History

Since its founding in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the Breakthrough Institute has worked to change the way Americans think about the environment, the economy, and politics in order to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.

Breakthrough produces widely read policy reports and hotly debated essays, works with leading thinkers to advance bold new proposals, and trains the next generation of top young policy analysts, all in the service of modernizing our ideas and institutions.

Some highlights since our founding include:

In 2003, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger co-founded the Apollo Alliance to unite major environmental groups and labor unions around a high-tech vision for the future of the American economy. The coalition called for a new “Apollo Project” to revitalize the American economy built around a $300 billion, 10-year effort to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
 

 

In 2004, Nordhaus and Shellenberger co-authored "The Death of Environmentalism," igniting a national debate that continues to influence climate policy, environmentalism, and progressive politics.

 

Nordhaus and Shellenberger expanded on their essay with the 2007 publication of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which was called "prescient" (Time) for its prediction of the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, and "the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" (Wired) for its embrace of human development and technology.


 

In 2008, the Breakthrough Institute launched Breakthrough Generation, a fellowship program that has since trained 50 top young policy analysts.


In 2009, President Barack Obama worked with Congress to enact investments in clean energy totaling over $150 billion over five years -- half of the original Apollo Project proposal.


In 2010, Breakthrough co-authored the influential "Hartwell Paper," proposing an alternative international approach to climate change focused on efforts that would accelerate adaptation to climate change and technology innovation to make clean energy cheap and accessible around the planet.


Breakthrough co-authored the 2010 report "Post-Partisan Power" with scholars from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, calling for an overhaul of America’s energy innovation system and pointing to historic bipartisan support for such efforts.


In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a direct but limited government role in advancing technology innovation, drawing on case studies popularized by Breakthrough’s report "Where Good Technologies Come From," a history of the crucial role played by the US government in creating interchangeable manufacturing parts, microchips, satellites, jet planes, and many of our modern energy technologies.

 

That summer, Breakthrough hosted its first Breakthrough Dialogue and published the first issue of Breakthrough Journal. The New Republic called Breakthrough Journal "among the most complete efforts to provide a fresh answer to" the question of the future of liberalism, while the National Review touted it as "the most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time."


In the fall of 2011, Breakthrough published an investigation into the origins of today’s natural gas boom, debunking the popular myth that it was brought about by private industry alone. We found that the federal government played a decisive role in demonstrating the crucial technologies and techniques to exploit shale gas. President Obama highlighted these efforts by the federal government in his 2012 State of the Union address.


Breakthrough published its first ebook in 2011, Love Your Monsters, which was lauded in Salon as “the best thinking about the implications of the Anthropocene.”

In April of 2012, the Breakthrough Institute, together with the Brookings Institution and the World Resources Institute, released “Beyond Boom and Bust,” a major policy report illustrating the need to reform clean tech subsidies in order to drive innovation, improve performance, and reduce costs. The New York Times editorial board endorsed the report’s recommendations and Breakthrough staff gave Senate testimony on our findings.

The first major report from our Conservation and Development program, was published in June 2012. "Planetary Boundaries: A Review of the Evidence" found the concept of “planetary boundaries” to be deeply flawed and a poor basis for understanding global environmental challenges. The report received favorable coverage from Scientific American and the Economist and shaped international dialogue on conservation in the run-up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

In January 2013, Michael Shellenberger appeared on the Colbert Report, where he discussed the rise of ecomodernism – a new environmental movement defined by its embrace of technology as essential to human progress and tackling global problems like climate change.

Our conservation program followed up on our planetary boundaries report with an article in the academic journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that tipping points in the terrestrial biosphere don't operate on a global scale. Later that year, Breakthrough published a second journal article in PLoS Biology finding the methodology behind the ecological footprint lacking. 

After investigating the origins of the natural gas boom, Breakthrough initiated a yearlong investigation on the environmental ramifications of natural gas and fracking. Our June 2013 report Coal Killer concluded that on almost every single metric, natural gas is better for the environment than coal. 

Breakthrough also delved further into how to increase nuclear energy both domestically and globally in 2013. Michael Shellenberger was featured in the documentary Pandora's Promise, which profiled a number of formerly antinuclear activists who have come to embrace nuclear power as a means to mitigate climate change. In July 2013, Breakthrough released its report How to Make Nuclear Cheap, to a standing room only audience on Capitol Hill.