Last week Breakthrough co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus returned to Yale University for a retrospective on their seminal 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” In their speech they argued that the critical work of rethinking green politics was cut short by fantasies about green jobs and “An Inconvenient Truth.” The latter backfired — more Americans started to believe news of global warming was being exaggerated after the movie came out — the former made false promises that could not be realized by cap and trade. What is an earnest green who cares about global warming to do now? In this speech, Nordhaus and Shellenberger reflect on what went so badly awry, and offer 12 Theses for a post-environmental approach to climate change.The entire essay is worth reading, but here is an excerpt: their “Twelve Theses for a Post-Environmental Movement.”
Twelve Theses for a Post-Environmental Movement
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.
First, more, better, or louder climate science will not drive the transformation of the global energy economy. The resources necessary to make such a transformation will not be forthcoming in pursuit of climate benefits that are uncertain and far off in the future. Many greens have imagined that as the evidence of climate change becomes ever clearer, the case for action will become stronger. But 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. This is not because the evidence for anthropogenic warming will become weaker. It will in fact become stronger. But our understanding of how that warming impacts the climate system at regional and local scales will become harder to characterize, not easier.
Second, we need to stop trying to scare the pants off of the American public. Doing so has demonstrably backfired. Climate skepticism is on the rise, every snow storm is the subject of partisan rancor, and we are no closer to acting in any meaningful way to address climate change. Skepticism about climate science has been motivated by concerns about the remedies that greens have proposed. The solution is not more climate science but rather a different set of remedies.
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. Many conservatives who are skeptical of claims made by climate campaigners believe it’s a bad idea to send half a trillion or so a year abroad for foreign imported oil, which brings with it a whole host of threats to national and energy security. Others simply see three million current air pollution deaths a year as a far higher priority. We should put shared solutions at the center of our politics, not our view of the science.
Fourth, we need to stop imagining that we will solve global warming through behavior changes. There are no doubt many good reasons for those of us with enough affluence and control over the material circumstances of our lives to turn away from accumulative consumption. But we should not imagine this to be a climate strategy.
What most greens mean when they suggest that we need to fundamentally change our way of life isn’t so fundamental at all. They mostly mean that we need to stop crass consumerism, live in denser cities, and use public transit. And while there are many reasons to recommend each of these particular remedies, none will have much impact upon the trajectory of global emissions. That’s because much of the world already lives in dense cities- more and more of us every day. Relatively few of us globally today have the means to consume crassly, or even own an automobile.
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. But these trends also suggest that the green obsession with moralizing against profligate American lifestyles is entirely irrelevant to the future disposition of the global climate, or much anything else that really matters to the big ecological challenges that we will face in the coming century. More and more of the world will adopt the very living patterns that greens have so long valorized. And as they do they will use vastly more energy and resources, not less.
Fifth, we have to stop treating climate change as if it were a traditional pollution problem. As we noted in our book, climate change is as different from past pollution problems as nuclear warfare is from gang violence. Climate change will not be solved with end-of-pipe solutions, like smokestack scrubbers and sewage treatment plants that worked for past pollution problems. Rather it will require us to rebuild the entire global energy system with technologies that we mostly don’t have today in any form that could conceivably scale to meet that challenge.
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. We dealt with acid rain once we had access to low sulfur coal from the western United States and reached an international agreement to phase out CFCs only once DuPont demonstrated that they could produce a cheap alternative at scale.
Greens have, in recent years, substituted the almighty Market, in the form of a response to a carbon price signal, for their past faith in command and control regulations. But the substitution problem is largely the same. Without cheap technologies, carbon prices will need to be prohibitively high to drive a quick transition to low carbon energy.
Seventh, we need to acknowledge that the so-called “soft energy path” is a dead end. The notion that the nation might meet its future energy needs through renewable energy and low cost energy efficiency has defined virtually all environmental energy proposals since the 1960s, and was codified into dogma by anti-nuclear activist turned efficiency consultant, Amory Lovins, in his 1976 Foreign Affairs article. Lovins claimed that efficiency would allow America to dramatically reduce its total energy use and that renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power were ready to replace fossil fuels.
But the reality is that for centuries, the global economy has used ever more energy, even as it has used energy ever more efficiently and renewable energy, which Lovins and others were claiming even as early as the late 1970′s was cheaper than fossil energy, remains expensive and difficult to scale. Renewables still cost vastly more than fossil based energy, even before we calculate the costs associated with storing and transmitting intermittent forms of energy. Wind energy, according to the latest EIA estimates, still costs 50% more than coal or gas. Solar costs three to five times as much. In the end, what the soft energy path has given us is coal-fired power plants, mountaintop removal, global warming, and an economy that uses 50% more energy, not solar panels and wind farms.
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. Don’t like the result? Change the estimated climate sensitivity, the damage exponent, the social discount rate, or any number of other assumptions until you arrive at one you do like. The degree that we do internalize the cost of carbon will be determined by the tolerance within specific political economies for policies that increase energy costs.
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. This is simply not a recipe for bringing those technologies to scale. Subsidizing more of the same old technologies will bring down their cost incrementally, but not enough to displace fossil fuels at a rate sufficient to have much impact on emissions. There will be no significant action to address global warming, no meaningful caps or other regulatory frameworks, and no global agreement to limit emissions until the alternatives to fossil fuels are much better and cheaper. This will require technological innovation on a vast scale and will require sustained state support for radical innovation through large investments in basic science, research and development, demonstration, and commercialization of new energy technologies.
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. It is the only low carbon technology we have today with the demonstrated capability to generate large quantities of centrally generated electric power. It is the low carbon of technology of choice for much of the rest of the world. Even uber-green nations, like Germany and Sweden, have reversed plans to phase out nuclear power as they have begun to reconcile their energy needs with their climate commitments.
Eleventh, we will need to embrace again the role of the state as a direct provider of public goods. The modern environmental movement, borne of the new left rejection of social authority of all sorts, has embraced the notion of state regulation and even creation of private markets while largely rejecting the generative role of the state. In the modern environmental imagination, government promotion of technology – whether nuclear power, the green revolution, synfuels, or ethanol – almost always ends badly.
Never mind that virtually the entire history of American industrialization and technological innovation is the story of government investments in the development and commercialization of new technologies. Think of a transformative technology over the last century – computers, the Internet, pharmaceutical drugs, jet turbines, cellular telephones, nuclear power – and what you will find is government investing in those technologies at a scale that private firms simply cannot replicate.
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. The solutions to the ecological challenges faced by a planet of 6 billion going on 9 billion will not be decentralized energy technologies like solar panels, small scale organic agriculture, and a drawing of unenforceable boundaries around what remains of our ecological inheritance, be it the rainforests of the Amazon or the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Rather, these solutions will be: large central station power technologies that can meet the energy needs of billions of people increasingly living in the dense mega-cities of the global south without emitting carbon dioxide, further intensification of industrial scale agriculture to meet the nutritional needs of a population that is not only growing but eating higher up the food chain, and a whole suite of new agricultural, desalinization and other technologies for gardening planet Earth that might allow us not only to pull back from forests and other threatened ecosystems but also to create new ones.I'd be curious to hear your thoughts--in some ways these authors are offering a 'response to deep ecologists.'