The Emerging Climate Consensus: Global Warming Policy in a Post-Environmental World


As the essays in this volume argue, we cannot deal with global warming without confronting the economic and technological forces that have constrained action to date. “The Emerging Climate Consensus” is an effort to shine a light both on these constraints and on the potential of governments to agree to a very different policy framework, one that we believe has the promise of accelerating economic growth and development while also radically reducing emissions over the next several decades.

June 9, 2010 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to "The Emerging Climate Consensus," a collection of essays, written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, available here

As governments struggle to deal with a worsening economic recession, policymakers, environmentalists and others who care about the rising threat of climate change are looking to new United Nations talks in Copenhagen in December of this year as the place to rejuvenate stalled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But, as the essays in this volume argue, we cannot deal with global warming without confronting the economic and technological forces that have constrained action to date. We are publishing “The Emerging Climate Consensus” in an effort to shine a light both on these constraints and on the potential of governments to agree to a very different policy framework, one that we believe has the promise of accelerating economic growth and development while also radically reducing emissions over the next several decades.

We begin with our September 2007 cover story for the New Republic, “Second Life: A Manifesto for a New Environmentalism.” Adapted from Break Through, it argued that we will not regulate our way to a clean energy economy. The piece provoked a firestorm of criticism. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Joe Romm posted a five-part, six-thousand word series of posts at Climate Progress that claimed to debunk our contention that technological breakthroughs would be necessary to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions. NRDC attorney David Hawkins asserted that we were “wrong in claiming that a big government-funded program is the critical missing piece to make the shift to clean energy happen.”

But since then our argument has largely been vindicated. In June 2008, the International Energy Agency released a landmark analysis of the global energy economy, concluding that, “a global revolution is needed in ways that energy is supplied and used.” The report found that low carbon energy sources “face significant technical and cost barriers” to broad deployment and that “current levels of investment are very unlikely to achieve the sort of steep change in technology that is needed” concluding that “a massive increase [in] energy technology Research, Development and Deployment (RD&D) is needed in the coming 15 years, in the order of USD 10-100 billion per year.”

The IEA findings echoed an earlier report by the Swedish government that argued that the policy focus should shift to government-funded technology innovation. The report authors recommended “massive investment and deployment of climate friendly technologies” and said that “any sensible climate policy will have technological development as a main focus” and that “more attention should be given to efforts to secure breakthroughs in technology development, if necessary at the expense of short term emission reductions.”

And in February 2009, President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, Stephen Chu, told the New York Times that Nobel-caliber “breakthroughs” would be necessary in at least three critical technologies, solar power, batteries, and biofuels, in order to solve the world’s energy and environmental problems. Later that month, the Brookings Institution released a report calling for federal investments in energy research and development to rise to $20 to $30 billion per year in order to achieve these technology breakthroughs.

A New Climate and Energy Framework

In light of recent events and a more careful reading of history, it is our belief that a new framework has begun to emerge among those who support swift and serious action on climate change. That framework starts with the recognition that no effort to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions, domestic or international, will succeed so long as low carbon energy technologies cost vastly more than current fossil fuel based energy. De facto or de jure, governments, wherever they attempt to limit carbon emissions, will also contain the costs of those policies. Carbon prices, where they exist, will be low not high, and, as such, carbon caps will only dictate actual emissions reductions to the degree that those emissions reductions can be achieved at costs that political economies around the world will tolerate.

Rather than focusing on emissions reduction targets and timetables, the new framework makes rapid reductions in the real, unsubsidized cost of clean energy technologies the explicit objective of climate and energy policy. Rather than attempting to establish and maintain high carbon prices globally in order to provide sufficient incentives to private interests to invest in energy technology innovation, this new framework focuses on establishing modest and politically sustainable carbon prices in developed economies to both fund public technology innovation and provide the needed market pull once those technologies are cost-competitive. Rather than seeing private interests and markets as the primary driver of innovation, this framework recognizes public investment as the key. Rather than insisting that developed economies “go first” by achieving symbolic but largely irrelevant emissions reductions, the new framework sees developed economies as critical laboratories that will finance and invent the low cost technologies that will make deep global emissions reductions possible.

Embracing this framework will require that greens and governments abandon several articles of faith. The first is the view that carbon caps and the legal mechanisms that enforce them provide reasonable certainty that mandated emissions reductions will be achieved. This view discounts the role that cost will always play in constraining emissions reduction efforts. The second is the view that, like past environmental regulatory efforts, economies will find that complying with ambitious carbon caps will be much less costly than many observers, especially businesses, think. This view conflates easy technological problems, such as affixing catalytic converters to tailpipes or scrubbers to smokestacks, with the challenge of bridging the vast technology gap between fossil fuels and clean energy.

The third is the view that the establishment of regulatory requirements to reduce pollution was the primary driver of innovations that enabled compliance with regulations. This view conveniently reshuffles the order of events. In most cases, including Montreal and acid rain, the innovations in question predated and made possible the establishment of pollution regulations, not the reverse. The fourth is the view that much, if not most, of the global emissions challenge can be addressed through the “low hanging fruit” of energy efficiency and conservation. This view simply misunderstands the scale of the challenge and the enormous growth of global energy use over the next century. Even if we use energy much more efficiently global consumption of energy will double and may triple during the same period of time we need to cut emissions in half.


The Emerging Climate Consensus

Since our very first essay on this subject almost five years ago, we have argued that the nature of the new ecological challenges would inevitably transform ecological politics. The subtitle of that 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” was “Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World” and reflected our conviction that an effective global warming politics would offer Americans, and citizens throughout the world, a vision of a future that was not only ecologically sustainable, but secure, prosperous, and free. The subtitle of this collection, “Global Warming Policy in a Post-Environmental World,” reflects our conviction that no effort to “reframe” ecological politics will succeed without profoundly rethinking the economic, social, legal, and policy framework that any ecological politics purports to advance.

For those who have followed our work since Break Through, much of what constitutes this collection will be familiar. Yet we hope that taken as a whole, this collection offers clarity that will exceed the sum of its parts. For those who may have dismissed our critique back in 2007, we hope this collection might offer an opportunity to take a second look and reconsider the way forward in light of all that has transpired over the last several years. For those who are new to our work, we hope this collection will provide a robust context and framework through which to see and understand climate and energy policy and politics in a new and productive way. No matter how you come to this collection, we hope that its argument will be understood more as prophecy than advocacy. We use the term advisedly. By “prophecy” we mean that the changes we propose, both in understanding the problem and its solutions, are inevitable entailments of new ecological challenges that the old environmental politics is incapable of resolving.

As the old consensus collapses, a new chorus of voices has begun to articulate an alternative framework for thinking about and addressing the coming climate crisis. Some of these writers and academics such as Steve Rayner of Oxford and Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics, McGill University economist Christopher Green, and the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke, Jr., have been long-time critics of the Kyoto approach. Others such as Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria are relative newcomers. All share the perspective that the climate crisis is better understood as an economic development and energy modernization challenge than as a pollution problem. And all, in one form or another, share the conviction that the radical transformation of the global energy economy will not primarily be accomplished through carbon pricing or pollution regulations.

As surely as the planet warms in the coming decades, ecological politics and thought will change with it. As the coming pulse of carbon from China, India, and the rest of the developing world demonstrates once and for all that the challenge of reducing emissions is inseparable from the basic process of human development that the affluent West has long taken for granted, the idea that the crisis has anything to do with Western consumer excess will become increasingly untenable. And as we confront the basic realities of energy, global development, and carbon, it will become ever clearer that the shift we must make does not require a transformation of our hearts, minds and lifestyles, but rather of the underlying technologies that power our civilization. While this may not be the transformation that greens and others wish for, it is the one we must make if we are to deal with the global climate challenge.


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