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-right 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:
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, as it should be. 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!