Welcome, readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Albuquerque Journal…

March 8, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

Updated: March 9, 2010

Shellenberger in the Wall Street Journal

Breakthrough President Michael Shellenberger is quoted in today's Wall Street Journal on the problem facing many governments today, of how to spark and continue along the path towards a clean energy economy. The reality, Shellenberger says, is that you'll never induce the birth of a new energy economy by taxing the old into obsolescence:

"I think the reality is that we are not going to get beyond a fossil-fuel economy, and I don't think we are going to impose big costs on the fossil-fuel economy either in the U.S. or in foreign developing countries like China, until the alternatives become a lot cheaper. I think while it is conceivable to have a carbon tax in the U.S., it will never be high enough to make fossil fuels as expensive as clean energy technologies are today."

Nordhaus in the Albuquerque Journal

John Fleck, of the Albuquerque Journal, profiled Breakthrough Institute Chairmen Ted Nordhaus in a column entitled, "A Third View on Climate Change." He describes Nordhaus as "the liberal environmentalist that some liberal environmentalists love to hate," alluding to the criticism Nordhaus, along with Breakthrough President Michael Shellenberger, leveled on the efficacy of the environmental movement first in their landmark essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," and then in their book, "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility."

Fleck writes:

But he [Nordhaus] thinks the core strategy offered by conventional environmentalism -- emissions caps, putting a higher price on carbon-based energy like coal and gasoline to raise the cost of its use and spur a switch to alternatives -- is a failed approach and a distraction from the actions needed to deal with the problem.
The notion that governments will voluntarily jack up energy prices today to benefit future generations seems like a nonstarter to Nordhaus. The fact that the public, faced with government imposition of rising energy costs, will suddenly find reasons to question the underlying science of climate change is exactly what the 44-year-old pollster and political activist says we should expect...

Discourse over climate change and energy in this country has devolved into a ritualized political argument unmoored from the underlying issues, Nordhaus argues.
Greens, he said, think they are battling anti-science Neanderthals and fossil fuel-funded climate change skeptics. Skeptics, he said, think they are fighting a hoax being perpetrated in the name of black helicopter-driven government control.
It is identity politics. "They're really fighting over their identities," he said. "They're not fighting about actually doing anything."

The pair, as Fleck notes, have sought to override that debate by advocating a solution to climate change that has proven to be publicly popular:

Chief among their ideas is that the best way to deal with climate change is government investment in clean energy technology. While polls show waning public support in the United States for action on climate change, Nordhaus noted that clean energy remains tremendously popular.
The key, he said, is to make clean energy economically viable, so there is no need to negotiate the political minefield associated with using taxes or caps to raise the cost of dirty energy. "We're not really going to tackle any of these issues until this stuff is cheaper than coal," Nordhaus said."

Learn More

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have made this case in a number of publications. "The End of Magical Climate Thinking", which originally appeared in the journal Foreign Policy, explores the demise of the (perhaps slightly misappropriated) hope that many progressives vested in the figure of Barack Obama's coming to the White House, the belief that the transition to a new carbon economy, and thereby a new era, was already underway and its arrival was all but guaranteed to be swift and painless.

Also check out the formative white-paper: "Fast, Clean & Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot, first published in Harvard Law & Policy Review (Jan 2008), which explores the idea that societies will never rid themselves of incumbent energy sources so long as the alternatives are less reliable and more expensive.

The clean tech sector has been booming in recent years, but can that rate of rapid growth sustain itself? In their most recent critical analysis, given as a keynote speech at the Cleantech Group's Feb 2010 Conference in San Francisco, Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that it cannot. "Storm Clouds on the Clean Tech Horizon?" continues to press the point that subsidies will not solve the crisis alone. For clean tech to really take off and gain a majority of the market share, radical innovation is the key.