The Breakthrough Institute's Twelve Theses & The Death of Environmentalism
Breakthrough Institute co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus returned to Yale University last month for a retrospective on their 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Rarely does a critical assessment of an inflamed public debate so clearly shine the light of reason on why a cause was lost. In their speech Shellenberger and Nordhaus, bloth life long environmentalists, argued that green politics and the climate change crisis were destroyed from within, by exaggerated scientific claims, fantasies about green jobs and “An Inconvenient Truth.” After detailing how climate change alarmists managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the authors go on to offer some advice for the green movement: 12 theses for a post-environmental approach to climate change. In effect, they are saying that the world needs to concentrate on solving the problems that matter to people—food, energy, economic development—and the environment will be fixed as a side effect.
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger spent most of their careers working for environmental groups as political strategists. Seven years ago, frustrated by the movement’s focus on pollution regulations rather than public investment in technology, they started interviewing America's environmental leaders with the intention of writing a report on the politics of global warming for the October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. “We came away from the experience deeply disappointed,” they reported. “Not one of the environmental leaders we interviewed articulated a compelling vision or strategy for dealing with the challenge.”
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute
This experience led to the writing of their celebrated paper, “The Death of Environmentalism,” a wake-up call for green activists that was both praised and excoriated by members of the environmental movement. In it they wrote: “Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it.” Perhaps an indication that the public is not as gullible as most activists believe.
The paper argued that “issue group liberalism” was declining and that “the environmental community's narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power.” The stakes are too high to go on with business as usual, they pleaded. In early 2005 Yale invited them on campus to publicly debate that essay and in 2008 they were named Heroes of the Environment byTime magazine.
In February, 2011, the duo returned to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for a retrospective on “The Death of Environmentalism.” The resulting essay amounts to a true “breakthrough” in environmental thinking—a clear understanding of how the climate change crisis was so mishandled, so poisoned by green politics and irrational thought, that it now lies in ruin. Here some of the highlights of their postmortem of the death of environmentalism will be presented.
The Death of Environmentalism
After noting how American greens, with a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in Congress, squandered their best opportunity in a generation, by gambling everything on a single roll of the legislative dice—a fatally flawed energy bill that in the end could not be passed—Shellenberger and Nordhaus recapped the global nature of global warming's defeat:
The picture is no less grim internationally. Australia has abandoned efforts to cap its emissions. Japan announced last month that it would, under no circumstances, agree to further emissions reduction commitments under the auspices of the Kyoto Accord. The European Union will meet its Kyoto commitments thanks to the collapse of Eastern Bloc economies in the early 90's and the collapse of the global economy in 2008, not through public policy efforts to decarbonize its economy. And the collapse of diplomatic efforts to negotiate legally binding emissions caps, first in Copenhagen and again in Cancun, has set the international process back to where it started in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.
Throw in a confusing and unexplainable “cap and trade” policy, along with the failure of “green Jobs” to materialize, and the green bubble soon burst. More interesting than what they call “the crash” is the authors' assessment of what went wrong. Suggesting that interest in climate change and green jobs was primarily an elite phenomenon that had little effect on public opinion, Shellenberger and Nordhaus mark the start of environmentalism’s fall with the release of that paragon of disinformation, Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth.”
From virtually the moment that "An Inconvenient Truth" was released, public skepticism about global warming began to rise. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that from July 2006 to April 2008, belief that global warming was occurring declined from 79 percent to 71 percent. Gallup polls also revealed similar backlash to the movie, with the percentage of Americans who believed in global warming was exaggerated, rising from 30 percent in March of 2006 to only 35 percent in March of 2008.
It was the turn to scientifically unsupportable exaggeration and scare tactics that were the proximate cause of global warming's downfall, claim the authors, noting that: “When Gore said "we are going to have to change the way we live our lives" he could not have uttered a statement better tailored to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans.” In other words, Gore told America it had to make sacrifices and America told Gore to pound sand.
Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” was the beginning of the end.
“Environmentalist appeals to scientific authority led conservatives not to abandon their opposition to state intervention in the energy economy but to reject climate science,” they continue. Environmentalists were simply unable to understand how the public could deny the reality of anthropogenic warming. The rising tied of skepticism led to a closing of the ranks by mainstream climate scientists, who were now fatally committed to supporting the activists' claims of impending climate apocalypse. The chasm between the public and the true believers grew ever wider.
Greens reacted to these developments not by toning down their rhetoric or reconsidering their agenda in a manner that might be more palatable to their opponents. Instead, they made ever more apocalyptic claims about global warming - claims that were increasingly inconsistent, ironically, with the scientific consensus whose mantle greens claimed. These efforts both further increased political polarization among conservatives and undermined support for action among many others. UC-Berkeley political psychologist Robb Willer recently demonstrated through a series of experiments that catastrophic presentations of global warming actually reduce belief in global warming.
There is much more detail about the fall of anthropogenic global warming in the Shellenberger and Nordhaus essay, but that story is known to many who have been in the trenches fighting off the greens. In stead, I would like to turn to the palliative 12 theses offered by the authors.
The Twelve Theses
Shellenberger and Nordhaus are dedicated environmentalists, believers in the dangers of climate change. But they are also realists, who have figured out the futility of the course the climate change lobby has chosen: “Today, the need to remake ecological politics is clearly more urgent than ever. That will require that we actually learn from our failures and let those lessons become the underlying assumptions for a new, post-environmental climate movement.”
Here is a condensed version of the 12 theses offered by Shellenberger and Nordhaus as guidelines for the future of climate change and environmentalism activism. They are nothing short of a watershed revelation for eco-activists—if they have the sense to adopt them.
- First, more, better, or louder climate science will not drive the transformation of the global energy economy. The reality is that the more our understanding of the full complexity of the climate system advances, the greater the uncertainties about the impacts of climate change and the attribution of those impacts to anthropogenic activities will become.
- Second, we need to stop trying to scare the pants off of the American public. Doing so has demonstrably backfired. Skepticism about climate science has been motivated by concerns about the remedies that greens have proposed.
- Third, the most successful actions will not be justified for environmental reasons. The only two countries to significantly decarbonize their energy supplies – France and Sweden – did so for energy security reasons in response to oil price shocks, not for environmental reasons.
- Fourth, we need to stop imagining that we will solve global warming through behavior changes. Global development and urbanization are salutary trends – for they bring with them the opportunity for billions of us to live longer, healthier, and freer lives.
- Fifth, we have to stop treating climate change as if it were a traditional pollution problem.
- Sixth, we will not regulate or price our way to a clean energy economy. Regulatory and pricing solutions tend to succeed when we have good, low cost alternatives to the activities which we are attempting to discourage or eliminate.
- Seventh, we need to acknowledge that the so-called "soft energy path" is a dead end. Renewables still cost vastly more than fossil based energy, even before we calculate the costs associated with storing and transmitting intermittent forms of energy.
- Eighth, we will not internalize the full costs of fossil fuels, even if we are able to agree upon what they actually are. Like the climate science upon which they are based, economic models that attempt to model the social costs of carbon emissions are endlessly disputable.
- Ninth, we will need to make clean energy technologies much cheaper in order to decarbonize the global energy economy. Clean energy technologies, where they have been deployed at all, still require vast public subsidies in order to be commercially viable.
- Tenth, we are going to have to get over our suspicion of technology, especially nuclear power. There is no credible path to reducing global carbon emissions without an enormous expansion of nuclear power.
- Eleventh, we will need to embrace again the role of the state as a direct provider of public goods. Virtually the entire history of American industrialization and technological innovation is the story of government investments in the development and commercialization of new technologies.
- Twelveth, big is beautiful. The rising economies of the developing world will continue to develop whether we want them to or not. The solution to the ecological crises wrought by modernity, technology, and progress will be more modernity, technology, and progress.
Remember, these guys are environmentalists! The criticism of the way anti-nuclear activists hijacked the environmental movement in item 7 is particularly poignant. And the call for an “enormous expansion” of nuclear power in item 10 echoes calls from other environmentalists, like Patrick Moore, for a return to the nuclear path. As Moore has said, we now know that you can't really be an environmentalist and be opposed to nuclear power.
Not that I agree with all twelve points listed above. Take number 9, making clean energy technologies much cheaper, good luck with that. And as for number 11, the state as a direct provider of public goods, that is just plain wrong. Crash government projects, often in time of war, have developed many stunning new technologies—nuclear power, radar, drugs—but the government has never proven adept at providing those technologies to the people.
Such programs tend to be inefficient, profligate spenders of public monies, good for proving a concept or a one off technological triumph—the race to the moon come to mind. The best role for “the state” is as an incubator of new ideas. America's national lab systems has turned out an impressive number of new innovations, the newly developed Brayton cycle CO2 gas turbine system is but one example. Commercial development, however, should be left in the hands of businessmen not bureaucrats.
Caveats aside, there are several explanatory paragraphs accompanying each one of the theses and I urge you the read them for your selves, it will be time well spent. In all, this is a stunning appraisal of the failure of conventional environmentalism and its cause célèbre—anthropogenic global warming. In the words of Shellenberger and Nordhaus: “The world in which we live, economically, technologically, politically, and most importantly ecologically, has so profoundly changed that the very foundations upon which contemporary environmental politics was constructed no longer hold.”
Does this mean that the warmists have been defeated and we can all rest safely in our beds tonight? Not if statements linking the recent earthquake in Japan and global warming by EESC president Staffan Nilsson are any indication. On the contrary, we skeptics must remain vigilant. Irrational climate change diehards will continue to spew disinformation and lies to the idiot news media. Many of the movement's political stooges will remain bought and paid for until the shift in public opinion renders such positions totally untenable. No, environmentalism and its bastard child, anthropogenic global warming, are not yet dead—but they are mortally wounded and here's hoping their expiration is both short and painful.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
PS: Readers may be wondering about the pro-nuclear sentiments expressed in this article, and the essay on which it is based, in light of events unfolding in Japan. Currently there has been no nuclear disaster, despite a rush to judgment by the news media. The latest report (Sun Mar 13, 2011 12:36pm EDT) from Reuters was “Health risks from Japan's quake-hit nuclear power reactors seem fairly low and winds are likely to carry any contamination out to the Pacific without threatening other nations, experts say.” We are waiting for the cloud of confusion to clear and the facts to become known, as all prudent skeptics should. When the true extent of damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant becomes known we will offer an analysis of the outcome, including its impact on the future of nuclear energy.