The Death of “The Death of Environmentalism”: Nordhaus & Shellenberger are part of the problem — Part I

What do Michael Crichton, Bj¸rn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, George W Bush (and his climate/energy advisors) have in common with Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus? They all believe 1) new “breakthrough” technologies are needed to solve the global warming problem and 2) investing in such technology is far more important than regulating carbon.

In fairness to President Bush — he doesn’t really believe those two things (as evidenced by the fact that he has actually cut funding for key carbon-reducing technologies), he just says them because conservative strategist Frank Luntz says that is the best way to sound like you care about global warming without actually doing anything about it.

The “breakthrough technology” message is certainly the cleverest one the Deniers and Delayers have invented — who wouldn’t rather have a techno-fix than higher energy prices? — that’s why Lomborg endorses it so much in his book Cool Itbut it is certainly wrong and dangerously so, as I argue at length in my book.

Why two people who say they care about the environment, Shellenberger & Nordhaus (S&N), embrace it, I don’t understand. I won’t waste time reading their instant new bestseller, unhelpfully titled Breakthrough — and you shouldn’t either (Roger Pielke, Jr. and Gregg Easterbrook endorse it — ’nuff said). I’ve read more than enough misinformation from them in their landmark essay,”The Death of Environmentalism” and recent articles in The New Republic (subs. req’d) and Gristmill (here and here).

S&N simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Worse, their message plays right into the hands of those who counsel delay. For that reason, I will spend some time debunking them. Here is the most dangerous S&N falsehood, from TNR:

Over the last ten years, a consensus has emerged among energy policy experts–one no less important than the consensus among climate scientists that carbon emissions are warming the earth. What’s needed, they say, are disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve non-incremental breakthroughs in both price and performance.

Uhh, no. Energy policy is my field, and I have talked to virtually all of the leading energy policy experts over the past few years. A few believe as S&N do (mostly academics), but the majority do not — especially those who are actual energy practitioners or who have taken the time to educate themselves on climate science. Yes, they all want much higher funding for clean energy R&D — who doesn’t??? (other than the phantom “pain- and-sacrifice-loving” environmentalists that only S&N seem to have met).

But the energy practioners know that meaningful breakthroughs rarely if ever happen in energy (a key point I will return to in the next post). I can say that with very high confidence since I ran the federal office responsible for doing the vast majority of the research into new carbon-free technologies.

And those who have studied climate science understand that we simply have run out of time to pin much hope on breakthroughs that may never come no matter how much money we spend on R&D. Developed country carbon emissions need to peak in the next decade (and developing country emissions soon thereafter) or we will ruin the planet for the next 50 generations no matter what technologies they have at their disposal. Put another way, if we can’t stop catastrophic global warming with technologies that exist now or are already in the pipeline, we aren’t going to stop catastrophic global warming.

N&S’s go slow approach to climate, as first advanced in “The Death of Environmentalism,” should have died once it became clear that climate change is happening much faster than scientists feared and that if we don’t act now with all the technology we have available, we risk crossing tipping points whereby amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks would overwhelm any positive carbon-reducing benefits for new technology.

N&S write in Grist:

Public investment will be far more important than pollution limits in driving technological innovation and reducing the real price of clean energy. This point seems to be controversial only among environmentalists. (emphasis in original)

No. Pollution limits are far, far more important than R&D for what really matters — reducing greenhouse gas emissions and driving clean technologies into the market place. Until carbon has a significant price, coal will remain the dominant low-cost energy supply and key low-carbon strategies, like carbon capture and storage, will never be achieved. And for the record, I am not an environmentalist, and I personally don’t know a single energy person who believes what S&N claims is not controversial.

Indeed, private investment is far more important than public investment in reducing the real price of clean energy — especially for the far more important task of reducing the total costs to consumers of clean energy. That’s because private investment is so much larger than public investment — if it can be harnessed through intelligent regulations. Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see my old office at the DOE have its budget increased dramatically — I just don’t think that a massive increase in public investment is even among the top three things I would do if I were running U.S. climate policy, a point I will elaborate on in Part II.

S&N may not consider it worrisome that they are touting the exact same strategy on climate as Michael Crichton, Bj¸rn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, George W. Bush and his climate/energy advisors — but I would rather be on the other side of whatever those folks are pushing.

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15 Responses to The Death of “The Death of Environmentalism”: Nordhaus & Shellenberger are part of the problem — Part I

  1. Olin C. says:

    Dear Joe,

    Woah! I felt as if I was revisiting Jared Diamond’s book: Collapse! How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail.

    To quote the immortal words of IANVS: ” Keep chuggin'” We’ll get there if we persevere. “It’s always darkest before the dawn”…

  2. Paul K says:

    There is a goodly contingent of environmentalists interested in reducing all pollutants who are concerned with a singular emphasis on CO2 due to, among other reasons, skepticism about the predictive abilities of AGW science. As a non-environmentalist, you may be unable to appreciate these concerns.
    Your distinction between private and public money is well put. I believe public money should go only into CO2 free energy production. This includes solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal research and yes, nuclear. I’ll be looking forward to your “top three things I would do if I were running U.S. climate policy” in Part II.
    “Developed country carbon emissions need to peak in the next decade.” U.S. CO2 emissions have peaked since 2004. What are we doing right?

  3. Dano says:

    No. Pollution limits are far, far more important than R&D for what really matters — reducing greenhouse gas emissions and driving clean technologies into the market place.

    Ahem. You’ve missed their point.

    The point of S&N here is that with no alternative to replace carbon fuels, nothing will happen. Thus, alternatives are important for action.

    The vast majority of the general public can’t be expected to ‘undergo privations’ to reduce our carbon footprint. It simply won’t happen (welcome to humanity) unless there’s a replacement for energy. Once that’s started, carbon can go.

    That’s all. They want the same things you do, but want a slightly different way to get there and a different way of saying it to the public (your way doesn’t resonate, which is why they are articulating their way).



  4. Joe says:

    If my way doesn’t resonate, why are there now so many bills before Congress calling for regulation — and why have so many states already embraced the regulatory approach.

    I haven’t missed their point — I just think their point is dead wrong. We have all the technologies we need (either in existence today or in the pipeline) to make deep cuts in emissions over the next few decades — if we have a real price for carbon. Absent pollution limits, all the technology in the world won’t displace coal.

  5. John says:


    I’m glad you took S&N on — I was thinking of doing myself, but you’ve dispatched them nicely.

    A couple of observations, Dano — there are all kinds of alternatives available now, starting with efficiency. Most studies show we could reduce energy use by 30% in buildings at a savings. Hybrids are 50% more efficient than the fleet average, and smoke notwithstanding, they are cost-competetive with conventional cars on a life-cycle basis.

    If S&N had done their homework, they would have seen that regs and limits have done more to stimulate R&D than all the good wishes and crossed fingers in the world.

    GM came up with the catalytic convertor in response to SOx limits no one knew how to meet (they were making more money off the licensing fees for CCs than they were off their cars at one point, reportedly).

    The SOx trading program for utilites under Title IV of the CAA remains one of the stunning successes of the environmental movement, leading to low cost reduction of SOx through several innovations no one had anticipated.

    The key to this is that both regs set agressive performance standards, but did not specifiy technologies.

    The record is clear: appropriately designed regulations will stimulate innovation more than anything else we can do. Period.

  6. Dano says:

    OK. First, my thesis was about making scientific information actionable for policy-makers (a subset being the public as policy-driver). Second, I’m a green infrastructure guy with a specialty in urban ecology. Last, I’m an old weatherman from way back before The Internets when you plotted your charts by hand. So I may “get” it.

    Next, I frequently cite in my work that the payoff from the cost of regulation of just the Clean Air Act is seven times the cost, and I’m nearing the end of a LEED-ND greenfield development plan. So I may “get” it.

    And while it’s great that all the regulation is going through, there is a substantial fraction of the Murrican population that doesn’t give a rip for you or your policies or regalayshuns or your alarmist propaganda. Seemingly every week in the Denver papers here, there is some nut job wailing about the lib’rull green conspiracy. Now they may just be projecting their envirohate, but it’s not going away.

    Recently, I gave a talk about future water projections in my area of the Front Range to a group of large business owners. As soon as I brought up that climate change has changed the hydrological cycle around here, I heard the equivalent of “Algore is fat”. Fortunately his peers gave him the cold shoulder, but I was escorted out of the room when done, because these folk were all large water users and I unwittingly threw cold water on the proceedings. Regular folks can’t or don’t want to think that far out.

    In a nutshell: this isn’t just a lack of regulation problem or just a business problem or just an efficiency problem. This is a fundamental societal structure problem, where the members of society are divorced from cause and effect.

    S&N argue that the current way we go about things is insufficient to break through the barriers that prolong the separation between cause & effect. They advocate a different approach. They state that we have to think differently about how we as a society discuss how we are going to radically change direction, in such a way that people are engaged, not just accepting. Because being engaged will change behavior. And behavior changes are needed to reduce vehicle miles traveled and vehicle trips per day, all the way down the line to radically reduce consumption.

    I=PAT The equation tells the tale. If we aren’t going to reduce P, then we have to reduce the effects of A and T, and T is a fundamental consumer good that requires energy. Think about it.



  7. Ronald says:

    I’m almost through the S&N book. It’s all a discussion on why there hasn’t been a change to noncarbon energy sources. They spend so much time describing why it hasn’t happened and just can’t think of anyway to make it happen, they think our carbon energy use is inevitable.

    It’s about Paradigm thinking. Paradigm thinking is our thougth patterns, things we think about and do without considering alternatives.

    I think there is one important thought pattern with the carbon-noncarbon fuel question.

    That is tax money for government services should come from sales, property, income, social security taxes and others and not from taxing fossil fuels or carbon dioxide release.

    We tax 4 trillion dollars from Federal, State and Local taxes in a 13 trillion dollar economy. Almost none of this comes directly from carbon and fossil fuels itself. And yet fossil fuels is the thing that is depleatable. As an example, farmland, who’s owner pays property taxes, will be here 50, 100, 500 and a million years from now. But the fossil fuels used to plant and harvest crops will be gone in a few decades. Yet we tax the thing that will be here forever instead of taxing the depleatable resource so as conserve it for future generations.

    The problem is the idea of not taxing fossil fuels and only taxing property, sales, income, social security and others, is such a strong paradigm, we can’t make the change. Let’s change the taxes that states have on sales taxes and move that to a fossil fuel sales tax. Don’t pay it at the sales tax at the restautant or store product, but on fossil fuels burned. We should do a tax trade.

    The mistake S&N makes is nothing can change, even our thinking. Well, they are wrong. Things can change, expecially our thinking. And it is the thing that has to change. Are there forces against it? Sure. But changing our thinking is the most important thing in the world.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    It is fairly easy to imagine futures where we solve our greenhouse gas problem with technology that exists today. It only takes investment in the capital plant to make it happen. But that investment is not happening primarily because fossil fuels are priced below their true costs. When what Economists call “externalities” are added in, fossil fuels cost much more than wind and solar. This is market failure, and one of the most important things governments can do is address the failings of markets. So I agree with Joe: we don’t need new technologies (we can use them if they happen, but shouldn’t wait for them). What we need is realistic pricing of non-sustainable, wealth-destroying, moment-of-convenience-lifetime-of-regret fossil fuels. Then the market will kick in and invest in the capital plant required to fix this problem (e.g. 12,000 km^2 of desert solar thermal plant or its equivalent). The government can also increase our energy efficiency with policies similar to California’s (e.g. Title 24). The government can also help jump-start plug-in vehicles by making its own purchases (including the USPS) be plug-ins. That helps the technology mature, saves the government money in the long run, and helps save the atmosphere at the same time.

    (For reference, the Mojave desert is 57,000 km^2, and the Sonoran desert is 310,800 km^2, so 12,000 km^2 is 3.3%)

  9. Earl Killian says:

    Ronald: A group called Redefining Progress wrote a monograph called “Tax Waste, Not Work” back in 1997:
    (introduction by Paul Krugman). I think you will find it argues for what you suggest. The first paragraph of the executive summary begins:
    Tax Waste, Not Work offers a new approach to fiscal and environmental policy–a revenue-neutral shift to resource taxes or emission permits–which holds the potential to strengthen the economy, protect the environment, and encourage investment and savings–all in a way that could attract broad political support. The monograph provides a comprehensive analysis of the impact of shifting some of America’s tax burden away from productive activities that should be encouraged, such as work and savings, and onto activities that should be discouraged, such as pollution, waste, and energy inefficiency.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    To Dano’s “The point of S&N here is that with no alternative to replace carbon fuels, nothing will happen. Thus, alternatives are important for action.” But there are already real alternatives to carbon fuels. Why do S&N not see that? For example, being very brief: first, efficiency (the most important step), and then for electricity there are solar thermal and wind, and for petroleum there are plug-in vehicles and algae biodiesel. Tilman’s carbon-negative LIHD biomass might be interesting too, but I haven’t seen a cost estimate.

  11. Dano says:


    Good comment.

    But there are already real alternatives to carbon fuels. Why do S&N not see that? For example, being very brief: first, efficiency (the most important step), and then for electricity there are solar thermal and wind, and for petroleum there are plug-in vehicles and algae biodiesel. Tilman’s carbon-negative LIHD biomass might be interesting too, but I haven’t seen a cost estimate.

    The point is that they have to be economical to the masses and the masses want to have them for the right reasons. Sally Soccermom isn’t going to pony up $4500 to install solar to be efficient; Sara Stepford might because its trendy.

    But let’s step back. S&N’s original points in DOE were hammered. Same today. They argue for radical rethinking, and the entrenched fighters have invested a lot in that old way, and perhaps some take their identity from that old way (hence their identity is being ‘attacked’ by S&N).

    I suggest reading their original essay, and then contemplating the knowledge that they are now giving specific policy prescriptions arising out of the projects they were working on.

    Remember: they want to get to the same place as most of the commenters here. It’s just a different direction. The author of this blog wants to steer a course at 130, S&N are saying 145. It’s still southeast, but the author is vilifying S&N for wanting to steer a slightly different course to get to the same place.


    I = PAT

    We must reduce some combination of P, A, and T. If not P, then there is pain (economist’s “hard landing”) ahead if we continue to require the same energy as today. This requires radical rethinking on society’s part, and we need to start.



    The entire landscape in which politics plays out has changed radically in the last 30 years, yet the environmental movement acts as though proposals based on “sound science” will be sufficient to overcome ideological and industry opposition. Environmentalists are in a culture war whether we like it or not. It’s a war over our core values as Americans and over our vision for the future, and it won’t be won by appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest.


    So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy expertise — and the fantasy of technical fixes is left unchallenged — the public is not just being misled, it’s also being misread. Until we address Americans honestly, and with the respect they deserve, they can be expected to remain largely disengaged from the global transformation we need them to be a part of.

  12. Marc says:

    Two quick thoughts:

    1. Your response to Nordhaus and Shellenberger in large part supports their argument by responding with a level of technical detail an assumption that it’s about acting on “the facts” properly. Clearly science, technical analyses and prudent action are important but N & S are saying that to reach the masses, not enviro wonks like us, we need something with broader reach. Falling into debate about the timetable and deployment of technology is a discussion worth having but it’s about the implementation of the idea (importance of technological innovation not just regulation/conservation) that you largely overlook.

    2. This sure reads like the work of someone who is cranky that their own book isn’t getting the same level of attention as Break Through. You seem quite invested in shooting down the work of others. I’d like to see you promote more books, not just find ones to attack. You might also consider that the impact of S & N’s work sort of proves the point that the broad and aspirational gets more uptake whereas the literal and technical is less broadly resonant. Let me be clear: I admire you and your work so it’s worrisome that you seem to have a personal axe to grind here.

  13. Joe says:

    I recommend a number of books on this website. The Clean Tech Revolution and Freedom from Oil are particularly good. S&N have little to add to the debate. Contrarian books always sell well. I’m okay with that, but don’t have to like their work anyway.

  14. Shelly T. says:

    Our new energy secretary, Steven Chu, also thinks we need new breakthrough technologies to fight climate change. This is what he said at the National Clean Energy Summit last December. I transcribed this portion so the names are probably spelled wrong.

    “We need new technologies to transform the landscape . . . . yes, we should develop better photovoltaics given today’s silicon technology but we can do much better. And, we have several generations of scientists, Alan Heeger who won a Nobel prize for his work on conducting polymers, Paul Versadiz who I hope in a few more years will win a Nobel prize for his work on nanotechnology, and (name indecipherable) these are three generations of the best scientists we have in the United States, that it is possible to make incredibly efficient photovoltaic cells that are much, much cheaper than what we have today, and what we foresee in the near term future. The price of photovoltaics will go down by a factor of two or three, you can bank on it. I’m sure if it will go down by a factor of 5-10. If it goes down by a factor of 10, you won’t even need all the price subsidies and everything else. We hope to deliver in 5-10 years.

    Biomass is something else that has great promise. . . . . .

    At Berkeley Lab, in the first 8 months of a new research program, we’ve developed ways to separate out the cellulose, the sugars that you can turn into fuel from the other protective stuff in the plant. We’ve already made a yeast . . . this yeast makes a gasoline like fuel, already within 8 months we are working on diesel and jet replacement fuels and we need to work on making this really scalable so that it will outperform the yeast that we have today.”

    I might have gotten a bit of that not exactly perfect but he IS saying that new technology is needed.

    Watch it here: