Energy Collective blog power policy climate - the conversation happens here

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Attention Nordhaus and Shellenberger: Time to Call A Cease-Fire!

In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger released their provocative and much-discussed essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," in which they criticized the environmental movements lack of progress towards global warming solutions and argued that a fundamental shift in philosophy, messaging and tactics was necessary to capture the American public's interest and build a successful movement for climate solutions.

Now, the two "bad boys of environmentalism" are back with a new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and they're making waves again with their provocative and arguably inflammatory style.

In my opinion, "The Death of Environmentalism" presented a crucially important and valid critique of the environmental movement's (failing) tactics and messaging, although it tended to present this critique with an essentialist view of environmentalism as a failed and impossible to change ideology.

While I believe that environmentalism is neither dead, nor incapable of evolution (in fact, I'd argue it has evolved considerably since N&S's essay made it's debut), I strongly agree with Nordhaus and Shellenberger that the movement must reexamine it's tactics, strategy, and messaging as it attempts to build a broad, powerful and successful movement to rise to the greatest challenge and seize the greatest opportunity facing us today: the climate crisis.

I've yet to read Nordhaus and Shellenberger's new book, but I've been following the sometimes quite turbulent wake it's made across the blogosphere this past week with much interest. For example, both the Sierra Club's Carl Pope and Step it UP's Bill McKibben reviewed Break Through for GristMill and Nordhaus and Shellenberger responded today with a "rebuttal" piece.

The funny thing is, despite all the "debate" that Break Through has kicked up, I'm struggling to see what all the arguments are about!

Nordhaus and Shellenberger speak of "the environmental community's regulation-only agenda" and critique the regulatory "tool-of-choice," a cap-and-trade system, flat out asserting that "it won't work." They present their essay at GristMill as a rebuttal to environmentalist, the next chapter in some ongoing debate.

On the other side, Bill McKibben describes Nordhaus and Shellenberger as displaying "antipathy" towards cap-and-trade regulations and touting "an investment-centric agenda" as the solution to the climate crisis.

The funny thing is, beneath the aggressive and down-write adversarial tone of Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the understandably defensive tone of folks like McKibben and Pope, there's not much the two supposedly warring sides disagree on!

So here's a question for Nordhaus and Shellenberger: who are you arguing with?!

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and their Breakthrough Institute cohorts keep taking a stridently adversarial tone towards the very people who should be their allies - environmentalists and clean energy/global warming activists (who may or may not consider themselves the same people).

Largely due to this combative manner, I would argue that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have manufactured an argument that doesn't truly exist, a supposed conflict between regulation-centric and investment-centric camps, with "ideologically dead environmentalists" on one side and "courageous new thinkers" like Nordhaus and Shellenberger on the other.

And where is this supposed argument getting us?!

In their essay on GristMill, Nordhaus and Shellenberger get defensive when McKibben characterizes the pair as being opposed to carbon regulation, writing:

"Our proposal, to state it once again, is that Congress pass legislation that either auctions permits or taxes carbon enough to a) establish a price for carbon sufficient to result in inexpensive emissions reductions, b) generate at least $30 billion a year for clean energy investments, and c) creating market conditions for the widespread adoption of these new technologies."
So when you boil it down, the two authors merely consider regulation an incomplete piece of the full puzzle, and the funny thing is, I don't think Nordhaus and Shellenberger will get any argument from those they are supposedly trying to argue with (the "establishment" environmentalists, clean energy advocates, and global warming activists); they'll certainly get no argument from this environmentalist!

And I would argue that it's understandable that folks like McKibben consider Nordhaus and Shellenberger "anti-regulation" when you have to wade past "five reasons why setting a price on carbon dioxide, either through a cap and trade approach or an outright tax, cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere close to what is needed" to get to their more nuanced position: that pricing carbon can't work on it's own.

On the other side, Nordhaus and Shellenberger write about "the environmental community's regulation-only agenda," but where does such an agenda really exist?

Which environmental groups are really putting all their eggs in the regulation basket? Which enviro groups wouldn't support massive investments in a clean energy future?

The reality is, they'd be hard to find.

McKibben himself writes, "The need for new technology is obviously urgent ... The question is how best to mobilize that investment."

Pope writes, "Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that greatness requires progressives to embrace such investment strategies. I agree."

In fact, the Sierra Club's "Smart Energy Solutions" website prominently displays this message:
"Now is the time for a bold shift to a safer, cleaner energy future built on clean power and energy-saving technology. The Sierra Club believes that we can save our planet while preserving our way of life, that instead of falling into despair, we should look to this challenge as an opportunity."
So here's a few more questions for Nordhaus and Shellenberger:

  • Why do you think there's been so much focus from environmental groups on ensuring the emissions allowances under a cap and trade proposal are auctioned instead of given away for free?
  • Why do you think most enviro groups have been opposed to the mediocre-to-just-plain-crappy proposals of Lieberman and Warner and Bingaman?
  • Why do you think enviro groups have been championing the best aspects of the House and Senate energy packages as a first start towards shifting our public investment from dirty to clean energy sources?

  • What Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to miss is that environmentalists and global warming activists aren't fighting them on this!

    Status-quo-loving industry interests are. "Government-is-the-problem" conservatives are.

    Yet the two authors present their arguments in such an aggressive manner that they make it out as if they were in some kind of controversial fight with enviros. The problem is, they're not!

    The bigger problem is that, while it might be a great way to get attention for their book and ideas, it's a terrible way to build alliances with the kind of folks who Nordhaus and Shellenberger's "new progressive, solutions-oriented movement" should be building alliances with, the kind of folks who are in actuality already on their side!

    Nordhaus and Shellenberger are probably correct that we as a movement need to strategically emphasize the public investment part (and it's benefits) over the regulation part (we do!). This is a very valid strategic critique and one that I'm grateful the pair have elevated to the fore of discussions.

    But what we should be seizing on is not a supposed schism in the movement, but the fact that we all seem to be in agreement that neither regulation nor investment will work on its own, and the two - cap-and-auction and public investment - are mutually supportive and necessary components of a true solution to the climate crisis.

    Playing one off against the other seems like a really counter-productive way to advance climate solutions, as does hyping up supposed rifts within the movement that don't really exist in the way Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to want to call attention to.

    For example, I doubt you'd find too many environmentalists who'd argue with the following, nor would Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to be opposed to any of this basic point:

    Putting a price on carbon is necessary to send the correct market signals and to spur private sector innovation. But this innovation can and must be accelerated by public-sector research and investment. We've got to make the transition to a carbon neutral, prosperous America as quickly as possible, and that requires public as well as private investment in our common future. Auctioning emissions allowances or taxing emissions can not only send the right market signals to the private sector, but can also raise the necessary billions in funding for massive public investment to drive down the cost of clean energy technologies, a down-payment on a carbon-neutral, prosperous America.

    It breaks down like this, in my opinion:

    1) We need to put a price on carbon emissions to harness the innovation and power of markets to find solutions to the climate crisis and ensure we reduce global warming pollution to a safe level.

    2) The atmosphere is a common good, owned by all Americans, not just polluters. We should therefore force polluters to pay for the privilege to emit global warming pollution, raising billions of dollars in the process.

    3) Putting a price on carbon is necessary as is forcing polluters to pay for their mess, but doing so will raise energy prices. The good news is, it will also raise a lot of money that can be pumped into making sure average Americans end up better off than before. We can do this in two ways:

    a) we can pump much of that money into accelerating the transformation of our energy economy to a sustainable, low-carbon system. We can provide incentives to lower the costs of clean energy technologies, provide R&D and fund public-private partnerships to accelerate the deployment of the next generation of clean energy technologies and support the innovation fueled by the carbon regulation itself, all the while building a new energy economy and millions of "green collar" jobs.

    b) we can use some of the money to reform our tax structure so that it is more progressive and leaves more money in the pockets of average Americans. These reforms will more than offset the increases (if any) in your energy bill (remember that increased efficiency can offset the effects of increased energy prices too) so in the end, the average American will be better off under a cap-and-auction system than her or she was before.

    That's the recipe for a carbon-neutral, prosperous America in my mind, and it doesn't seem like I'd get much argument from environmentalists or from Nordhaus and Shellenberger on that point.

    This is the platform that we should all be rallying behind, rather than fighting over which is better, regulation or investment. The answer is that neither will solve the climate crisis without the other - and we all seem to be in agreement there too!

    So in closing, where's all the controversy, folks?

    Maybe it's time to call a cease-fire!


    Michael Shellenberger said...

    Dear Jesse,

    Thanks for jumping in on this important topic. I hope you will continue to sink your teeth into this one -- the upcoming global warming legislation is crucial to America's future. We have to be as clear-eyed about what it will do and what it won't do as we are about the science of global warming.

    First let me acknowledge points of agreement. We all agree that carbon should be priced. The question is how much can a carbon price in the U.S. do to reduce emissions?

    Our analysis shows that even a relatively low carbon price will do very important work in moving from coal to natural gas, increasing efficiency, and motivating conservation -- in the United States. If executed perfectly well, it could reduce emissions roughly 20 percent over the next couple of decades (emissions reduction calculations are very, very tricky, and I am thus happy to go over these calculations in a future post for anyone who is interested).

    There are some who say the great thing about a price on carbon is that it avoids "picking winners and losers." That's a disingenuous claim. Setting a particular price on carbon very clearly does pick winners and losers. The winners are efficiency, conservation, and some kinds of sequestration (e.g., burning methane off of landfills).

    What a modest price on carbon (~$10 - 20/ton of Co2) won't do is quickly bring down the price of clean energy technologies, for reasons we explained our in our recent post, "Environmentalism's Existential Moment."

    Why does that matter? Because if we do not bring down the real price of clean energy technologies as quickly as possible, China and the rest of the world (us included) will bring on-line a whole new coal-based infrastructure that threatens to swamp any amount of action in the U.S.

    China is not going to set a price for carbon, and thus raise its energy costs, without a good economic reason to do so. It won't blindly follow the U.S., as many environmentalists allege. And even if China establishes a modest carbon price in the future, it won't establish one nearly high enough to quickly move to solar and other clean energy technologies, including carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities for its coal plants (few to none of which are CCS ready).

    One scenario we support is simply buying down the price of solar. How could this be done? In the same way we brought down the price of microchips in the 60s. Microchips used to be expensive, now they're cheap.

    The DoD could purchase 10 - 20 billion dollars worth of PV -- through a competitive, transparent bidding process -- each year for 10 - 20 years. One calculation shows that it would cost $50 - 212 billion to make solar as cheap as conventional energy sources. Again, these are tricky calculations, but solar is a great case study because its price declines ~20 percent for every doubling of capacity.

    There is no silver energy bullet, and this can't happen through regulation alone. Even in California, which passed the Million Solar Home law, I was told by a solar industry executive in July that because of red tape, only 20 homes are being installed with solar systems each day, when that number needs to be 200 per day to be on track. Andy Revkin at the Times pointed out that in order for solar to constitute one-seventh of the emissions reductions we need, there will need to be a whopping 200 million solar homes. And that isn't going to happen as long as solar is 5 - 10 times more expensive than coal and natural gas.

    You've suggested that we've exaggerated the difference between our investment-centered approach and the environmental lobby's regulation-centered approach. But anyone who looks at the policy agenda of the leading environmental groups who determine global warming strategy in Washington will find that there is no strategy to buy down the price of solar. Nor is there any major investment strategy whatsoever. Don't confuse green rhetoric with policy reality -- you have to look at the legislation being pushed in Congress.

    That said, there is today an exciting political opening. Senator Lieberman has indicated he wants to auction permits. What will the money raised go to? It's not yet clear. We estimate that what's needed is at least $30 billion in pork-free public investment capital to buy down the price of clean energy (and invest in other areas, like new transmission lines to transport wind power from rural areas to cities).

    Could the Lieberman-Warner legislation do this? Absolutely. Is the environmental lobby united behind a strategy to make it happen? Unfortunately not.

    At least not yet. The good news is that there's still time. The trouble that Democrats are having building support for global warming legislation in Congress might be overcome if there were a big and bold strategy for creating jobs and establishing American economic leadership in the fastest growing markets in the world.

    The truth is, it's up to the (largely post-boomer) generation of environmentalists and non-environmentalists to lobby environmental leaders, lobby Congress, and blog about the necessity of a large clean energy investment.

    The best part about it all is that you don't really have to care all that much about global warming to support a big investment strategy for clean energy. Maybe you just care about energy independence. Maybe you just care about economic competitiveness. The large percentages of Americans who say they support cap and trade on global warming declines dramatically when voters learn that setting a price on carbon means raising the price of coal and oil. The solution is to put investment, jobs, and economic possibility at the center.

    If global warming legislation passes that does not raise and allocate at least $30 billion/year for clean energy investment, then we'll have to find some way to get that money from somewhere else. That public investment capital to bring down the real price of clean energy is more urgent, in our view, than a price on carbon.

    In any event, it's great to have the conversation, and we'll look forward to your posts on our book, Break Through.

    Best regards,


    Unknown said...


    It's not so much that many climate activists "oppose" public investments and technological innovation efforts (except for carbon capture and storage and nuclear), they just don't prioritize it enough even though clean energy technology is arguably the most important (and politically/economically pragmatic) solution to the climate problem. We're all for a Sky-Trust approach (and many of our friends are working on Sky-Trust), but we're concerned that A) any money generated will be subject to the pork-barrel, special interest politics of DC and leaves us in a precarious situation with investment (especially when what's needed is around $30 billion annually); and B) Sky-Trust is dependent on raising energy prices, which may be much less politically feasible than an outright public investment-innovation approach and may result in all the funds being redistributed for compensation.

    Josh Rynn said...

    Jessie --

    I apologize if I'm dragging my comments over from Gristmill, but there are two points in particular that I wanted to ask you about:

    1) In terms of public investment, I've been perplexed that environmental groups seem to ignore the necessity for public transit, which will have to be done by governments -- it's not something the market can deal with (although certainly private companies can make the vehicles). So when environmental groups mention investment, they don't seem to discuss any things that can be concretely invested in -- such as public transit. It turns into a very vague couple of words, such as "energy options". So therefore it seems that, relative to the thought put into regulatory solutions, investment seems to be ignored.

    2) Nobody seems to have noticed that N and S advocate using the Pentagon to funnel their r&d funds. I've commented on this a few times at Gristmill, but besides my general revulsion at the thought of increasing military funding, it would seem that advocating such a position would completely alienate a large section of the progressive public; it seems more designed to appeal to the Right. Which may be why they are so confrontational; I can't tell if they are trying to grab a Democratic Leadership Council type alleged "middle ground" (it's actually way to the right of the center, which they should know because of their polling expertise).

    So, I was wondering what you thought. Thanks.

    Timothy B. Hurst said...

    Jesse and Michael,
    This is an excellent discussion and my thoughts are many but until my letter carrier brings me my copy of Break Through, my remarks will be relatively limited in scope (and after reading what Jon Rynn just posted, quite relevant to the discussion).

    American public opinion research has consistently shown that since the 1970s very few Americans are "unsympathetic" to the environment. Claiming that you are against the environment is tantamount to saying that you are against puppies and kitties. Sure, there are the 2-3% of Americans who harbor a deep-seated hatred for the vile little creatures, but the vast majority of people are in favor of puppies and kitties. The point I am trying to make is that it does little good to argue about who is an environmentalist or whether environmentalism is dead because the category has lost conceptual utility.

    How did this happen? I suggest that the reason the American environmental movement had its defining successes in the 60s and 70s was because Nixon saw that it was politically expedient to do so. Nixon sought to assuage any portion of the politically active young people's movement(i.e. anti-war, civil rights, feminist, etc.)that he could, and enacting environmental policy was the low hanging fruit.

    For the environmental movement, the(un)intended consequence of the new openings in the political and legal opportunity structures was that the movement was criticized for sleeping with the enemy, becoming institutionalized and even (gasp) co-opted. This is hardly a new revelation, but it does shed light on why the environmental lobby has moved towards a regulation-centered approach, as Shellenberger rightly proposes. The mainstream environmental movement prefers to operate within the confines of the regulatory web because that's where they were put nearly 40 years ago by the Republicans. And since then, Americans have codified the legal focus of environmentalism because many have found it much easier to be legal than to be political.

    Unfortunately, being political often means making trade-offs in order to build alliances. And no-one understands this better than Mr. Shellenberger, who suggests we need to back Lieberman's plan to tax carbon while ignoring the fact that the Senator wants to bomb Iran. And not only that, but Shellenberger also suggests that we should funnel more money through the Dept of Defense to spark the solar revolution we have been awaiting for some thirty years. Now THAT is some coalition-building!

    These are the trade-offs we must contend with -- and they are not particularly appetizing. Environmentalism wasn't dead, it was only resting!

    Josh Rynn said...

    In case, Tim, (or anyone else) you would like to read another comment I made about this,you can look here

    Michael Shellenberger said...


    This is a bit of a cross post from Grist, where I responded to Jon's concern about the involvement of the military:

    As for the Defense Department -- I appreciate your concerns. But at the end of the day, I'd rather have our military back home in the U.S. purchasing and installing solar panels than fighting a lost war in Iraq.

    We wouldn't be having this conversation through our personal computers and the Internet had the DoD not bought down the price of microchips.

    That the U.S. military has done some heinous things -- why would that disqualify it from investing in the new energy sciences? The Pentagon is not a static, singular institution. It is neither all good nor all bad. Yes, it has made some bad contracting choices, like the B-2 bomber and the Osprey. But it has also made some excellent ones, like microchips and the Internet.

    We should harness the military's strengths and assets to achieve positive goals, like making solar panels as cheap as coal -- or at least as cheap as natural gas.

    Again, thanks for your comments.


    P.S. In a bit of nice timing, the San Francisco Chronicle today ran a very good piece about how Silicon Valley -- including Intel and Google -- wouldn't exist were it not for the DoD.

    "The early chip industry, like the two waves of innovation before, initially depended on military expenditures, Paul Ceruzzi, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, writes in his book "A History of Modern Computing."

    "Only this time, it was the Cold War that opened the government's checkbook.

    "The Soviet launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, prodded the United States to modernize its missile and space program. The newfangled silicon chips were considered vital - albeit costly - components, and Ceruzzi writes that NASA and the Defense Department bought so many "that the price dropped from $1,000 a chip to between $20 and $30."

    "Falling chip prices fueled development of new electronics for corporate customers and eventually individual consumers. Reliance on military purchases lessened, though defense dollars remained important in spurring research. Thus, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin later dreamed up Google, a defense research grant helped support their work. And when Stanford computer scientists won a robotic car race in 2005, the prize came from the Defense Department.

    "By the 1970s, therefore, Silicon Valley was poised to capitalize on new civilian technologies like PCs, as exemplified by Apple Computer.

    Anonymous said...

    Excellent discussion ... on many levels.

    It is frustrating to see statements that 'environmentalists don't talk about' or 'don't concern themselves with' investment.

    Energize America ( certainly does ... and, well, most of the people involved with that would probably count themselves as environmentalists ...