about the environment

Members of the Pessamit community, an Indigenous group of the Innu nation whose ancestral lands are now the source of nearly one-third of Hydro-Québec’s hydropower, meet in Quebec to talk about the rivers, dams, and power company, 2018. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

By Theodore Ross

Many of the most important questions environmentalists must face are about tradeoffs. What steps are we willing to take to fix our climate problems? What do we do when our proposed green solutions cause harm? These are the questions at the heart of Christopher Ketcham’s new report on large-scale dam projects, published last week in partnership with Truthdig.

Ketcham writes about the Champlain Hudson Power Express, a 339-mile, high-voltage transmission line that links New York State with hydropower generated by Canadian energy company Hydro-Québec:

It has been celebrated as part of New York City’s grand transition to renewables — a “historic milestone,” said New York Mayor Eric Adams, “in our mobilization against climate change.” Elijah Hutchinson, executive director of Adams’ Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, told me in an email that the linking of the city’s grid to Hydro-Québec was “critical” to meet the goals laid out in the historic Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act that New York passed in 2019, which mandates that the state cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels, and 85 percent by 2050. New York Governor Kathy Hochul promises CHPE will “pav[e] the way for thousands of high-quality jobs, spurring billions in economic activity, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and ushering in a cleaner, greener New York for all.” 

Hydropower may be preferable to fossil fuels, such as natural gas, from a climate perspective. But it comes with costs of its own, threatening biodiversity and irreparably damaging the lifeways of Indigenous people:

According to the World Commission on Dams, the mega-reservoirs needed for industrial-scale hydroelectric production have displaced as many as 80 million people worldwide and adversely impacted some 470 million people living downstream of dam sites. The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that “resettlement for the displaced and the consequences on downstream livelihoods have led to the impoverishment of millions.” Indigenous people have “disproportionately suffered from these impacts in addition to the loss of their territories and cultural integrity,” according to the human rights agency.

Mega-reservoirs for hydropower have also displaced and destroyed wildlife, causing biodiversity collapses in which fish and other aquatic populations have disappeared almost overnight. The reservoirs have precipitated out of soils a poison, methylmercury, that bioaccumulates in fish and game that Indigenous groups, particularly in the boreal forests of Canada, depend on for survival outside the industrial food system. 

Ketcham’s article is devoted to analyzing the shortcomings of hydropower as a panacea for climate change. It is unsparing in its reporting and tone. Not everyone will share its clarity of purpose. But it forces us to look directly at what we are doing in the name of progress, and to seek nuance in the complex issues of the day.

I hope you will read this story and let us know what you think. It offers no easy answers to our problems, which is why it found its home with FERN. Supporting our journalism, as I ask you to do in all of these editor’s notes, makes it possible to ask tough questions, have hard conversations, and hopefully find common ground for the future.