Is environmentalism still dead?, part 2

Cross-posted from

In my last post, I started to discuss a speech by the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (N and S). In this post, I will discuss their presentation of 12 theses of environmental thought, which they hope will supply “underlying assumptions for a new, post-environmental climate movement.”

1. They start off by claiming that “more, better, or louder climate science will not drive the transformation of the global energy economy.” If this is true, it is indeed tragic. What they seem to be saying is that the public cannot, or will not, deal with a complicated scientific topic, and worse, in my opinion, this public will not be very worried about our long-term future. I do agree with the broad theme of their alternative: appeal to medium-term self-interest, because I think it is eminently possible to tackle global warming by improving peoples’ lives in that time frame.

2. They advise that “we need to stop trying to scare the pants off of the American public. Doing so has demonstrably backfired.” I’m not sure about this one, partly because I don’t think it’s really been tried. There surely haven’t been any scare campaigns on display recently. And I don’t know how you can show that a few scientists talking about the very real possibility of massive ecological collapse has made much of an impact – unfortunately.

However, they make a point: if you are going to frighten people, you better have a very easy-to-understand and clear set of ideas about how to get out of danger. Humans seem to operate at a high level exactly when they are in danger and there is a clear way out – probably the result of the evolutionary need to do things like escape from lions. But when only fear is used to push your cause, all kinds of unfortunate stresses on the system result, often backfiring and leading to the rise of right-wing political moments. It’s the remedies that have been in short supply so far.

3. N and S argue that “the most successful actions will not be justified for environmental reasons… We should put shared solutions at the center of our politics, not our view of the science.” They use the examples of linking environmental concerns to national security and economic well-being. I would go further and talk about how to build clean infrastructure and thereby reignite the manufacturing engine of growth. Also, solutions to global warming are applicable to addressing the end of the era of cheap oil and the problems associated with collapsing ecosystems and agriculture.

4. N and S don’t think that we should be talking about changing behavior, that the alleged environmentalist consensus to “stop crass consumerism, live in denser cities, and use public transit” will not go over well among most of the world’s population, who live in cities anyway. We can’t expect the world’s population to want to stay mired in less resource-intensive poverty for the sake of preventing global warming.

However, it’s not poor people jammed into megacities that are causing most of the emissions, its rich countries spread out in suburbs and cities of sprawl. But to carry their point to a logical conclusion, it is the refusal of the rich countries to change that will be the deal breaker. And even if by some miracle the rich cut back their profligate ways, “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.” Well then I guess we’re really screwed.

So what is the possible route out? As we shall see, N and S argue that technological innovation is the only answer, because otherwise, they seem to imply, the situation is indeed hopeless.

5. N and S argue that “we have to stop treating climate change as if it were a traditional pollution problem” by using regulation, because the technologies don’t exist to move to a less carbon-emitting world. Implying that solar and wind are not up to the task, they state that a solution to climate change “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.” But the history of the rollout of electricity and oil were once where renewable energy technologies are now – just starting an exponential take-off. However, their point remains, that we can’t just stop something – fossil fuel emissions – and expect the market to automatically come up with a better alternative.

6. They claim that “We will not regulate or price our way to a clean energy economy” and “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.” Amen, although I think regulations can go further than they do because technologies do exist that could be used in an effective regulatory environment. And I would also add that public construction is an alternative to trying to develop new technologies (both can happen at the same time).

7. They claim that “we need to acknowledge that the so-called ‘soft energy path’ is a dead end,” where we can meet energy needs through renewable sources and efficiency. There are actually situations in which making or using things more efficiently leads to an increase in the use of a resource (called Jevon's Paradox). But if resources are recyclable and energy is renewable, that paradox wouldn’t be a big problem.

There has been quite a bit of work done showing that it is possible to generate all of our energy using solar, wind, geothermal, and water energy. I have made the argument, as has (Lester Brown, and Greenpeace and others have done impressive studies. N and S call for much more R&D, which should include more money for understanding how current technologies can create a sustainable society now.

8. N and S warn that “we will not internalize the full costs of fossil fuels, even if we are able to agree upon what they actually are.” For instance, some studies claim that gasoline should cost $12 per gallon if all of the health, military, and other effects were accounted for. Judging by the reaction to the oil price spike in the 2008 campaign – drill, baby, drill – I think it unlikely that Americans will accept vastly steeper gasoline and electricity prices.

9. All of the forgoing leads to the conclusion that “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.” I’m not sure where N and S stand on the issue of whether this is the end of the era of cheap oil, that is, that the production of oil is peaking (“peak oil”). Natural gas and coal also have their supply problems; they will not last forever and in fact could become quite problematic in the next decade or so. So if renewables are too expensive now, when fossil fuels become even more expensive we are in for a bad time.

There is an alternative – use our great wealth, at least while we still have it, to construct a sustainable energy, transportation and urban infrastructure. We put over one trillion dollars per year into a military system that is, at best, mostly a waste of resources, and we just bailed out a financial system that has run amok. We can certainly afford to build millions of wind turbines and solar panels, even if they are currently more expensive than coal and oil.

10. N and S claim that “There is no credible path to reducing global carbon emissions without an enormous expansion of nuclear power.” One could just as easily say that there is no credible path with nuclear power. They have repeatedly stated that renewable energy is impractical. Now they propose an unheard-of expansion of a technology that is much more difficult to construct, constantly runs over-budget, is dependent on a fuel strewn all over the world, and has a host of other problems, like waste disposal, that appear to be insoluble. More research, preferably in different but related technologies like thorium and fusion? Sure. Uranium? 50 years and billions of dollars in R&D is probably enough time and money for a technology to work out its problems.

11. “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.” Yes!!

So why is the environmental movement almost completely clueless on this point? Part of it is a reaction to Reagan and the ensuing conservative movement; part of it is the legitimate suspicion of a state apparatus that has made huge missteps (like pushing ethanol); part of it is an understandable desire for decentralized institutions that are more amenable to democratic control. My counterargument is that government is the only institution that can prevent our civilization from suffering the same fate as the Titanic, as difficult as it will be to turn government around from its current course. State-as-builder should at least be one of the options on the table.

12. Finally, I must say they seem to completely cut any ties to the environmental movement with this one: “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…[the solution] will be: large central station power technologies… further intensification of industrial scale agriculture… and a whole suite of new agricultural, desalinization and other technologies.” Environmental activists used to call this a “technological fix” – the idea that you can keep the same basic system if only you can replace one technology with another, without redesigning the system as a whole.

Of course, this begs the question of whether technologies will ever be discovered that will allow us to simply pop a new engine into cars or replace that dirty coal plant with something else. That would be the ideal solution; otherwise, a certain amount of civilizational redesign will be necessary.

But why put all our eggs in a basket that doesn’t even exist yet? I am all for technological innovation, but I don’t want to bet the future of the world’s species on it. At the other extreme, the chances of various technologies coming to fruition are exceedingly small, and therefore maybe we should ignore innovation and get going on what we have now. Or we could cover both bets, by starting seriously – that is, by spending trillions – to rebuild our infrastructure while feverishly researching and developing everything that looks reasonable.

For N and S, “The choice that humanity faces is not whether to constrain our growth, development, and aspirations or die. It is whether we will continue to innovate and accelerate technological progress in order to thrive.” I wish us luck. But just in case that doesn’t work, I think it’s worthwhile trying to figure out how we could consciously, and with great forethought and democratic participation, start rebuilding civilization right now. An environmentalism based on carbon pricing may be dead, but I’m not worried about the death of environmentalism. I’m worried about the death of the biosphere.