Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus — Part IV, Why bother?

The question has been raised — why spend time “debunking” S&N when they seem to be well-meaning folks struggling for a genuine solution to global warming, unlike, say, Bj¸rn Lomborg? Aside from the fact that they are adding great confusion and misinformation to a critical debate, the answer is simple — they aren’t well-meaning.

S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community (and Al Gore and even Rachel Carson) than they do proposing a viable solution. Worse, they don’t even attack the real environmental community — they spend their time creating a strawman that is mostly a right-wing stereotype of environmentalists.

S&N’s core argument is that environmentalists only preach doom and gloom and sacrifice, and that solving global warming …

… will require a more optimistic narrative from the environmental community. Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, like Silent Spring, was considered powerful because it marshaled the facts into an effective (read: apocalyptic) story…..

In promoting the inconvenient truth that humans must limit their consumption and sacrifice their way of life to prevent the world from ending, environmentalists are not only promoting a solution that won’t work, they’ve discouraged Americans from seeing the big solutions at all. For Americans to be future-oriented, generous, and expansive in their thinking, they must feel secure, wealthy, and strong.

Gore has never promoted such an inconvenient truth — they should read his book or listen to his speeches — and indeed I don’t know any major environmentalist or environmental group who has promoted such a message. Just spend some time on the climate websites for NRDC, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. They all support (most of) the same big solutions S&N do, they just don’t think you get those solutions the way S&N does (i.e. a massive government spending program).

So why do S&N, who appear to care about the climate, attack the mainstream environmental community in such a vicious and distorted fashion? Who knows? Watthead points out, “it may be a great way to get attention for your articles and books, but it’s not a great way to build alliances with the kind of folks who you should be building alliances with.”

I would go further. It is particularly destructive for one’s supposed allies to repeat myths that Frank Luntz and Rush Limbaugh and President Bush want people to believe about environmentalists. The Deniers and Delayers want people to believe that environmentalists are backing climate change to achieve a hidden agenda of government limits on their consumption. They can’t win on the merits of the science, but they can scare people into inaction. S&N play right into their hands, reinforcing tired old stereotypes:

Nor should we want to dramatically curtail energy consumption. Increasing energy use is the primary cause of global warming, but it is also a primary cause of rising prosperity, longer life spans, better medical treatment, and greater personal and political freedom. Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth.

Apparently S&N have never heard of energy efficiency (which decouples economic growth from energy consumption), never been told what California has accomplished, never met any of the environmentalists I talk to every day.

Even as we are seeing a groundswell of support for cap-and-trade programs at a national and state level, S&N insist the strategy just won’t work:

The only way to double global energy consumption while cutting global warming emissions in half is by developing new sources of clean energy. Thus, the problem with the proposals currently being discussed in Congress: They will, for the foreseeable future, direct private investment toward the least expensive emissions reductions (such as burning methane from landfills, purchasing forest land for carbon sequestration, or retrofitting power plants and buildings so they operate more efficiently) rather than toward breakthrough technologies (like low-cost solar energy and carbon capture and storage), which are too expensive to become widely adopted today but which are vital for creating a new energy economy and thus drastically reducing emissions. Cap-and-trade schemes, for example, would achieve some inexpensive reductions but wouldn’t drive investment into long-term R&D because those investments would not immediately reduce emissions.

No, no, no, and no. Again their obsession with breakthrough supply-side technologies is not grounded in historical reality, as I have argued. They seem painfully unaware of energy efficiency. They are VERY wrong that carbon capture and storage requires breakthrough technology — it can be done today but it isn’t being done because carbon has no price — so their argument is dangerously backwards.

Of course a price for carbon would drive R&D — a price for other pollutants drove R&D for their replacements — and in fact, just the now-inevitable prospect of a carbon price is already driving a big surge in venture capital funding for clean energy. But again, S&N are obsessed with investment into “long-term” R&D. Guys, hello, we have sat on our hands for three decades doing nothing about the climate problem (except R&D) — the long-term is NOW!

If we needed long-term R&D to avoid catastrophic global warming–the very argument that Bush and Lomborg use to advocate delay–we would be in big trouble since we appear at real risk of triggering dangerous carbon-cycle tipping points. Fortunately, we don’t. What we need to do is massively deploy all the low-carbon technology that exists today or is already in the pipeline. And that is best done through the kind of carbon price and intelligent government regulations that S&N criticize.

Just as bad as their strawman arguments is the fact that they pass off political na¯vet© as political savvy, accusing environmentalists of pursuing politically impractical approaches, when that is what they themselves are doing — as I will discuss in Part V.

Want to read more debunking of S&N? Here are Part I and Part II and Part III.

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7 Responses to Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus — Part IV, Why bother?

  1. Dano says:

    So why do S&N, who appear to care about the climate, attack the mainstream environmental community in such a vicious and distorted fashion? Who knows? Watthead points out, “it may be a great way to get attention for your articles and books, but it’s not a great way to build alliances with the kind of folks who you should be building alliances with.”

    I thought they were saying the message needed re-working, not that environmentalism itself needed reworking. Nor did I think they were attacking the community.

    Just the message and the thinking that the perfect policy solution was the answer.

    Human nature such as it is, some get upset and lose the message and think something else is going on.

    The other day I helped stage & plant the new park going in my city. My T-shirt in the front had a druid wrapped around a tree and the back said ‘why stop at hugging?’, in case anyone thinks I want to spread envirohate.

    I just tuned out the fuzzy-bunny environmental catastrophe messages years ago, like millions of others.



  2. Joe says:

    Well, they call their work “The Death of Environmentalism” — so they are working to kill it off. The funny thing is, I generally like a pro-technology message, and I’m not even an environmentalist, but their message is simply grating and counter-productive.

  3. John says:


    The problem with S&N’s message is threefold:

    First, it ignores the availability of a wealth of existing technologies which have the potential to mitigate global warming at a savings, and the even larger backlog of technologies that could cut carbon at a very low cost.

    Second, they fail to differentiate between intelligently structured and market friendly regulaltions and policies and the old “command and control” paradigm, and therefore perpetuate and arguement against an approach no one is advocating — costly regs that limit options. No one is talking about freezing in the dark or living in deprivation. One of the best examples of regulatons that have worked are appliance standards — consumers have saved money, society cut emissions, and no one lost any services or made any sacrifices. More importantly, there’s no reason to believe we would have more than quadrupled the efficiency of refrigerators without such standards. Doubt that? Just look at appliances that haven’t had standards — they typically stay about as efficient as they started out, even when better technological performance is possible and cost effective.

    Third, S&N reinforce a narrative pushed by denyers and special interests that says “don’t worry, be happy” technology will save you. Now, I do think the government has a roll (and a successful track record) in break through R&D.

    But a lot of what governments come up with (microturbines, CFLs, regenerative brakes, etc. etc.) simply sits on a shelf until proactive regulations and policies passed by government gets them into the market place. And these kind of policies also stimulate private investment in technologies and practices that favor clean energy. At the end of the day, that’s what it will take to meet a challenge like avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

    When S&N say otherwise, they stand in the way of the only solutions that will give us even a prayer of avoiding global catastrophe — and that’s not hyperbole, it’s just where we are right now. In part, because messages like S&N are sending made us think it would be ok if we just tried a little harder to have really neat techno-gadgets life would be happy and things wuld be great. Sort of a techno-tinkerbell. We all just close out eyes and …

    As for the fuzzy bunny stuff? It’s real — most biologists and ecologists are predicting massive die-offs and extinctions. Maybe you don’t care if you spend your old age in a Philip K. Dick novel, or if you consign the next several hundred generations to doing so, but I do. Besides, I’m not sure we have the right to make that kind of call for future generations.

    But it doesn’t matter — that ship has left the dock. Even if you’re OK with androids and electric sheep, there’s still enough at stake to understand that S&N are playing right into the Buhsite’s hands, and if their message is not confronted, then serious, irreversible consequences will occurr — to humans as well as fuzzy bunnies.

    Doesn’t matter what their motives are — pure or not, it’s a very destructive message that gets in the way of progress.

    That’s the problem.

  4. Ronald says:

    A utility may not invest in non carbon electricity even if it is cheaper than carbon. They still might not want to take a risk on the cheaper non carbon electricity. There needs to be some tax on the carbon to shift the balance sheet far enough for the non carbon technologies to be worth installing considering the risks.

  5. Dano says:

    Ah. Got it.

    Maybe you don’t care if you spend your old age in a Philip K. Dick novel, or if you consign the next several hundred generations to doing so, but I do.

    Even though I’ve worked on anti-GMO campaigns, am trained in ecology, state here that I=PAT, my grad concentration is in environmental planning, speaking soon about provisioning more green infrastructure, and unabashedly call myself a treehugger, because I think the enviro message no longer works its OK to say I don’t care that I live in a PK Dick novel.

    All is clear on this end.



  6. John says:

    No Dano, you didn’t get it. If the “environmental message doesn’t work” anymore, the solution is not to say it don’t matter no how — technology will save us …

    S&N and Lomborg aren’t talking about new tools that communicate better, or new ideas that solve the problem — they’re talking about throwing out the only solutions that have worked. Read S&N — there’s nothing about solutions in their writing — only gratuitous sniping. Lomborg Too. The last thing we need is gratuitous sniping without constructive alternatives. And when you defend them, you give them bona fides they don’t deserve. In fact, the more IPAT friendly & green you are, the more your defense hurts the cause because you’ve got cred. So, you become a part of the problem. And that’s the problem with your position, not your contention that the “enviro message doesn’t work.”

    If you’d like to work together to figure out how to better communicate the message people need to hear, and forge creative solutions to very real problems, I’m right with you. But if you’re signing onto S&N and Lomborg’s rot, and you don’t even realize you’re hurting your own cause, I’m going to keep pointing it out to you in the hopes that you do eventually “get it.”

    Best to you,


  7. Marc says:

    Wow! When a posting starts with the assertion that you somehow know that Nordhaus and Shellenberger “aren’t well-meaning” it’s sorta seems like you’ve lost it.

    I just heard these guys speak in Boston at a benefit for Clean Power Now that’s promoting the Cape Wind project. Disagreeing with their argument is one thing but questioning their intent is simply shameful. These guys both have extensive histories working for and with well known environmental organizations. While it might be tough love,it’s clearly a place of really caring about the movement reaching big aims that their coming from and the “Death Of” hook was just that, deliberately provocative hook that allowed them to cut through the noise and get their message out. It’s clear that the “Death of” purpose was to be like a Phoenix rising the ashes and come with even more effective praxis. To imply that you know where they’re coming from is shameful.

    You also seem bent on implying that these guys are waiting for “magic bullet” break through technologies that don’t exist yet when virtually all their attention in the book is to what it would take to get present technologies–wind & solar– to cheap enough scale to be viable and competitive.

    Later you write that “S &N.. never met any of the environmentalists I talk to every day.” This is a point worth addressing for two reasons:

    What seems to rankle people about their argument is that they take it personally. It feels like an attack on their identity and motives as environmentalists. While I think the purpose of their approach is to be jarring so that people question assumptions that are usually left unexamined, in many people it creates plain ol’ defensiveness, as seems to be the case here.

    2. It’s problematic to treat “the movement” like it’s one thing. These guys are themselves environmentalists and their in obvious dialogue with all sorts of other enviros (Adam Werbach former head of Sierra Club nationally is the first who comes to mind). So, don’t fall into the trap of acting like those who you rub elbows with (who are likely to reaffirm your biases_ have superior claim on what the movement means, or who environmentalists are.