Alex Trembath to Speak at Future Tense Event: How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?

Humans are altering the Earth system at every scale, up to and including the global climate. Going forward, how will human ingenuity handle a warming world? We’re all familiar with the doomsday predictions of more droughts, fires, floods and economic disaster, but what are the possibilities for thriving in a changed climate?

On Thursday, Jan. 15, Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath will join Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—to discuss these issues at the New America offices in Washington, D.C.

Read more

Grid Governance

Are Solar Microgrids a Step on the Ladder Towards Grid Access?

In July of this year, Greenpeace installed a solar/battery microgrid in the village of Dharnai in eastern India. The 100-kilowatt system was designed to provide power for the village’s 2,400 residents, 50 businesses, 2 schools, and other infrastructure. Greenpeace called the project “inspiring,” writing that case studies like Dharnai prove “villages can develop their own clean power and contribute to saving their environment by showing we don’t need to use nuclear, coal or other fossil fuels for energy.” 

Read more

High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.

Read more

Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal

New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013

The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand. 

Read more

Frequently Asked Questions About Population

The Global Population by 2100

What is the current human population?

The most recent official numbers from the United Nations Population Division estimate that the world population was 6.9 billion in 2010. More recent estimates from the UN and the United States Census Bureau estimate that the world reached 7 billion inhabitants in either 2011 or 2012.

How do we measure world population?

The United Nations collects data on population, birth and death rates, age and gender ratios, and international migration from national-level censuses, surveys, and registers. The combination of data on fertility, mortality, and migration produces a comprehensive view of population in a given year. Most developed nations regularly conduct these sorts of demographic analyses, but for many developing countries, the data are scarce, unreliable, or nonexistent. In those cases, the UN relies on models and indirect estimates based on understandings of demographic trends and historical trajectories of similar nations.

Read more

Crashing the Party

Human Rights Activists Shake Up UN Climate Talks

Senior officials representing nearly 200 countries gather in Lima, Peru this week for the final stages of United Nations-led climate change talks. The meetings, which began December 1, are intended to lay the final groundwork for a major international agreement to be reached a year from now in Paris, France.

Key issues, however, continue to divide countries.

The US prefers that nations make non-binding commitments to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the European Union urges legally enforceable pledges. New tensions have also surfaced over funding for climate adaptation efforts – protection measures to help poorer nations cope with the impacts of climate change.

Read more

US-China Climate Deal Underscores Need for Substantial Energy Innovation

China to Add More Electric Power From Coal Than From Nuclear, Wind, or Solar

Talks at the UNFCCC COP20 in Peru undoubtedly have been buoyed by the recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. While the pledges by the two largest players may represent a political breakthrough, a new Breakthrough analysis of China’s energy plans shows there is reason for concern. Despite unprecedented efforts, China will likely replace existing coal consumption with more new coal power generation than that from new nuclear, or from new wind and solar power generation combined. 

Read more

High-Energy Innovation

A Climate Pragmatism Project

Clean energy innovation and decarbonization efforts will be overwhelmingly concentrated in rapidly industrializing countries, where demand for energy is high and deployment opportunities are broad, says a new report from a group of 12 energy scholars.

High-Energy Innovation evaluates four clean energy technologies – shale gas, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, and solar – and finds that, in all cases, industrializing countries are making significant investments and leveraging international collaborations in order to make energy cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable. 

Read more

Extreme Conservation of Gorillas

An Interview with Primatologist Martha Robbins

What attracted you to mountain gorillas?

When I was at university I became interested in the evolution of sociality. Primates are one of the key groups to study. It’s been almost 25 years now.

Are the mountain gorillas saved?

In general, the mountain gorilla numbers are going up, but they haven’t been saved since their numbers are under 1,000. Since gorillas mature so slowly, even killing a few individuals in a population can lead to a negative growth rate. We cannot be complacent about mountain gorilla conservation even if their populations appear to be increasing in size.

Read more

War and Peace and Gorillas

An Interview with Central Africa Scholar Laura Seay

How did you get interested in the Congo?

I started studying the region when I was 18, during my first year in college, when I had to write a paper. I was supposed to be writing about refugees, but when rebels in DRC (who we now know were partly comprised of Rwandan troops and partly Congolese rebels) Kabila, were moving across the country, I started asking about the causes of such a complex crisis. I didn’t understand this then, but I came to understand the DRC crises as partly being the continuation of Rwanda’s civil war on Congolese soil.

Read more

Violence, the Virungas, and Gorillas

An Interview with Conservationist Helga Rainer

How did you decide to focus on conflicts around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Some of my early work with refugees and the environment focused on the energy issue and the linkages with violence, especially for women who had to move increasingly farther and farther away from the refugee camps to get fuel. I was also concerned with the health effects of wood burning, especially on children under five years old due to the smoke particulates. This was when I first interacted with energy-saving stoves.

Based on what I saw on the ground, I felt that the role of the environment in conflict was an aspect not being talked about. The conversations about the role of environment in conflict were about resources like coltan or oil, but there were other dynamics happening that were necessary to explore.

Read more

Postcolonial Gorilla Conservation

An Interview with Ecologist Sarah Sawyer

What do we know about what it takes to save gorillas?

Habituating gorillas so they can tolerate tourists can help keep them safe. There’s some data from the tourist groups in Rwanda, which suggests gorillas near tourism have higher birth and lower death rates. During the Rwandan genocide, researchers were evacuated but the guards stayed without pay. They felt an ownership and pride in taking care of the gorillas, which helped them stay protected. On the other hand, in areas where gorillas are hunted, habituation can actually put them more at risk by decreasing their avoidance of people. 

Read more

Leapfrog or Backfire?

Wharton Economist on the Rebound Effect in Developing Economies

Arthur van Benthem is an Assistant Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at Wharton. His research specializes in environmental and energy economics. His recent work focuses on unintended consequences of environmental legislation and natural resource taxation.

What motivated you to write your article “Has Leapfrogging Occurred on a Large Scale?”

I worked for a couple of years in the long-term energy scenarios team at Shell in my home country of the Netherlands. We made assumptions on tech leap-frogging occurring. The assumption was energy-efficient technologies would result in China’s future growth in energy consumption being lower than that of rich countries during their development.

Read more

Saving Gorillas

A Special Breakthrough Conservation Series

The mountain gorillas of Central Africa are a beguiling endangered species. Tourists pay thousands of dollars to spend a few hours with them, making their protection in parks in Rwanda and Uganda a conservation success story.

So are the mountain gorillas of central Africa saved? If so, what saved them? If not, then what still imperils them? What can be done to protect them?

Read more

Virunga, the Congo, and Oil

An Interview with "Virunga" Journalist Melanie Gouby

What initially motivated you to go to the Congo?

I always wanted to cover issues of justice since I grew up with a sense of social justice. The reason I went to Congo was because my first job out of university was covering the International Criminal Court in The Hague. I worked for an organization called the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that does a lot of media capacity development in Congo, Afghanistan, Kosovo, etc. They hired me to cover the International Criminal Court, and produce a radio program broadcast in DRC. All of the trials dealth with Congolese warlords. After a few years they got funding to go to DRC, where I trained Congolese women journalists in print and radio reporting. I fell in love with the place, as many people do.

Read more

Taking a Look at Lazard’s Levelized Cost Estimates

How Do the Costs of Solar and Natural Gas Stack Up?

In September, Lazard – an international financial and management consultancy – released its updated estimates for the levelized cost of different electricity generation technologies (LCOE). Observers were excited, principally because Lazard show wind and solar photovoltaic costs surprisingly competitive with natural gas. According to Lazard, utility-scale solar has an LCOE range of $72 to $86 per megawatt-hour (MWh), rooftop solar’s (residential, commercial, and industrial) is $126 to $265/MWh, wind’s is $37 to $81/MWh, and natural gas’s is $61 to $87/MWh. 

Read more

Interview with Norm Warpinski, Director of Technology for Pinnacle

On the Early Experiments That Catalyzed the Shale Revolution

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King talked with Norm Warpinski, a Halliburton fellow for Pinnacle – a Halliburton service. Of his many contributions to hydraulic fracturing, Norm is perhaps best known as a principal developer of microseismic monitoring, which was crucial to understand the nature of underground fractures. At Pinnacle, Norm works on developing new tools and analyses for hydraulic fracture mapping, reservoir monitoring, hydraulic fracture design and analysis, and integrated solutions for reservoir development. He previously worked at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 to 2005 on various projects in oil and gas, geothermal, carbon sequestration, and other geomechanics issues. 

Read more

Interview with David Northrop, Formerly of Sandia National Labs

On the Partnership Office That Facilitated Public-Private Collaboration

David A. Northrop completed his BS, MS, and PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. He started working at Sandia National Lab in 1964 and worked there until his retirement in 1998. During his tenure, Northrop was heavily involved in fracture observation and shale mapping systems. In the following interview, Northrop talks about the early days of Sandia’s involvement in natural gas research, and the unique Partnership Office that facilitated public-private collaboration. 

Read more

The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part Two

The Case for the Proactionary Principle In the Face of Uncertainty

In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers, Fuller says, are fundamentally opposed to the dominance of the precautionary principle in guiding policy. In the second part of the interview below, we explore the failings of the precautionary principle and the advantages of a proactionary state, which has a documented history throughout the United States and Europe. 

Read more

The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One

Steve Fuller on the Proactionary Principle, Environmentalism, and Interstellar Flight

Cryogenically preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the transhumanist Fereidoun Esfandiary – “dead” since 2000 – might better speak to the future of politics than today’s prognosticators. The leader of a loose group of futurists and thinkers in the 1970s, FM-2030 (as he dubbed himself) believed that humankind’s full potential could be unlocked by advances in science and technology. 

Read more

The Age of Us

Can People Power Drive Action on Climate Change?

In a new  "Age of Us" column launching this week at The Conversation, I will be writing about research, ideas, and trends that shed light on why we disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental problems. A major focus will be on the strategies that can promote political cooperation on our tough, new planet. You will encounter not only my thoughts and ideas but also the voices and arguments of leaders in the fields of communication, journalism, political science, sociology, and the policy world. 

Just as importantly, as readers and commenters, you will be sharing your own thoughts and conclusions, often challenging my ideas and those of others. At The Public Square, in combination with regular original essays, I will be expanding on columns at Age of Us as they are debated and discussed.

Read more

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger to Debut ‘Nature Unbound’ at RFF First Wednesday Seminar

Evidence abounds of humanity’s creative ability to produce more goods and services using fewer resources. In many cases, our use of natural resources is declining, particularly when measured in terms of GDP consumption per capita or per dollar. In fact, consumption of some natural resources (certain croplands, fuels, metals, and water) has plummeted, even as we produce more and more from these resources. 

Breakthrough Institute Chairmain Ted Nordhaus and President Michael Shellenberger will discuss this evidence and highlight the ingenuity enabling reduced natural resource use on a panel at the RFF First Wednesday Seminar. The Seminar, entitled "Making Nature Useless? Global Resource Trends, Innovations, and Implications for Conservation" will discuss Breakthrough Institute's upcoming report, Nature Unbound, and probe the question, "can we credibly envision a peak environmental footprint?"

Read more

Innovation Needed for Gas to Bridge to Somewhere

New Nature Piece Tells Us What We Already Knew

A new research letter in Nature (McJeon et al 2014) concludes that globally abundant natural gas will not “discernibly reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” The paper models a scenario in which the US shale gas revolution is scaled globally. While natural gas displaces higher-carbon coal-fired power, zero-carbon power like nuclear and solar are also displaced, according to the model, and cheap gas encourages more energy consumption. The net impact is marginal: between 2 percent less and 11 percent more emissions in the authors’ “abundant gas” scenario:

Read more

Frequently Asked Questions About Renewables

What is renewable energy?

As a category, renewable energy encompasses a broad range of energy technologies and fuels, ranging from photovoltaic solar cells to the burning of animal dung for fuel in many poor regions of the world. Major sources of renewable energy –– in the rough order of the amount of energy they contribute globally –– include hydroelectric power, wood used for heating, cooking, and electrical generation, bioenergy produced from agricultural crops and waste, wind energy, concentrated solar power generated with mirrors and steam turbines, photovoltaic solar cells, geothermal energy, and tidal energy.

Read more

Welcome New York Times Readers

An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute

In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus comment on the recent bestowment of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to the trio of researchers whose work led to the creation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus commend the researchers for their scientific achievements, but caution against the idea that LEDs will significantly reduce energy consumption, as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy in the award presentation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus conclude:

Read more

Research

Breakthrough's Research Program provides an empirical basis for the Institute's mission. Our rigorous, data-driven, and original analyses are in service of accelerating the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. 

Read more

Collection: Energy Efficiency

The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on energy efficiency, centering around the economic benefits of energy efficiency, rebound and backfire, and relatedly, the limitations of energy efficiency as a climate mitigation strategy. Here is our collection of analyses and opinions on energy efficiency:

Read more

Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner

How Humans Thrive in the Anthropocene

The Breakthrough Institute will honor Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, with the 2014 Paradigm Award in recognition of her exceptional research on how humans transform their environments. 

Read more

Jessica Lovering to Speak at American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting

Jessica Lovering will speak at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting's Opening Plenary entitled "Nuclear: The Foundation of Clean Energy" on November 10 at 8:00 a.m. The following day, November 11 at 1:00 p.m., Jessica will join panelists Vaughn Gilbert of Westinghouse and Ashley Finan of Clean Air Task Force to discuss public education and outreach tactics in nuclear science and technology on a panel entitled: "Finding Common Ground with New Audience".

Both sessions are part of the larger five-day conference, which will be held in Anaheim, CA from November 9-13. Beginning with the ANS Nuclear Technology EXPO on the November 9, the conference will explore topics including Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology, Biology and Medicine, Decommissioning and Environmental Sciences,  Fusion Energy, Isotope and Radiation, Reactor Physics, and Thermal Hydraulics. Register for the conference here.

Read more

Michael Shellenberger to Speak at Energy Africa Conference

Michael Shellenberger will speak at the 7th Annual Energy Africa Conference at Colorado School of Mines on November 13th. He will be joined by hundreds of private, public, non-governmental organizations and academicians as they dialog and invest in the work needed for African countries to supply energy that is affordable, accessible, efficient and clean. Access to affordable, reliable, clean and economically viable energy supply is essential to Africa’s economic growth and enhancing the standard of living of its citizens. To register for the conference, click here.

Read more

Lighting, Electricity, Steel

Energy Efficiency Backfire in Emerging Economies

Countries that expect to consume much more energy will likely experience higher levels of energy efficiency rebound, concludes a new Breakthrough report, released today. Rebound is the phenomenon in which energy efficiency measures increase demand for energy, which diminishes expected energy savings. 

Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Rebound in Emerging Economies presents three historical case studies of when energy efficiency rebound occurred: lighting from 1700 to present, electricity generation in 20th century America, and iron and steel production from 1900 onward.

Read more

IEA Acknowledges Rebound Effects

Clean Energy Equivalent of 4 to 19 Australias Required to Meet Gap Created by Rebound

A reversal in the International Energy Agency’s views on energy efficiency suggests that as much as 2,176 million tons of oil equivalent worth of extra clean energy consumption will be required by 2035 to meet the organization’s aggressive climate targets. That’s the equivalent of 19 Australias’ energy consumption. This finding is the result of a Breakthrough analysis of a new IEA report, which showcased a new position for the agency on what energy experts call “rebound effects” – a hotly contested phenomenon in energy consumption growth. 

Read more

Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

High-Energy Planet

For the past 40 years, rising energy production and consumption have been widely viewed as inherently destructive of nature. A steady stream of government, United Nations, and environmental proposals have identified lowered energy consumption as the highest goal of climate and environmental policy. But during that same period, global per capita energy consumption has risen by 30 percent. And over the next century, global energy consumption is anticipated to double, triple, or more. The reality of our high-energy planet demands that we rethink environmental protection. The question for Breakthrough Dialogue 2014 is, “How might a high-energy planet save nature?”

Read more

Not Solar Fast

Rapid Expansion of Solar Depends on Massive Subsidies and High Carbon Price

This week the International Energy Agency updated their technology roadmaps for solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal energy (STE). The bottom line is that significant policy and technological progress are required for solar to play a major role in electricity in the future. With that progress, IEA finds, solar PV could provide as much as 16 percent of global electricity by 2050, with STE providing another 11 percent –– making solar’s collective 27 percent the largest single contributor to global electricity in this IEA scenario. 

Read more

Jessica Lovering to Speak and Moderate at Nuclear Science Week’s Big Event

Breakthrough Senior Analyst and coauthor of How to Make Nuclear Cheap Jessica Lovering will speak on the Nuclear Science Week 2014 Big Event's opening panel entitled "Nuclear in Pop Culture: Evolving Narratives About Energy" on Thursday, October 16th from 12:00-1:15 pm and moderate a panel on Nuclear Leadership on Friday, October 17th from 9:30-11:00 am. 

This two-day public symposium will be hosted the week before Nuclear Science Week at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Interested individuals can pre-register for the symposium here.

Read more

Collection: Natural Gas

The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on natural gas, centering around the history of the shale revolution, pragmatic climate policies, and technological innovation. Here is our collection of analysis on natural gas:

Read more

Frequently Asked Questions About Natural Gas

Understanding the Shale Gas Revolution

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is methane (CH4), a combustible gas than can be used as fuel for automobiles, for industrial process heat, for residential uses like cooking, and for electricity generation in power plants.

Natural gas is found in a variety of geologic formations, including coalbed seams, sandstone, limestone, shales, and, frozen methane hydrates under the ocean floor. The extraction of natural gas from the ground also produces natural gas “associates” or “gas liquids” like propane, ethane, and butane, that are typically separated from methane and used for other commercial purposes. Because natural gas takes so many different forms and exists in so many different formations, vast quantities of it are found in most parts of the world.

Read more

The Left vs. the Climate

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before. 

Read more

Real-World Barriers to Carbon Pricing

Economists’ ‘One-Page’ Climate Plans Won’t Work

Ask an economist how to combat climate change, and you’re likely to get a pretty simple answer: put a price on carbon. 

“If you let the economists write the [climate] legislation, it could be quite simple,” MIT business school economist Henry Jacoby told NPR last year, implying that the whole plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions could “fit on one page.” 

In short, tax fossil fuels in proportion to the amount of carbon they release. Make coal, oil and natural gas more expensive. “That’s it; that's the whole plan,” as NPR’s David Kestenbaum put it.

Read more

Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks to Nuclear

Royal Family Plans for Nuclear to Provide 15 Percent of Power in 20 Years

Last Tuesday, energy officials in Saudi Arabia announced plans to become a major nuclear energy state, assuring the reactors would be used only for peaceful purposes (The Nuclear Wire). They intend to move fast, beginning construction by year’s end.

Read more

Energy Access

Today, more than a billion people lack adequate access to electricity and modern energy services. But modernization across the developing world, from China to sub-Saharan Africa, reveals that humanity is rapidly closing this energy gap. These trends point to the future as a high-energy planet, and recognition of this crucial trend is essential to energy scholars and policy makers.

Read more

Innovation Policy

Economists have long recognized innovation's central importance to economic growth, but have still not come to terms with the reality that “general-purpose” technologies like electricity, microchips, and the Internet often emerge from long-term public-private partnerships. And since no two technologies are exactly alike, case studies of successful innovation policy must be carefully analyzed to spur similar successes in the future.

Read more

Politics

Real political action on climate change will require pluralistic policy approaches that appeal to both the Right and the Left using a positive vision of the future – a dream, not a nightmare. In fact, a growing body of social science reveals that apocalyptic, “doom-and-gloom” messaging prompts feelings of apathy and actually hinders climate policy progress. 

Read more

Climate Policy

Make clean energy cheap — that's the key to addressing climate change and meeting human development needs. In contrast to the tried, tested, and failed model of emissions reduction commitments,  policy makers should replace targets and timetables with a pragmatic framework that emphasizes energy innovation, resilience, and human development.   

Read more

Climate

Climate change is one of the biggest environmental, technological, and developmental risks in human history. Confronting the risks posed by increasing global temperatures requires a deep understanding of energy and agricultural policy, the needs of urbanizing and industrializing populations, and non-climate environmental and public health risks.

Read more

Forests

Forests are home to vast proportions of the world’s biodiversity, but are under threat from agricultural expansion. The experience of past development shows that to prevent widespread deforestation, there have to be effective substitutes for the services forests provide. Reducing demand for wood and new agricultural land will be the most important way to ensure that the Amazon and Earth’s other great remaining forests can be preserved. 

Read more

Biodiversity

Preserving biodiversity is one of ecomodernism’s key goals. The largest threat to global biodiversity is habitat loss. By reducing the human footprint on nature, we can leave more room for wild landscapes where diverse and fascinating species live. If we can meet our needs without requiring more land, water, or resources, we can free the world’s biodiversity from human pressures and let it be something humans can appreciate for its aesthetic and spiritual values. 

Read more

Food and Farming

Feeding a population approaching 10 billion will require major innovations in the way we grow, distribute, and think about food. To meet demand with minimal environmental harm, we will need to sustainably intensify agriculture, growing more food and livestock on less land and using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Genetic modification and advanced technologies like lab-grown meat and high-rise greenhouses are needed to meet food demand efficiently and with minimal environmental harm. 

Read more

Decoupling

Decoupling refers to the way new technologies and substitutes can help humanity meet its needs while treading more lightly on nature. Whether it’s growing more crops using less land, water, and fertilizer, or producing more energy with fewer natural resource inputs, decoupling is the key trend that explains how humans can save nature in a modern, globalized world. 

Read more

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is great for economic growth, but it is not a surefire way to reduce energy consumption. Energy efficiency has improved for centuries, and during the whole time we have used more energy. The study of  “rebound effects,” where energy efficiency improvements lead to increases in energy demand (thereby eroding expected emissions reductions) is critical to understanding how much energy we expect to consume in the future and, relatedly, our greenhouse emissions. 

Click here for Breakthrough's analyses and opinions on energy efficiency.

Read more

Renewables

Renewable energy technologies – including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and bioenergy – are essential tools in the path towards modern, low-carbon energy systems. But like all energy technologies, they have significant costs and impacts. Understanding their scalability and effects on the landscape will prove essential in crafting renewable energy innovation policy. 

Click here for Breakthrough's FAQ on renewables.

Read more

Nuclear

Nuclear energy is an essential source of zero-carbon, efficient, and reliable power that also does not heavily intrude upon the land. But for nuclear to rapidly displace dirty fossil fuels, it must become safer and cheaper. Given their growing populations, industrializing countries like China and India are leading the development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies.

Click here for Breakthrough's FAQ on nuclear.

Click here for Breakthrough's analyses and opinions on nuclear.

Read more

Decarbonization

Decarbonization refers to the 200-year-old process in which societies use less carbon-intensive fuels. Economies have achieved decarbonization by transitioning from dirtier, energy-diffuse sources like wood, coal, and oil, to cleaner, energy-dense ones like natural gas, to ultimately zero-carbon sources like advanced nuclear and renewable energy technologies. Technological innovation will be necessary to speed up this transition from dirty to cleaner fuels. 

Read more

Technology

Technology has allowed humankind to transcend natural limits that otherwise would have kept us as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. Continuous innovations, both radical and incremental, will help us achieve a world in which all the world’s inhabitants can lead prosperous, secure lives while diminishing our impacts on wild, beautiful places.  

Read more

Environment

We live on a planet whose natural processes are now widely impacted by human activities. The Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans,” presents new challenges and opportunities for conservation, which must ask how a world population going on 10 billion people can lighten its footprint on the planet to leave room for vibrant, diverse natural landscapes. Embracing technology, urbanization, and human ingenuity is key to navigating this age of opportunities and hard choices. 

Read more

Climate of Extremes Part Two

Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.

1.

As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.

Read more

Energy

Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 

Read more

Ecomodernism

Ecomodernism is a pragmatic philosophy motivated by the belief that we can protect beautiful, wild places at the same time as we ensure that the seven-going-on-ten billion people in the world can lead secure, free, and prosperous lives. Ecomodernists are optimistic about humanity’s ability to shape a better future – a “good Anthropocene.” 

Read more

Climate of Extremes: Part One

How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire

This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.

In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group 350.org, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1

Read more

Environmental Affairs Symposium: We the Anthropos

What does it mean to dwell in the Anthropocene, when the earth has in many ways become a human creation? Shall we the anthropos celebrate or mourn this era? How shall we guide our environmental practices when notions such as the balance of nature and living within limits no longer fit our collective experience? How shall we move forward when the only choices we understand seem far behind us?

Environmental Affairs Symposium 2014 at Lewis & Clark College explores this era of the Anthropocene via keynote dialogue, a wide range of scholarly sessions, and other events designed for participants to forge new environmental identities with eyes wide open to contemporary ideas—ultimately to recapture imagination and hope in a world shaped by the earthbound.

Read more

Touching the Wild

Emma Marris on Staying Connected to What We Conserve

Emma Marris today: obsessed with wolves, peeved that kids can’t play in the National Parks — and a little put off by being called a “new” conservationist?

That last bit will surprise many who know Marris mainly through her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury), which is widely seen (and sometimes reviled) as one of the manifestos of the new conservation movement, such as it is.

Read more

Alex Trembath Speaks at SUNY-ESF Symposium on New American Environmentalism

A group of leading environmental scientists and policy experts will gather Sept. 11 at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to discuss a New American Environmentalism. Participating in a symposium held in connection with the inauguration of ESF's new president, the panelists will represent ESF and several other institutions: Syracuse University, the Mohawk Council of the Akwesasne, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Breakthrough Institute, and the University of Manchester, UK.

Titled "Foundations for a New American Environmentalism," the symposium's objectives are to invite reflection on the values, visions and strategies that have characterized environmentalism in the past, lay the groundwork for a continuing national conversation informed by science and compassion, and motivate and empower a new generation of students, citizens and young academics to re-imagine and reinvent the future in ways that enrich and strengthen relationships with the communities that form the living planet.

Read more

On Becoming an Ecomodernist

A Positive Vision of Our Environmental Future

The last few years have seen the emergence of a new environmental movement — sometimes called ecomodernism, other times eco-pragmatism — that offers a positive vision of our environmental future, rejects Romantic ideas about nature as unscientific and reactionary, and embraces advanced technologies, including taboo ones, like nuclear power and genetically modified organisms, as necessary to reducing humankind’s ecological footprint.

Read more

Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future

From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation. 

Read more

Ted Nordhaus Speaks on “Innovation and a Carbon Tax: Unexpected Views from the Right and Left”

Australia has just repealed one, South Africa is just getting one going, and British Columbia has a popular one that nobody seems to know about. In the United States, it is generating ever more divisiveness — or is it? Discover the unexpected areas where the right and the left agree and disagree on a carbon tax. Learn their thoughts on innovation and climate policies through a thought-provoking panel co-organized by the R Street Institute and Future 500.

Read more

The Polarization Trap

A Disappearing Center is Bad News for Liberals

With the GOP threatening in November to gain seats in both the House and the Senate, many liberal activists and commentators are likely to continue to point to changing demographic trends as a sign that the electoral setback is a temporary blip, reflective of the predictable electoral swing against an incumbent President's party during his second term and a particularly unfavorable mix of world events and domestic conditions.

Many will also continue to blame a perceived political spending advantage on the part of conservatives including the growing network of groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

For these liberal activists, donors, and fundraisers, November's electoral defeats will just be another point of evidence that they need to dedicate themselves to raising ever greater sums of money and invest in even more aggressive forms of "in your face" activism on issues ranging from climate change to social inequality.

Among the perceived encouraging trends that liberals are likely to point to are survey findings this past summer from the Pew Research Center showing that over the past twenty years the number of Americans who can be rated as "consistently liberal" in their worldviews has increased four fold, from 3 percent in 1994 to 12 percent today.

In a country considered center-right, 34 percent of Americans today score as consistently/mostly liberal in their outlook compared to 27 percent as consistently/mostly conservative, a reversal from 20 years ago.

Moreover, those in the middle (e.g. who can't be classified in either ideological camp,) have declined over the past decade by 10 points to 39 percent.

It's not only that Americans have grown more divided in their worldviews, but the constant demonization and outrage expressed at liberal and conservative media outlets, blogs, and by political leaders and commentators has cultivated deeply unfavorable views of the "other," to the point that according to Pew, a third of Democrats and Republicans believe that the other side is a "threat to the future of the country."

For liberals, who have purposively invested over the past 15 years in an ideological message machine of closely aligned media organizations, think tanks, bloggers, donor networks, and activist groups to rival that of the Right, the Pew poll findings are likely to be perceived as demonstrating the effectiveness of such echo chamber efforts.

To be sure, demographic changes and geographic sorting/mobility play a role, but for many liberal strategists and activists the intense polarization and antipathy for the "other side" reflected in the Pew findings will likely be cited as an example of successful movement building.

But such an attribution overlooks how the liberal and conservative movements fundamentally differ. For liberals, the more polarized the country becomes, the more difficult it will be to enact major policy changes or to hold together a successful electoral coalition.

For conservatives, on the other hand, increasing polarization favors their goals of downsizing government, blocking policy reforms, and limiting political participation among young people and minorities.

Read more

Is Coal Really “Peaking” in China?

Better Technologies Needed for Emissions to Start Falling

“While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.” So concludes a recent blog post from the Sierra Club’s Justin Guay and Greenpeace International’s Lauri Myllyvirta, the latter of whom recently published an analysis suggesting that Chinese coal consumption dropped in the first half of 2014:

Read more

Making Social Science Relevant Again

Engaging Students Via Politicized Social Problems

Over the past decade, among the most frequently voiced criticisms of higher education is that universities are not adequately preparing students to be successful professionals, engaged citizens, and/or informed consumers of information. The social sciences and the humanities are among the most vulnerable to these charges; as fields like communication, sociology, and political science are charged with lacking rigor and or relevance.

In these fields students are inundated with intensive-reading about jargon-heavy theories or statistically driven bodies of research related to, for example, the psychology of media effects or public opinion formation. The dynamics of political controversies such as those over climate change, childhood vaccination, or obesity are reduced to convenient opportunities to run ever more advanced experiments or survey analyses that test or replicate a theory, rather than analyzed as significant social problems worthy of study in their own right.

As a consequence, students learn (often reluctantly) about a multitude of theories or research methods, but are left unable to critically apply this knowledge to their lives as professionals, advocates, or consumers. There is also a cost for communication scholars, sociologists, and political scientists as the design of these courses reflects the approach to their own research, an approach that is increasingly viewed as politically tangential, intellectually obscure, and unworthy of funding by policymakers, philanthropists, journalists, and the public more broadly.

Read more

US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas

A Response to CO2 Scorecard

Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.

Read more

The Romance of Ecomodernism

Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014

People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.

“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”  

Read more

Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings

Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline

A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa –– one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.

Read more

Dot Earth, Vox and The Upshot?

Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism

Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has informed our understanding of why political leaders, activists, and the expert community disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental controversies, providing insight on strategies that might broker greater political cooperation. 

As I detailed in a recent series of essays, this research on what the U.S. National Academies calls the “science of science communication,” has focused on topics including the communication strategies of the expert community; the impact of worldviews on acceptance of expert advice; and the relevance of the media to public opinion.

Yet largely overlooked by this growing body of research are the specific journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive public debate relative to climate change and other issues.

In a co-authored paper that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, my colleague Declan Fahy and I detail the role that journalists and their news organization can play as influential knowledge professionals in the climate change debate and other environmental controversies.

Read more

Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print

Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs

Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.

That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.

Read more

Energetics

Alex Trembath is a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. His research has been covered by the New York TimesForeign Policy, CNN, Resources for the Future, the American Energy Innovation Council, and the National Bureau of Economic Research, among other media and academic outlets. He is a rising young thought leader on energy transitions and innovation policy, and for the last three years has co-directed Breakthrough’s annual Generation fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @atrembath

Read more

A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

Read more

Electrify to Adapt

Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty

Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.

The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.

Read more

How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise

Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector

When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers. 

Read more

A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

Read more

“Let It Go”

Japan's Fukushima Ice Wall is Unnecessary and Fuels Irrational Fears

What if Iceman from the X-Men could put a frozen ice wall around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant so that no radiation could get out? I’d be all for it.

Actually, that’s more likely than you might imagine.

For the past three years, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has faced an uphill battle of restoring public trust in their ability to manage the ongoing cleanup of the crippled Fukushima Daichi plant. 

Read more

Are Bike Sharing Programs Truly Green?

In London, Bike Sharing Adds Cars to the Road

Bike share programs might seem like the ultimate environmentally-friendly mode of urban transportation. As more people hop on bikes, the thinking goes, the use of cars will drop.

But researchers have found that the math isn’t quite so simple. According to a new study, London’s bike share program actually increases the number of automobile miles driven per year, partly because trucks are needed to ferry bikes between stations.

Read more

The Education of an Ecomodernist

From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism

Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.

But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress

Read more