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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Michael Shellenberger Says It's Time For A Breakthrough on Climate Change (Part 1)

Youth climate activists must shift their focus from simply avoiding the impending global warming apocalypse to articulating a vision of a new prosperous and sustainable clean energy economy, says Michael Shellenberger, Power Shift 2007 speaker and coauthor of the new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

Shellenberger - well-known for kicking up a stir with the controversial essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," co-authored with his "partner-in-crime" Ted Nordhaus in 2004 - is now the President of the Breakthrough Institute, a small think tank which focuses on a new kind of progressive politics.

This weekend, Shellenberger will share his vision of a new, "post-environmentalist," progressive climate movement with attendees at Power Shift 2007, the first national youth climate summit, November 2nd-5th in D.C.

Registration for Power Shift has topped 5,000 people, making the event the largest climate summit in history!

Energy Action Coalition and the Power Shift organizing and outreach team recently chatted with Michael to get a sneak peak of what Power Shift attendees will be in store for this weekend.

In this first part of the interview, Michael discusses his vision of a new investment-centric paradigm for the climate movement. In Part Two, we ask Michael about the exciting "break through potential" of young climate activists and their role in the broader movement for climate solutions.

Power Shift: "The Death of Environmentalism," which you wrote before the November 2004 elections, was a seminal piece among young climate activists. It is currently being taught in most college environmental studies classes. What led you to write it?

Michael Shellenberger: [Ted Nordhaus and I] wrote the essay because we were frustrated that the older generation of environmental leaders was stuck in an older pollution paradigm and a politics of limits that simply can't deal with the monumental challenge of global warming.

At the time, you told that you released the essay at the annual meeting of environmental grantmakers because there was no other forum to have those kinds of conversations. Has that changed?

It's changing. For example, it's great to see that Power Shift [the first national youth climate summit] is happening. Our hope is that a substantial group of young people will see the challenge we face as fundamentally intellectual and conceptual — not just strategic and tactical.

This isn't simply a matter of mobilizing a few more campus groups or passing another city-wide or state-wide resolution about the need for pollution limits. Global warming is a civilization-wide challenge, one that demands our best thinking and largest selves.

You criticize the pollution paradigm. But isn't global warming a pollution problem?

Sure — but it's not just a pollution problem. It's connected to fundamental questions of economic development for very poor people in places like China and Brazil and India. And it's also a psychological challenge.

But here's the biggest paradox: global warming can't be fixed through pollution limits alone. We might get to 30 percent emissions reductions by 2050 – in the U.S. But we need to reduce our emissions 80 percent by 2050. As importantly, we need a solution that will help countries like China and India – which aren't asking our permission to burn coal and oil – to achieve economic development while also reducing their emissions.

How can that be done?

The most important thing we can do is bring down the price of clean energy as quickly as possible. This requires huge breakthroughs in the price and performance of clean energy technologies like solar and wind. And that requires big public-private investment – on the order of $50 - $250 billion per year.

Why should this message appeal to young climate activists?

The vast majority of young people we meet who are concerned about global warming tell us that they are more inspired by a new vision of accelerating the transition to a global, clean energy economy than they are by the old vision of avoiding global warming apocalypse.

You've been faulted for not being more specific.

We wanted our book to reach a wider audience than environmental policy experts. That said, it's great that there's interest in policy questions. Young people in particular need to pay attention to what specific energy policies will do and what they won't do. For that reason we wrote a white paper called "Fast Clean Cheap" that will be published in the Harvard Law and Policy Review in January. We co-authored it with Teryn Norris, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins and Aden Van Noppen, a junior at Brown University. It can be downloaded from our web site.

Is this what you mean by global warming being a "psychological challenge"?

Yes, in part. We have to recognize that while global warming might be the biggest and most important issue for us personally, it may never be that for most Americans. It's notable that after "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, global warming actually declined in importance for most Americans, hovering around 15th out of 20 or so issues.

What are the implications of that?

We have to stop being so goddamn literal about this. Let's make this about national security. About prosperity. About clean energy jobs. Those are higher priorities for voters than global warming – and they help us to get the political action we need.

Aren't regulations needed, too?

Yes. They are needed to get the low-hanging fruit of emissions reductions through conservation, efficiency, and wind. But the big gains will come from investment. If done right, the global warming regulations being debated in Congress could generate the $50 to $250 billion per year we need.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview with Michael Shellenberger (now online here). For other interviews in this series see:

  • Bill McKibben Says It’s Time to “Organize, Organize, Organize” for a Cleaner Future

  • ________________________________

    Michael Shellenberger is an author, political strategist and co-founder and president of the Breakthrough Institute. His most recent book is Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalist to the Politics of Possibility.

    More information, agenda and registration for Power Shift are available at and information on Energy Action Coalition is available at

    Check out It's Getting Hot In Here for frequent dispatches from the youth climate movement.

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