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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Michael Shellenberger Says It's Time for a Breakthrough on Climate Change (Part 2)

In the second and final part of our interview with Michael Shellenberger, the Energy Action Coalition and the Power Shift organizing and outreach team chat with the author of "The Death of Environmentalism" and the new book Break Through about the exciting "break through potential" of young climate activists and their role in the broader movement for climate solutions.

Part one of the interview can be found here.

Power Shift: What kind of impact do you see the youth climate movement having on electoral politics (especially the 2008 elections)? How can youth maximize their impact?

Michael Shellenberger: For students and young Americans to have a powerful impact they'll need to challenge the assumptions of the older generation of political and environmental leaders who often treat anyone under 30 as water-carriers for outmoded ideas.

What can be done to win action on global warming in Congress?

We need to shift our political and policy framework from a narrow focus on stopping global warming through pollution limits to an expansive vision of making clean energy cheap, creating jobs, and achieving energy independence through investment and innovation. Not only is this framework more in line with core American values of ingenuity, enterprise, and creativity, it is also far more popular.

Do you see the new generation of young climate activists as an opportunity to shift the prevailing mindset of the environmental movement?

Yes. Young Americans aren't yet locked into the older environmental movement's pollution paradigm and politics of limits, and thus tend to be more open to embracing a more expansive framework for dealing with the challenge. One place for that is through Breakthrough Generation, a new student group affiliated with the Breakthrough Institute, which was founded by Teryn [Norris] and Aden [Van Noppen]. They'll be having their first national meeting next January.

But, that being said, there are still plenty of young environmentalists who think like old environmental leaders.

What do you mean?

We are in the middle of a 16-city book tour [for Break Through], and invariable we are told, during the Q&A session afterwards, that there just isn't room for all seven billion of us on lifeboat Earth. Shockingly, we hear this dystopian view articulated by young people.

The old discourses of "overpopulation" and "the limits to growth" and "Earth's carrying capacity" are constantly being proven wrong because we humans are a creative, adaptive species. We can prove the dystopians wrong again — to do so, we'll need to offer a big, positive vision of the future that is backed by a huge investment in clean energy technology and infrastructure.

But isn't it true that there's not enough resources — or climate — for the Chinese to consume like we've been consuming?

If the Chinese burn all the coal and oil by 2050 that they are set to burn, we are in big trouble. We may already be in deep trouble – which means we should prepare for global warming while we prevent it.

But keep in mind that the Chinese and Indians and Brazilians aren't asking us for our permission to burn a lot of coal and oil. Right now national environmental leaders insist that China will follow the U.S. when we take action to limit pollution.

This is patronizing — and wrong. Grassroots environmental leaders suggest we should go to China and encourage a "grassroots movement" in China on global warming. This is equally patronizing and equally wrong.

What's the alternative?

Our work is here in the U.S., with an eye to the world. That means we should be putting forward a global vision of investment into clean energy — one made with our allies in Europe as well as with China — that results in a massive and rapid growth of solar, wind, geothermal, ocean and all of these other clean energy technologies. Developing economies will be sustainable to the extent that we invest in their development.

When you talk to people about climate change, what do you encourage them to do to make a difference?

There are things we must do as a nation and things we must do as individuals. As a nation, we need to make large, long-term investments into technology innovation and infrastructure to bring down the price of clean energy as quickly as possible. That's why Break Through is a book about politics. But it's also a book about human development — and the importance of a politics that supports individuality alongside community. As individuals, we believe our aim is to realize our unique potential to be creative, open, and expansive beings.

Does the youth climate movement have "breakthrough potential" and if so, how should young activists focus on harnessing this potential?

Yes. Younger Americans tend to be more comfortable with complexity and ambiguity than older Americans. They tend to be less nostalgic for how great things were in the good old days of the 1960s and 70s. They tend to be more comfortable with new technology. And they aren't as traumatized as many baby boomer liberals seem to be that somebody might accuse them of being a "tax and spend liberal" or "big government."

Would you say the younger generational is post-ideological?

I wouldn't go that far. But it's definitely becoming post-environmentalist.

Thanks to Michael for the interview. We look forward to unlocking the breakthrough potential of the youth climate movement.

For other interviews in this series see:

  • Michael Shellenberger Says It's Time for a Breakthrough - Part 1

  • 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.

    1 comment:

    Phil Mitchell said...

    I have to admit up front that I haven't read Break Through ... I was not impressed enough with The Death of Enviromentalism to want the book-length treatment. But based on this interview, and other coverage ... these guys seem misguided.

    Do they really think that making clean energy cheap will solve global warming? All other things being equal, the cheaper energy gets, the more energy we use. So, while massive investment in energy R&D is crucial, that alone is not going to do nada.

    Secondly, their dismissal of "Limits to growth" is puzzling. Shellenberger says these limits are constantly being disproved by "ingenuity" ... ummm ... collapse of fish stocks, genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, looming extinction of 30-40% of all species, ... sorry if I'm being obtuse, but don't all the signs point to the fact that LtG got it exactly right?