The Long Death of Environmentalism

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February 25, 2011 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,

by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

It is a great pleasure to be here at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for this retrospective on "The Death of Environmentalism." In early 2005 Yale invited us to debate that essay, and since then the School has continued to demonstrate a genuine interest in what our friend and colleague Peter Teague has taken to calling ecological innovation. You train your students to ask hard questions -- we saw this first hand in 2010 Breakthrough Fellow and Yale School Masters candidate David Mitchell -- and your flagship publication, Yale360, is publishing some of the most interesting green thinkers today. We are grateful once again for this opportunity to reflect on the nearly seven years since we wrote our essay, and make some new arguments about what the green movement must do now.

Seven years ago the two of us started interviewing America's environmental leaders with the intention of writing a report on the politics of global warming for the October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. We came away from the experience deeply disappointed. Not one of the environmental leaders we interviewed articulated a compelling vision or strategy for dealing with the challenge. None expressed much interest in rethinking their assumptions about the problem or the solutions. What we heard again and again during our interviews were the same old riffs that green leaders had been repeating since the late 1980's. Global warming would be solved through the same kinds of policies that we had used to address past pollution problems such as acid rain. Most were confident that John Kerry was, with their help, about to be elected president, and the biggest funders in the movement told us they were just a few steps away from passing cap and trade legislation.

That October we delivered our paper, "The Death of Environmentalism," at the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference. While leaders at environmental philanthropies and national green groups hoped that the debate the essay started would just go away, "The Death of Environmentalism" struck a cord with many others and sparked a spirited debate. Many took the paper's arguments personally and, without question, the most common reaction to our essay was "I'm not dead." Our friend Adam Werbach gave a speech called "Is Environmentalism Dead," wherein he suggested that environmentalists make common cause with a broader coalition of progressive interests in hopes of building a broader and more diverse movement. And Yale's own Gus Speth questioned whether capitalism itself was compatible with ecological sustainability and suggested a radical shift in values was required to deal with the problem.
 

A Turning Point?

And yet, in the years that followed, the fortunes of American environmentalism would seemingly turn. In 2005, almost exactly one year after the publication of The Death of Environmentalism, Al Gore came to Aspen to keynote a Yale retreat about the future of the environmental movement. Gore opened his speech asserting that environmentalism was not dead. The problem was that Republicans were waging an assault on reason, ignoring science and misleading the public on behalf of their fossil fueled corporate benefactors. There was nothing wrong with environmentalism, Gore argued, that couldn't be rectified by clearly explaining to the American public the science of global warming and just how serious and dire the consequences would almost certainly be if we didn't act.

Gore hit the road with his PowerPoint and nine months later "An Inconvenient Truth" became a global media sensation. Seemingly every magazine in the country, including Sports Illustrated, released a special green issue. Fortune 500 companies pledged to go carbon neutral. Paris dimmed the lights on the Eiffel Tower. Solar investments became hot, even for oil companies.

In addition to winning him an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, Gore's movie arguably single handedly revitalized the climate movement. Youth climate activism, which had been virtually non-existent prior to 2006, exploded on college campuses. In the fall of 2007, 12,000 young activists convened at a conference in Washington to demand climate action. International negotiators went to Bali at the end of that year with renewed determination to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Accord. In the spring of 2008, Congress restarted the dormant effort to pass a domestic cap and trade program and major candidates of both parties promised to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. If, as Gore famously suggested, all we lacked to address the climate crisis was political will, then you could almost convince yourself that the heavy lifting to get the world on track to climate stabilization was mostly done.

At about the same time that Gore was giving his speech in Aspen, a San Francisco civil rights attorney named Van Jones was in the process of turning his criminal justice non-profit organization into a new-wave environmental justice outfit. Not long after Gore accepted his Nobel Prize, Jones' book, The Green Collar Economy, became a sensation among liberals. The subtitle of Jones's book was "How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems," by which he meant poverty and climate change. Jones and his allies claimed, and much of the liberal establishment came to believe, that jobs retrofitting old buildings and installing solar panels would revitalize the inner-city, save the economy, dramatically cut emissions, and pay for themselves.

By the onset of the 2008 election campaign, clean energy and green jobs was about the closest Democrats came to articulating a coherent strategy to fix the American economy. And in this sense, the 2008 election was proof of concept for an idea that the two of us had long advocated. Indeed, while The Death of Environmentalism was borne of frustration with conventional environmentalism, it was also a call for a New Apollo Project, which we had helped found in 2002 in hopes of creating a different model for ecological politics, one focused not directly on climate but rather on strategies to address other, more salient public concerns like jobs and national security through measures that also offered substantial climate benefits.

And this is largely what Democrats did in the 2008 election, offering Americans a compelling vision of a clean and prosperous energy future. They had done so not by attempting to terrify Americans into addressing climate change. Indeed, they hardly mentioned climate change at all, focusing instead on the many economic and security benefits that building a clean energy economy would bring.

The Crash

Yet today, environmental efforts to address climate change and build a green economy lie in ruins. The United States Congress this summer once again rejected climate legislation that even had it succeeded would have had virtually no impact upon U.S. carbon emissions over the coming decade. The magnitude and consequence of this defeat are poorly understood outside of Washington. Greens had the best opportunity in a generation -- a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in Congress. But they banked everything on a single bill and walked away with nothing -- or rather worse than nothing, since today environmental credibility with lawmakers of both parties is today at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, green stimulus investments ended up creating very few jobs. Those that it did create were low-wage and temporary custodial jobs -- not the high-wage manufacturing jobs that created the black middle-class after World War II. And today, the clean tech sector-- the darling of high tech VC's at the height of the green bubble-- is in a state of collapse as stimulus funds expire, large public deficits threaten clean energy subsidies both here and abroad, and Wall Street firms short clean tech stocks.

The picture is no less grim internationally. Australia has abandoned efforts to cap its emissions. Japan announced last month that it would, under no circumstances, agree to further emissions reduction commitments under the auspices of the Kyoto Accord. The European Union will meet its Kyoto commitments thanks to the collapse of Eastern Bloc economies in the early 90's and the collapse of the global economy in 2008, not through public policy efforts to decarbonize its economy. And the collapse of diplomatic efforts to negotiate legally binding emissions caps, first in Copenhagen and again in Cancun, has set the international process back to where it started in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

In the wake of the crash, environmentalists pointed their finger at the usual bogeymen. They claimed that the problem has been that fossil fuel interests have massively outspent underdog environmental groups, funding skeptics to mislead the public and duping the media into giving too much credence to skeptical views about climate change.
In reality, the environmental lobby massively outspent its opponents. In just the last two years, by our rough estimate environmental organizations and philanthropies spent somewhere north of $1 billion dollars advocating for climate action. In contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Brothers, Big Coal, and the various other well publicized opponents of environmental action might have spent, when all was said and done, a small fraction of that. Indeed, much of the U.S. energy industry, including the largest utilities, helped write and lobbied for U.S. climate legislation.

Nonetheless, and despite the enormous resources spent on public communications about climate, some continue to accuse the media of "false balance" - by which they mean giving equal coverage to skeptical views about climate change. But the phenomenon of "false balance," according to the best academic studies of the phenomena, disappeared after 2005. And even the very notion completely undermines the idea that media coverage has been biased against climate action. The complaint, after all, is that the media has reported the views of skeptics or opponents of climate action at all.

The truth is that the disparate crew of academics and bloggers who make up the skeptic community have toiled in relative obscurity and have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. That skeptics have nonetheless succeeded in raising substantial doubt among many Americans about the reality of global warming suggests, at the very least, that the environmental community has profoundly misframed the issue.
The propensity to blame skeptics and fossil fuel companies for the serial political failures of the environmental movement should be understood as a tribal defense of the collective green ego, not the logical conclusion of a dispassionate analysis.

What Went Wrong?

The green bubble of seemingly widespread interest in climate change and green jobs was, it turns out, primarily an elite phenomenon, one which had little effect upon widespread public opinion about climate change. Public support for action to address global warming has always been broad but not deep and remained largely unchanged throughout the entire period. Indeed, arguably the only impact that either "An Inconvenient Truth" or the green jobs movement had on public opinion was to increase public skepticism about climate science and polarize public support for both climate and clean energy action.

From virtually the moment that "An Inconvenient Truth" was released, public skepticism about global warming began to rise. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that from July 2006 to April 2008, belief that global warming was occurring declined from 79 percent to 71 percent. Gallup polls also revealed similar backlash to the movie, with the percentage of Americans who believed in global warming was exaggerated, rising from 30 percent in March of 2006 to only 35 percent in March of 2008.

Gore famously claimed, "the truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives." Those apparent calls for sacrifice by Gore and other green leaders drove rising partisan polarization. John Jost, a leading political psychologist at New York University, recently demonstrated that much of the partisan divide on global warming can be explained through the psychological concept of system justification. It turns out that many Americans have a strong psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order. When Gore said "we are going to have to change the way we live our lives" he could not have uttered a statement better tailored to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans.

At the same time, environmentalists increasingly conflated acceptance of climate science with acceptance of green policy prescriptions. To oppose cap and trade was, implicitly among many greens and explicitly among the most apocalyptic, to deny the reality of anthropogenic warming. But this just further polarized opinion on climate science rather than uniting us in the effort to address global warming. Environmentalist appeals to scientific authority led conservatives not to abandon their opposition to state intervention in the energy economy but to reject climate science.

Greens reacted to these developments not by toning down their rhetoric or reconsidering their agenda in a manner that might be more palatable to their opponents. Instead, they made ever more apocalyptic claims about global warming - claims that were increasingly inconsistent, ironically, with the scientific consensus whose mantle greens claimed. These efforts both further increased political polarization among conservatives and undermined support for action among many others. UC-Berkeley political psychologist Robb Willer recently demonstrated through a series of experiments that catastrophic presentations of global warming actually reduce belief in global warming.

But the failure of green climate advocacy in recent years goes well beyond a failure to properly frame the issue. Indeed, the failure of the green agenda has been as much a function of greens concluding that they had a framing problem as that they didn't. What many greens concluded after "The Death of Environmentalism" was that they needed to reframe global warming as an economic opportunity, not an ecological crisis.
And so carbon caps and the soft energy path were repackaged as economic and jobs policy despite little evidence those policies would, on balance, create jobs. In fact, most credible economic models of proposed cap and trade policies, including those produced by government agencies, predicted the opposite. While green groups mostly ignored that evidence and plunged ahead with the cap and trade effort, the jobs question was more than academic. There were real economic consequences to proposals to cap carbon emissions and those consequences had profound political implications for the effort that environmentalists were not going to spin their way out of.

Much of the industrial Midwest is still heavily dependent upon coal-fired electricity, both for household energy use and for what remains of our nation's struggling manufacturing sector. Other regions, such as the Gulf Coast, are heavily dependent upon the fossil fuel industry for jobs. The result of this was that, while the national debate was polarized by Party, there was no such divide in regions such as the industrial Midwest or the Gulf Coast, where there was bipartisan opposition to policies that would significantly raise energy prices or cost jobs in important sectors of their regional economies.

The defining moment in the fight to pass a cap and trade proposal through the last Congress came virtually before it began. Few members of Congress were willing to expressly advocate for policies that would raise energy prices and in April of 2009 the Senate voted virtually unanimously for a resolution that cap and trade should not result in increased energy prices. This pretty well established that any policy that passed out of Congress would have little impact upon either emissions or deployment of clean energy.
From that point on, the national cap and trade debate was nothing more than Kabuki theatre, with advocates claiming the proposed legislation would significantly reduce emissions and create millions of jobs, and opponents claiming it would wreck the economy. In reality, it would have done neither. Neither the version that passed the House nor the one that died in the Senate would have had much impact on emissions or the nation's energy system for decades.

But while the outcome of the cap and trade debate was a foregone conclusion, the damage done to both the environmental movement and the clean energy investment agenda was enormous. Today, the political capital of the environmental movement is lower than it has been since the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Perhaps more importantly, given how poorly the national environmental movement has chosen to expend its capital, is that greens have also succeeded in both discrediting and polarizing the clean energy investment agenda. This has occurred because the jobs they promised through green stimulus investments have failed to materialize, and because their efforts to reframe climate policy as economic policy ended up discrediting what had been a broadly popular agenda to invest in developing new energy technologies by rendering it indistinguishable from the profoundly polarizing climate debate.

Twelve Theses for a Post-Environmental Movement

Today, the need to remake ecological politics is clearly more urgent than ever. That will require that we actually learn from our failures and let those lessons become the underlying assumptions for a new, post-environmental climate movement.

First, more, better, or louder climate science will not drive the transformation of the global energy economy. The resources necessary to make such a transformation will not be forthcoming in pursuit of climate benefits that are uncertain and far off in the future. Many greens have imagined that as the evidence of climate change becomes ever clearer, the case for action will become stronger. But the reality is that the more our understanding of the full complexity of the climate system advances, the greater the uncertainties about the impacts of climate change and the attribution of those impacts to anthropogenic activities will become. This is not because the evidence for anthropogenic warming will become weaker. It will in fact become stronger. But our understanding of how that warming impacts the climate system at regional and local scales will become harder to characterize, not easier.

Second, we need to stop trying to scare the pants off of the American public. Doing so has demonstrably backfired. Climate skepticism is on the rise, every snow storm is the subject of partisan rancor, and we are no closer to acting in any meaningful way to address climate change. Skepticism about climate science has been motivated by concerns about the remedies that greens have proposed. The solution is not more climate science but rather a different set of remedies.

Third, the most successful actions will not be justified for environmental reasons. The only two countries to significantly decarbonize their energy supplies -- France and Sweden -- did so for energy security reasons in response to oil price shocks, not for environmental reasons. Many conservatives who are skeptical of claims made by climate campaigners believe it's a bad idea to send half a trillion or so a year abroad for foreign imported oil, which brings with it a whole host of threats to national and energy security. Others simply see three million current air pollution deaths a year as a far higher priority. We should put shared solutions at the center of our politics, not our view of the science.

Fourth, we need to stop imagining that we will solve global warming through behavior changes. There are no doubt many good reasons for those of us with enough affluence and control over the material circumstances of our lives to turn away from accumulative consumption. But we should not imagine this to be a climate strategy.

What most greens mean when they suggest that we need to fundamentally change our way of life isn't so fundamental at all. They mostly mean that we need to stop crass consumerism, live in denser cities, and use public transit. And while there are many reasons to recommend each of these particular remedies, none will have much impact upon the trajectory of global emissions. That's because much of the world already lives in dense cities- more and more of us every day. Relatively few of us globally today have the means to consume crassly, or even own an automobile.

Global development and urbanization are salutary trends - for they bring with them the opportunity for billions of us to live longer, healthier, and freer lives. But these trends also suggest that the green obsession with moralizing against profligate American lifestyles is entirely irrelevant to the future disposition of the global climate, or much anything else that really matters to the big ecological challenges that we will face in the coming century. More and more of the world will adopt the very living patterns that greens have so long valorized. And as they do they will use vastly more energy and resources, not less.

Fifth, we have to stop treating climate change as if it were a traditional pollution problem. As we noted in our book, climate change is as different from past pollution problems as nuclear warfare is from gang violence. Climate change will not be solved with end-of-pipe solutions, like smokestack scrubbers and sewage treatment plants that worked for past pollution problems. Rather it will require us to rebuild the entire global energy system with technologies that we mostly don't have today in any form that could conceivably scale to meet that challenge.

Sixth, we will not regulate or price our way to a clean energy economy. Regulatory and pricing solutions tend to succeed when we have good, low cost alternatives to the activities which we are attempting to discourage or eliminate. We dealt with acid rain once we had access to low sulfur coal from the western United States and reached an international agreement to phase out CFCs only once DuPont demonstrated that they could produce a cheap alternative at scale.

Greens have, in recent years, substituted the almighty Market, in the form of a response to a carbon price signal, for their past faith in command and control regulations. But the substitution problem is largely the same. Without cheap technologies, carbon prices will need to be prohibitively high to drive a quick transition to low carbon energy.

Seventh, we need to acknowledge that the so-called "soft energy path" is a dead end. The notion that the nation might meet its future energy needs through renewable energy and low cost energy efficiency has defined virtually all environmental energy proposals since the 1960s, and was codified into dogma by anti-nuclear activist turned efficiency consultant, Amory Lovins, in his 1976 Foreign Affairs article. Lovins claimed that efficiency would allow America to dramatically reduce its total energy use and that renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power were ready to replace fossil fuels.

But the reality is that for centuries, the global economy has used ever more energy, even as it has used energy ever more efficiently and renewable energy, which Lovins and others were claiming even as early as the late 1970's was cheaper than fossil energy, remains expensive and difficult to scale. Renewables still cost vastly more than fossil based energy, even before we calculate the costs associated with storing and transmitting intermittent forms of energy. Wind energy, according to the latest EIA estimates, still costs 50% more than coal or gas. Solar costs three to five times as much. In the end, what the soft energy path has given us is coal-fired power plants, mountaintop removal, global warming, and an economy that uses 50% more energy, not solar panels and wind farms.

Eighth, we will not internalize the full costs of fossil fuels, even if we are able to agree upon what they actually are. Like the climate science upon which they are based, economic models that attempt to model the social costs of carbon emissions are endlessly disputable. Don't like the result? Change the estimated climate sensitivity, the damage exponent, the social discount rate, or any number of other assumptions until you arrive at one you do like. The degree that we do internalize the cost of carbon will be determined by the tolerance within specific political economies for policies that increase energy costs.

Ninth, we will need to make clean energy technologies much cheaper in order to decarbonize the global energy economy. Clean energy technologies, where they have been deployed at all, still require vast public subsidies in order to be commercially viable. This is simply not a recipe for bringing those technologies to scale. Subsidizing more of the same old technologies will bring down their cost incrementally, but not enough to displace fossil fuels at a rate sufficient to have much impact on emissions. There will be no significant action to address global warming, no meaningful caps or other regulatory frameworks, and no global agreement to limit emissions until the alternatives to fossil fuels are much better and cheaper. This will require technological innovation on a vast scale and will require sustained state support for radical innovation through large investments in basic science, research and development, demonstration, and commercialization of new energy technologies.

Tenth, we are going to have to get over our suspicion of technology, especially nuclear power. There is no credible path to reducing global carbon emissions without an enormous expansion of nuclear power. It is the only low carbon technology we have today with the demonstrated capability to generate large quantities of centrally generated electrtic power. It is the low carbon of technology of choice for much of the rest of the world. Even uber-green nations, like Germany and Sweden, have reversed plans to phase out nuclear power as they have begun to reconcile their energy needs with their climate commitments.

Eleventh, we will need to embrace again the role of the state as a direct provider of public goods. The modern environmental movement, borne of the new left rejection of social authority of all sorts, has embraced the notion of state regulation and even creation of private markets while largely rejecting the generative role of the state. In the modern environmental imagination, government promotion of technology - whether nuclear power, the green revolution, synfuels, or ethanol - almost always ends badly.

Never mind that virtually the entire history of American industrialization and technological innovation is the story of government investments in the development and commercialization of new technologies. Think of a transformative technology over the last century - computers, the Internet, pharmaceutical drugs, jet turbines, cellular telephones, nuclear power - and what you will find is government investing in those technologies at a scale that private firms simply cannot replicate.

Twelveth, big is beautiful. The rising economies of the developing world will continue to develop whether we want them to or not. The solution to the ecological crises wrought by modernity, technology, and progress will be more modernity, technology, and progress. The solutions to the ecological challenges faced by a planet of 6 billion going on 9 billion will not be decentralized energy technologies like solar panels, small scale organic agriculture, and a drawing of unenforceable boundaries around what remains of our ecological inheritance, be it the rainforests of the Amazon or the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Rather, these solutions will be: large central station power technologies that can meet the energy needs of billions of people increasingly living in the dense mega-cities of the global south without emitting carbon dioxide, further intensification of industrial scale agriculture to meet the nutritional needs of a population that is not only growing but eating higher up the food chain, and a whole suite of new agricultural, desalinization and other technologies for gardening planet Earth that might allow us not only to pull back from forests and other threatened ecosystems but also to create new ones.

The New Ecological Politics

The great ecological challenges that our generation faces demands an ecological politics that is generative, not restrictive. An ecological politics capable of addressing global warming will require us to reexamine virtually every prominent strand of post-war green ideology.

From Paul Erlich's warnings of a population bomb to The Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth," contemporary ecological politics have consistently embraced green Malthusianism despite the fact that the Malthusian premise has persistently failed for the better part of three centuries. Indeed, the green revolution was exponentially increasing agricultural yields at the very moment that Erlich was predicting mass starvation and the serial predictions of peak oil and various others resource collapses that have followed have continue to fail.

This does not mean that Malthusian outcomes are impossible, but neither are they inevitable. We do have a choice in the matter, but it is not the choice that greens have long imagined. The choice that humanity faces is not whether to constrain our growth, development, and aspirations or die. It is whether we will continue to innovate and accelerate technological progress in order to thrive.

Human technology and ingenuity have repeatedly confounded Malthusian predictions yet green ideology continues to cast a suspect eye towards the very technologies that have allowed us to avoid resource and ecological catastrophes. But such solutions will require environmentalists to abandon the "small is beautiful" ethic that has also characterized environmental thought since the 1960's. We, the most secure, affluent, and thoroughly modern human beings to have ever lived upon the planet, must abandon both the dark, zero-sum Malthusian visions and the idealized and nostalgic fantasies for a simpler, more bucolic past in which humans lived in harmony with Nature.

To an older generation of environmentalists, these observations will seem antithetical to everything environmentalism stands for. If in 2004 we argued that environmentalism needed to die, today it's clear that it did. What killed it was neither our essay, nor fossil-funded skeptics, nor this or that tactical failing by green leaders or Democratic politicians. Rather, environmentalism died of old age. The world in which we live, economically, technologically, politically, and most importantly ecologically, has so profoundly changed that the very foundations upon which contemporary environmental politics was constructed no longer hold.

What comes next is still unwritten. And if we can find inspiration in anything today it should be in this. And so we leave you today with the words of a great American novelist of our own generation. Dave Eggers lost both his parents to cancer at the age of twenty-one. Reflecting on the experience, and how it had shaped his life he observed:

"On the one hand you are so completely bewildered that something so surreal and incomprehensible could happen. At the same time, suddenly the limitations or hesitations that you might have imposed on yourself fall away. There's a weird, optimistic recklessness that could easily be construed as nihilism but is really the opposite. You see that there is a beginning and an end and that you have only a certain amount of time to act. And you want to get started."

Thank you very much.