Time to end the phony, and historically inaccurate, debate

This will, hopefully, be the last post devoted to debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus.

As noted, S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community and Al Gore (and even Rachel Carson!) than they ever 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.

Now it turns out they support the exact same thing the environmental community — and energy technologists like me — have been pushing for many years: an aggressive and intelligent regulatory strategy coupled with a significant increase in the energy R&D budget.

To my great surprise, they have taken up my challenge and endorsed Barack Obama’s terrific climate plan. So why are we fighting? Only because S&N keep attacking, keep trying to rewrite history.

S&N claim over and over and over again that environmentalists don’t support increases in clean energy budgets. They even claim I don’t support an increase in the budget of the very office I ran at the Energy Department — and that ” ‘experts’ like Romm” shift our analysis “after the political winds changed direction.” Silly (and petty).

In this post, I will set the record straight.

Do S&N somehow believe they are the only ones who have been campaigning for more funding on clean energy and that no one else deserves credit?

They want to rewrite history to create a phony debate apparently so they can look like contarians and stir interest in their work.

I have never met an environmentalist or energy expert who wasn’t committed to increasing the clean energy budget — I myself have been fighting for major increases for two decades. We just never thought it was the most important thing — obviously neither does Obama, or else he wouldn’t have included every regulation and mandate favored by environmentalists (and energy technologists). Nobody would include a regulation or mandate that isn’t absolutely necessary — as S&N like to point out, they aren’t politically popular.

[You may ask, if, contrary to what S&N claim, environmentalists have been pushing for much higher clean energy budgets for years, why aren’t the budgets much higher? I will give the surprising answer to that question below.]

But for $150 billion over 10 years, S&N are apparently willing to set aside their previous distrust of fuel economy standards and tough emissions caps. They are the ones whose views have shifted radically over the years as the political winds have changed.

Who knew the differences between me and them were purely rhetorical — they dislike Gore, Carson, and environmentalists who point out the dangers of global warming, whereas I like those folk a great deal. They want all the credit for pushing a positive solutions-based approach to climate, whereas I want to spread the credit around to those who actually deserve it.
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 embrace a clean energy future. S&N might even read my 1999 book, Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions. I guess we all missed the “pain and sacrifice” memo.

Do S&N seriously believe that Obama would be embracing a mandated return to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 80% cut by 2050 if the apocalyptic message of Gore and the environmental community had not been so persuasive? Are S&N suggesting that the politically-savvy Obama has been able to put on the table every necessary regulation and mandate simply because he threw in $150 billion for technologies? Be serious.

Or is it just possible that environmentalists were right all along? That once people realized how serious global warming is they would embrace big solutions, including regulatory ones.

S&N claim:

The regulation-centered approach is thus doomed to fail in one way or another: Price carbon too high and risk economic consequences and political backlash; price it too low, and dirty-energy sources will not cost enough to make clean energy cost-competitive.

Yet Obama’s proposal is nothing if not regulation centered. Indeed, his plan has more regulations and mandates and standards than any plan I’ve ever seen.

S&N have to rewrite history to make their case that they have been voices crying in the wilderness for clean energy funding. They claim:

The absence of an effective lobby for clean energy explains, in part, why public investment in energy research and development in the United States dropped from an already modest $8 billion in 1980 to $3 billion in 2005.

Maybe that is a small part of the reason — but S&N’s point in “The Death of Environmentalism,” was that we need a new environmental paradigm because the old one — regulations like CAFE and cap-and-trade — have not succeeded. Well the reason we didn’t get the regulations we wanted is that conservatives fought them bitterly — and spread disinformation about the climate problem, undercutting the urgency for action.

What S&N apparently don’t understand is that the reason we don’t have much higher clean energy budgets is NOT that environmentalists didn’t push them, but — drumroll, please — that conservatives fought them bitterly and spread disinformation about the climate problem, undercutting the urgency for action. Indeed, conservatives have repeatedly tried to shut down the Department of Energy’s applied research effort and the whole DOE.

S&N write, “public investment in energy research and development in the United States dropped from an already modest $8 billion in 1980 to $3 billion in 2005.” That is doubly misleading. First $8 billion in 1980 is not modest — it was more than double what the rest of the world was spending combined. Second, that drop didn’t really occur over 25 years as they suggest — the vast majority occurred over three years when President Reagan came in and gutted President Carter’s programs for efficiency and renewables, disparaging them as government boondoggles and unnecessary interference in the marketplace.

President Clinton began increasing the budget the instant he took office, but once the Gingrich Congress came in with its passionate hatred of all applied energy research — S&N should read some of the hearings I testified at in those days — we were playing a strictly defense in game, trying to save the entire clean energy budget from being zeroed out. And I don’t remember S&N speaking up back then for those budgets.

Because of an aggressive effort by the administration (thank you, Al Gore) and a strong effort by many of us at DOE to make the case that clean energy research had great value to the nation, coupled with aggressive lobbying by the environmental community (that S&N appear completely unaware of), we actually kept the clean energy R&D budget from falling significantly — when Gingrich and his allies wanted to zero out the whole enterprise. THAT is why clean energy funding is as low as it is.

Ignorantly, S&N write

How might history have been different had environmentalists and their political allies 20 years ago proposed that the nations of the world make a massive, shared investment in clean energy, better and more efficient housing development, and more comfortable and efficient transportation systems?

Here is where S&N are very confused — history wouldn’t have been much different because such a proposal in 1987 during the Reagan Administration would have accomplished nothing. It would have been decried as a big-government, pork-barrel, tax-and-spend liberal plan and disappeared into political oblivion. Same in 1995.

I have always believed that the public sector clean energy budget should be much, much higher, but what I learned from the 1990s was that politically it was going to be at least as difficult as CAFE or cap-and-trade. And, of course, it is much less important than increasing private sector clean energy spending through intelligent regulations, since that could be 10 to 100 times more money.

S&N need to rewrite history because that’s the only way they can’t make their argument that environmentalists are pain and sacrifice scare-mongers with no positive vision and no political savvy.

S&N also seem painfully aware of the role conservative strategist Frank Luntz has played in co-opting the technology message from the Democrats. As I explained in my book and my blog, Luntz figured out that his side couldn’t be seen as opposing all action on global warming. He also knew — again contrary to S&N’s claim — that the Democrats and environmentalists had in fact been pushing the pro-technology positive message. In his famous 2002 “Straight Talk” memo on climate change messaging he writes:

Technology and innovation are the key in arguments on both sides. Global warming alarmists use American superiority in technology and innovation quite effectively in responding to accusations that international agreements such as the Kyoto accord could cost the United States billions. Rather than condemning corporate America the way most environmentalists have done in the past, they attack us for lacking faith in our collective ability to meet any economic challenges presented by environmental changes we make. This should be our argument. We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.

This is what I call the technology trap, where clean energy technology is used to delay action, rather than to foster action, on climate change.

Politically it was genius. Democrats had been arguing for technology and regulation since both are in fact needed — whereas Luntz and his disciple George Bush were saying you could have everything the Democrats wanted, but without those annoying bureaucrats telling everyone what to do. “Technology” became Bush’s energy and climate mantra, as I and others have explained many times.

You can also see why some of us were so very annoyed when S&N came along repeating the Luntz/Bush message — especially the dangerous myth that radical breakthrough technology is needed to solve the climate problem — and claiming that environmentalists never believed in the clean energy message — and leaving everyone with the impression that they opposed regulation and that in fact the pursuit of regulation was misguided, leading ultimately to the Death of Environmentalism. It is hard enough fighting disinformation from your political enemies, but virtually impossible when it comes from your supposed friends.

Now that S&N has endorsed the Obama energy/climate plan, it’s clear they have nothing original to add to the policy or political discussion substantivelly — unless you believe their historically inaccurate claim that they alone are the creators and champions of the positive technology message.

More than S&N, it is ironically Luntz and Bush that have helped opened the door to the technology message, by repeating it over and over and over again. But if we actually do significantly increase public clean energy funding, it will only be because people believe the apocalyptic climate message that S&N disdain.

The country simply has too many problems and too little excess domestic spending dollars and too much political power in the hands of anti-big-government conservatives for something like “creating the jobs of the 21st century” to be a winning argument by itself for $150 billion in new spending.

So the bottom line is that I don’t think S&N bring anything new to the discussion but unjustified attacks on environmental straw men that play into the conservative’s hands. Now that they have endorsed Obama’s plan, it is clear all our differences are just rhetorical. And that isn’t worth much more ink.

9 Responses to Time to end the phony, and historically inaccurate, debate

  1. Capster says:

    Joe, this is a good post, very helpful. The back and forth between S&N and you has been, frankly, painful. It seems, from the posts, that you both want the same thing. But it’s good to get the depth of perspective that you have from your many years working on this issue, and to hear much of the background to it as well. I think this is one thing that was missing, for me anyway, in the debate between the three of you.

    In the end, I agree with you about the above, and about the plan forwarded by Obama. I think it’s a good plan, though from my perspective, there are things to be modified to make it more politically acceptable while still reaching the final goal of 80% reduction by 2050.

  2. John says:

    “Now that they have endorsed Obama’s plan, it is clear all our differences are just rhetorical. And that isn’t worth much more ink.”

    I totally disagree, this issue is way too important to let disinformation go unasnwered. the problem is is that when people right stuff, even outrageous stuff, people believe it and it gets treated as fact.

  3. Ronald says:

    I completely agree with what you wrote about S&N. Since when didn’t people try to not make money from non carbon energy sources. I remember all the solar collectors going on peoples roofs in the 1980’s. Most of those companies went out of business when fossil fuel energy dropped in 1986.

    Now they want to take credit for increased spending for non-carbon energy. 2 things did the increased spending for non-carbon. Al Gore’s documentary. Oil going to 80 dollars a barrel.

    Along with increased spending for non-carbon energy sources is increased spending or interest in other carbon sources like tar sands, etc. It’s the price of oil and oil peak that is driving this, not some insite and influence S&N had on trends in energy.

    Everything about increased interest in non-carbon energy is Al Gore and the increased stick of global warming. It’s not because now people finally want to make money on non-carbon. That’s been there the whole time.

  4. john says:


    Thanks for dispatching these self-serving publicity hounds so thoroughly. It was important to do so, because their narrative had the potential to set climate policy back sevaral decades. The irony about their “new” message is that they didn’t even understand it would have that effect. As you point out, now that they’ve been schooled in the history of climate change policy, they are trying to rewrite history.

    When I first read S&N, I was outraged by three things:

    1)S&N created a phony narrative — the dumb self-defeating environmentalists — solely for the purpose of allowing S&N to position themsleves as offering something “new” (support for breakthrough technologies — something every environmentalist I’ve ever encounterd has been advocating for decades) to rescue these poor bozo environmentalists from themselves.

    Given the reality that this contention was manifestly wrong and counterfactual, there can be only two explanations for it. One, S&N are simply unaware of the history and positions of the groups they criticize, in which case we shouldn’t waste our time on their blather. Or two, they are aware of it, and dsimiss it so that they can posit themsleves as having something fundamentally new to offer — in which case, we should dismiss their blather.

    2) In dismissing the enviros as doom and gloom mongers, they support the delayer’s myth — as you point out Joe. If the reality of climate change had not been inculcated into the public consciousness, then increased investments in technology would simply be seen as a solution in search of a problem.

    3) Finally, in dismissing “regulatory solutions” as costly and unpopular, they seem both completely unaware of smart regulations, and completely ignorant of the fact that we simply can’t get there from here without them.

    In the end, S&N seemed more like those ambitious strivers in work situations who start a fire, then yell fire and put it out, declaring themselves as heroes in the process.

    The issue is too important, and the time for action too short to tolerate self-aggrandizing know-nothings.

    Thanks again, Joe, for discrediting them so effectively.

  5. Rafael says:

    I think the reality is a little more nuanced. I haven’t read Breakthrough yet, but I’ve read Death of Environmentalism and seen them speak.

    The fundamental point that we need to speak more to the vision and less to the “crisis” is valid. I don’t take that to mean that An Inconvenient Truth and other vehicles speaking to the enormity of the problem aren’t of value just that on the balance we need much more of the broad visionary solution discussion in the public sphere and that it needs to reach beyond “polar bears.” That fundamental assessment is totally correct. They have done an enourmous service in stimulating real dialogue about our strategies.

  6. Marc says:

    Ok, I’m a contrarian by nature but I think that your missing the point and meaning of S & N’s arguments. I think much of this error is created by treating both history and the environmental movement like it’s unitary and univocal not varied and equivocal. Your desire to be the arbiter of history & the movement sure reads to me like “how dare these young whippersnappers” rather than really dealing with the intent and meaning of their arguments.

    Has much of the environmental movement behaved as if you can regulate and conserve your way to meaningful solutions? Undoubtedly yes. Thus, recognizing that innovation rapid efforts to achieve economies of scale are fundamental to averting even worse effects of global warming is a useful message. Focusing instead on counterfactuals obfuscates S & N’s fundamental message.

    Similarly, are there many examples where environmentalists have either focused on doom and gloom because there was plenty of it to go around, or focused on positive preservation but in a NIMBYish way? You bet.

    Having read S&N’s book it’s mainly focused on broad brush stroke political philosophy and selective illustration to reinforce the argument. As such it’s an easy target for criticism about failing to address specific points, or de-emphasizing others. But it’s always so much easier to criticize work than to deal with the argument on its own terms–meaning an acceptance of the kind of fairly broad philosophical argument their making. To me the shame of all this exchange is that it reads like parties talking over one another, not having real dialogue by not accepting the starting premise of the other parties.

  7. Marc says:

    I forgot one key point above:

    Joe, you seem bent on portraying N & S as “delayers” because they’re hoping for pie-in-the-sky technological solutions. Yet almost all of their attention in the book is on getting current technology to scale–wind & solar. They’re talking about big investment to bring the cost down but not hoping for some magical thing that hasn’t been invented yet.

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