Debunking Breakthrough Institute’s attacks on Obama, Gore, and top climate scientists

The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) has dedicated the resources of their organization to trying to kill prospects for climate and clean energy action in this Congress and to spreading disinformation about Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies, including me (see “Memo to media: Don’t be suckered by bad analyses from the Breakthrough Institute” and “Will America lose the clean-energy race? Only if we listen to the disinformers of The Breakthrough Institute”). Now they are embracing and defended those who deny the reality of climate science.

This year TBI founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published a string of factually untrue, egregious statements in an essay titled: “The Green Bubble: Why environmentalism keeps imploding.” The biggest whopper: “It has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development-never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty.” No one in the environmental movement believes that, but it is a right-wing fantasy of the “greens.” Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Drexel University utterly debunks this essay (see below) and writes of this quote, “Who or what environmental group has ever said anything of this nature? This statement is an out-and-out fabrication. One wonders if there are any fact-checkers at The New Republic.

They misrepresent Al Gore’s entire thesis and worldview:

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.

Yes, that’s right, they are even attacking the Rachel Carson who died decades ago after helping launch the modern environmental movement!

And no, Gore doesn’t believe nor has he written anything like that as I explain here.

So I just wanted to collect in one place some responses to set the record straight and to defend the reputation of the many, many scientists and environmentalists and leading political figures that they routinely attack:

The rest of this post focuses on how TBI and its founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are spreading falsehoods about President Obama and publishing very bad analyses designed to push their anti-climate-action, anti-environmental agenda. In particular, we’ll see how just how hypocritical TBI is — how desperate are they to sell out their principles in order to attack President Obama. I’ll end with Brulle’s debunking of the TNR essay that George Will so loved.


Shellenberger and TBI’s Jesse Jenkins have just published “Climate Bill Analysis, Part XII: CBO Projects Waxman-Markey Would Cut Cumulative Emissions by Just 0.5% Through 2020,” which claims “In the first projections from a government agency of the likely impacts of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the legislation will cut cumulative emissions in supposedly capped sectors of the economy by just 0.5% through 2020.”

Rubbish. The CBO found that cumulative emissions reduction from 2012 to 2020 in capped sectors would be more than 8% and that emissions reductions in 2020 would be nearly 12%. I’ll have more to say later on CBO’s analysis, which I am quite certain underestimates actual domestic emissions reductions (and overestimates the use of offsets). But TBI’s analysis is utterly wrong.

First let me discuss TBI’s absurd lies about Obama. And I use the word “lies” here quite deliberately — although it is a strong word even for the blogosphere — since TBI certainly understands that they are lying, as you’ll see. Indeed, attacking leaders like Obama, Gore, Waxman, the green groups, and Tom Friedman by twisting their words or misrepresenting what they have said is standard operating procedure for TBI (see here).

Many people in the climate community, including me, received a press call notification today of a “Telephone Briefing on New Quantitative Analyses of Waxman Markey climate legislation” featuring Jenkins and Nordhaus, which included this brazen lie:

Supporters of the legislation tout its $1 billion investment in clean energy R&D “” that’s one-fifteenth of what President Obama promised, and one-thirtieth of what energy scientists said in an open letter last year would be needed.

That is perhaps the single most hypocritical smear that The Breakthrough Institute has ever made in its long history of pushing disinformation. Let me explain how BTI has utterly flip-flopped on one of their supposedly core beliefs in order to create the impression that Waxman-Markey fails to deliver on a core promise by Obama during his campaign. What you will see is that BTI in fact has no core beliefs whatsoever — only a single-minded quest to trash Waxman-Markey and all those who support it, including the President. And as I’ve noted, they need W-M to fail, otherwise all their claims that the environmental movement keeps imploding would be seen by everyone as the sham that it is.

Let’s start with exactly what Obama actually promised during the campaign in his “New Energy for America” plan:

Barack Obama and Joe Biden will strategically invest $150 billion over 10 years to accelerate the commercialization of plug”in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, encourage energy efficiency, invest in low emissions coal plants, advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, and begin transition to a new digital electricity grid. The plan will also invest in America’s highly”skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools they need to pioneer the green technologies that will be in high demand throughout the world.

So this was NEVER $15 billion a year in clean energy R&D narrowly defined as TBI would have you believe.

Further, the stimulus bill Obama signed included $71 billion for clean energy programs plus $20 billion in clean energy tax incentives (for details, see “Progressives, Obama keep promise to jumpstart clean energy, economy”). So that one bill takes Obama 60% of the way to meeting his entire 10-year goal by itself. And of course Obama has begun to aggressively increase clean energy R&D in his annual budget proposals — and plans to do much more (see Obama vows “we will exceed [R&D] level achieved at the height of the space race”).


Finally we have Waxman-Markey aka The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). As the authors of the bill explain in their recent summary (see here):

ACES invests over $190 billion through 2025 in clean energy and energy efficiency programs.

So from 2012 through 2025, the bill invests more than $190 billion in clean energy research and development and demonstration and deployment programs, which just happens to come to nearly $14 billion a year.

So Obama delivers on his promise. And TBI is well aware of the fact that Obama’s promise was research and development and demonstration and deployment — not just R&D, as you’ll see.

How hypocritical is TBI — how desperate are they to sell out their principles in order to trash President Obama?

Consider what Jesse Jenkins, Climate & Energy Policy Director at TBI, wrote on this very blog one year ago (here, emphasis added):

You are consistently setting up a false dichotomy between R&D and deployment. President Bush may promote that same dichotomy himself, but the Breakthrough Institute does not.

Breakthrough’s policy paper, Fast Clean Cheap argues for at least a $30 billion/year public investment in research, development and deployment, and I think we’d agree that deployment deserves the largest share of that funds.

Yes, you read that right. One year ago, TBI said that they were pushing for research, development, and deployment — with deployment having the largest share. Now that Obama is actually starting to deliver on that exact promise, TBI abandons the last of its core beliefs — that the single most important element of any climate bill must be a massive spending program on clean energy R&D and deployment — just so they can attack president Obama and this climate bill.


I urge anyone who thinks that TBI has a shred of intellectual consistency to go to that link and compare Jenkins’ words to what these guys are now pushing in their emails and discussions with the media and even their latest PowerPoint presentation attacking Obama and Waxman-Markey (here, slides 26–30).

And just for the record, it won’t surprise you to know that the open letter from energy scientists (from December 2007, not “last year”) calling for $30 billion a year in spending was NOT calling for that money to be spent just on R&D:

America should be ramping up to invest a minimum of $30 billion per year to develop, demonstrate, and stimulate the commercialization of a range of technologies and approaches that can provide affordable carbon-neutral energy and use that energy more wisely.

So, no, Obama isn’t providing “one thirtieth” of what those experts said would be needed. In fact, he is attempting to deliver more than half of what they said would be needed — I say attempting because TBI has launched a full scale effort to stop Obama from delivering on the promise that they themselves once endorsed. Moreover, the letter clearly says America “should be ramping up,” which is precisely what Obama is doing.

Frankly, almost every single piece of analyysis that is on their website right now is a similarly riddled with misstatements, flip-flops from previously held core positions, and incredibly bad analysis. I simply don’t have the time to waste debunking every single piece of it, but if any journalist is still contemplating citing their work, feel free to contact me.

It’s no surprise that the most famous “journalist” who cites their work at length is an ultraconservative opponent of any climate action (see “The Audacity of Nope: George Will embraces the anti-environmentalism “” and anti-environment “” message of The Breakthrough Institute”). In his article, Will gives a big wet kiss to their TNR essay, “The Green Bubble: Why environmentalism keeps imploding.”

The essay is such a disinformation-filled anti-environmental screed, that I am reprinting a response by Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University “” and a widely published expert on the environmental movement:

The New Conservatism or Ecological Romanticism: A False Dichotomy

In their recent essay, “The Green Bubble”, Nordhaus and Shellenberger launch a long attack against the green movement in the U.S. Based on a series of heroic misstatements, revisionist history, and unsubstantiated stereotypes, they construct an image of environmentalism based in liberal elite circles and searching for social redemption in premodern, aesthetic lifestyles. Thus much of what passes for “green” activity comprises little more than symbolic gestures to define an “alternative” lifestyle. Yet at the same time, environmentalists are also portrayed as dabblers in these bohemian lifestyles, floating in and out of aesthetic and consumerist roles. Hence environmentalism takes the form of fads or bubbles that come and go.

N&S critique the presumed attachment of environmentalists to romanticist premodernist images of society and celebrate economic modernization, along with the growing affluence, individualization, and freedom that this social process creates. The answer to ecological issues for all, they imply, is to increase economic modernization across the globe. For example, they note that “It is poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them (the poor) more vulnerable than the rest of us.”

One can easily critique their essay on a factual basis. Note the sparse nature of their data sources and their lack of reference to any existing environmental histories. They can maintain their interpretation of the U.S. environmental movement only by speaking in broad generalities, without citing specifics. The manuscript is rife with historical inaccuracies and fabricated statements. This essay is a political fiction in which facts are created to support their argument. For example, one of the most egregious statements is that “it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development — never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty.” Who or what environmental group has ever said anything of this nature? This statement is an out-and-out fabrication. One wonders if there are any fact-checkers at The New Republic.

While this lack of factual basis is an important critique of N&S’s argument, it is not the most central. Essentially, they are attempting to dichotomize the environmental movement between hopeless anti-modern romantic yuppies, engaged in symbolic activities, and the sober modernists (exemplified by themselves) who celebrate and promote economic expansion as the only real way to address environmental degradation. The space created by this dichotomy only allows for “responsible” environmentalism, based on economic modernization, and irresponsible, premodern romanticism, and eliminates all other possibilities. Thus the essay seeks to paint environmentalism with a universal brush, and delegitimate the entire movement.

The core problem with this analysis is that we are held between two competing and rigid ideologies. Apparently, in the view of N&S, the modern environmental movement has no ability to reason, or to calculate trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection. Neither, apparently, do N&S. They are imprisoned within their own ideology of an uncritical and unreflexive modernization, without any corrective capacity based on democratic governance. The idea of the Enlightenment was to subject our institutions, including both the market and the state, to collective democratic control. Our society’s capacity to learn, and change is enabled through democratic discussion. While economic modernization is one part of modernization, its uncritical application as the universal solution to whatever ails us is just another form of irrational ideology. Nowhere do we see any critical perspective on the limitations of markets, or the false freedom of consumer choice that N&S celebrate. How can one celebrate “individual choice” in a society permeated by a $300-billion-per-year needs-creation industry in the form of modern advertising? The so-called freedom and individuality lauded by N&S merely amounts to a false choice among consumer lifestyles, not a real and informed participant in our own governance.

N&S can only maintain their simplistic dichotomy by basing their argument on typifications, and ignoring the more complex reality of environmentalism in the U.S. Thus this is a false dichotomy. Thus Nordhaus and Schellenberger deny the legacy of the Enlightenment, and revert to a blind faith in the market and a celebration of the status quo.

There is a third alternative. Through democratic deliberations, we can define the shape of the world we wish to create, and then act collectively to realize it. Dealing with environmental degradation, poverty, and exploitation is a difficult task. But it will only be solved by looking truthfully at our situation, and rejecting easy and simplistic solution. Ideological diatribes only make a hard task more difficult.

We are not trapped in either hopeless romanticism, or at the whim of market dynamics. We can do much better than this.


“Will America lose the clean-energy race? Only if we listen to the disinformers of The Breakthrough Institute