Five Energy Challenges Confronting India

Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty

On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.

It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.

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Preaching to the Climate Converted

Why Showtime's "Years" Is Unlikely to Reach Non-Believers

In the first episode of the $20 million Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired last Sunday, we meet a 46-year-old evangelical Christian named Nelly Montez. Montez was laid off from a local meatpacking plant that closed due to a drought. Every week she and other women march around the plant, praying for rain. The actor Don Cheadle, one of the show’s celebrity correspondents, asks Montez if she attributes the drought to anything. She says, “I think it’s biblical.”

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Off on the Wrong Foot

Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

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How “An Inconvenient Truth” Contributed to Partisan Polarization on Climate

Joe Romm of Center for American Progress Misrepresents Polling Data

Scroll down to read an update from the authors, written on April 14, 2014

Joe Romm of Climate Progress misrepresented polling data in his critique of our recent New York Times op-ed when he claimed Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth did not contribute to partisan polarization of public attitudes toward global warming.

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Welcome New York Times Readers

An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute

If you read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s op-ed in the New York Times today and have come here to learn more about the Breakthrough Institute, welcome. For general information on Breakthrough, please visit our About page.

Breakthrough has provided more articles for understanding the larger context of the op-ed:

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The Psychology of Climate Change

The Science and Scholarship of How Humans Think and Feel about Global Warming

A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public.

This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change. 

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Our High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor. 

According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.

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Energetic Africa: Part One

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

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Jesse Ausubel Announced as 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award Winner

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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What Role for Experts in the Climate Debate?

Balancing Trust, Advocacy, and Social Change

--Guest post by Greg Alvarez

The release this week of the latest United Nations report on climate change has generated renewed debate over the role that scientists should play in mobilizing support for policy action. Some scientists are hesitant to enter this arena, fearing that such advocacy has the potential to undermine their credibility and objectivity, while eroding the public’s confidence in their work.

Others believe that the scope and immediacy of the climate crisis compels them to become advocates for political action, and that if done appropriately, such a role does not conflict with their work as scientists. Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue this week that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about their science. “At this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions,” he wrote. 

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Fighting to Breathe

New WHO Report Says Air Pollution from Cooking Caused 4.3 Million Premature Deaths

Nasty airborne particles kill 7 million people a year prematurely, reports the World Health Organization—way more than previous estimates.

That news may not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen images of smog-belching smokestacks in Beijing, Delhi, or Mexico. But those factories—or even the clogged roadways of modern cities—are not the biggest culprit. Each year, some 4.3 million people die earlier than they should because of foul air inside their homes, says the WHO. (Its study accounted for fact that people spend time both indoor and outdoors.)

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Farm to Fable

Eating Local May Feel Good, But Is It Smart for the Planet?

The local food movement has captured the imagination of many foodies, chefs, and gardeners. But is “going locavore” also good conservation — or just an exercise in feeling good?

The term “local” food has various and sometimes conflicting definitions. It often means food grown “near” the consumer (eg, within 50 miles, the county, or the same state). It can also mean food sold in an alternative food market. And it could refer to food that has some characteristic reminding people of what they think of as home.

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In Defense of ‘Picking Winners’

To Reduce GHG Emissions, We Need Government-Led Innovation

Virtually all economists working on climate change agree that we should price GHG emissions. Doing so creates an incentive to reduce emissions without the government directing specific technology adoptions or activity changes, that is, without “picking winners.”

Nearly as many economists agree that we should subsidize basic R&D. Doing so accelerates the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to avoid even higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t subsidize all basic R&D regardless of how nutty the idea or indirect the connection to GHG reduction. We should subsidize the best ideas, that is, we should pick winners.

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The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Gray Matter

New Research Suggests the Left & Right Are Guided By Shared Morals

Debates between liberals and conservatives often degenerate into the two sides talking past one another, as though they are speaking different languages. Jonathan Haidt’s and Jesse Graham’s Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind suggest that this impression is reasonably accurate: liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs are based on different moral foundations. Liberals’ and conservatives’ moral beliefs both rely on fairness and harm. But conservatives are more likely than liberals to make moral judgments based on the foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity (the “binding” foundations, so called because they emphasize group cohesiveness and order). Claims like these imply that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different kinds of people; conservatives may be figuratively from Mars, whereas liberals are from Venus.

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Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee

Why Poor Nations Deserve the Large Dams From Which the West Has Benefited

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is the access to electricity. As Todd Moss has noted, consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically-viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. President Obama’s major initiative with Africa, “Power Africa,” envisages a major role for hydropower. 

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Ivanpah’s Land Footprint

World's Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox "Twin Pack"

The opening of the world's largest solar power station provides an opportunity to take stock of our energy options. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonized for around 10 billion people.

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Keeping the Poor Poor

Against Anti-Growth Environmentalism

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

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Methane Leakage from Cows Higher than from Natural Gas Development

New Data from EPA, DOE, and EDF Confirm Declining Methane Leakage from Gas Prodution

Since the onset of the shale gas revolution, many have worried that emissions of fugitive methane — the main component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide on a molecule-for-molecule basis — are eroding the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas. Some have gone so far as to claim that natural gas is worse than coal because of excess methane emissions. But according recent measurements from the Environmental Protection Agency, total methane emissions have been going down, most rapidly in the natural gas system. 

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The Poverty of the Energiewende

How Low Homeownership Makes Germany's Antinuclear, Pro-Renewables Policies Regressive

I recently had an interesting opportunity to spend a week in Berlin talking to many people about Energiewende, one of the most radical and far-reaching initiatives any affluent economy has undertaken in recent years. The term Die Wende has a gradation of meanings, from a gradual turnaround to a sudden U-turn, and before it became associated with energy, its most common use in German conversations was in reference to the demise of East Germany in 1989. That was, of course, a true U-turn, from dogmatic communism to absorption by liberal Germany. Energiewende cannot be a near instant U-turn — no complex technical infrastructure can be changed that rapidly — but Germany’s new energy goals are bold and truly transformative. Their implementation is also proving to be less than admirable, indeed the process is becoming rather burdensome. Yet most of the people I talked to in Berlin seemed unconcerned, and many were even incredulous or politely hostile when I suggested (always mindful of Andersen’s wise tale) that the king may not be fully clothed.

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Bitter Harvest

How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Norm Borlaug had no illusions that the Green Revolution was anything other than a means to buy the world time. Time, to get our house in order, to stabilize our populations, to generate the knowledge that would allow us to support ourselves without destroying the environment; and to enable most people to lead their lives in dignity. The expectation, he told me in several conversations in the early 2000s, was that we as societies would take up the new knowledge and use it wisely. 

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Pleistocene Dreams

George Monbiot on Rewilding the Planet

One day, the British environmental writer George Monbiot was digging in his garden when he had a revelation—that his life had become too tidy and constrained. While exploring what it would take to re-ignite his own sense of wonder, he waded into a sea of ideas about restoration and rewilding that so captured his imagination that it became the focus of his next book. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding was published in the United Kingdom in 2013, to much acclaim, and is forthcoming in the U.S. in 2014. Orion editor Jennifer Sahn caught up with Monbiot to talk about rewilding—what it means for people, for nature, and for an environmental movement that is in great need of having far wider appeal.

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Electric Africa

7 Charts That Will Change the Way You Think About Africa

This is a joint post with Madeleine Gleave, and is part of a series of posts and publications, which can be found on the CGD’s new Energy Poverty topic page Download PDF of all 7 graphics.

1.     Energy poverty is an endemic and crippling problem; nearly 600 million people in Africa live without access to any power, which also means no access to safer and healthier electric cooking and heating, powered health centers and refrigerated medicines, light to study at night, or electricity to run a business.  Here’s the situation in the 6 countries chosen to be part of President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, home to nearly 1/3 of the continent’s population:

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When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

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The Nuclear Power Imperative

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Richard Lester on the Need for Next-Gen Nuclear

Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear? I’ll come to my own views on this question shortly. But first I want to make a few comments about other people’s views.

In recent months, some prominent and previously antinuclear environmentalists have been declaring their support for a larger nuclear role, citing the risks of climate change for their change of mind.

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Brighter Nights in Africa

$300B Required for African Nations to Achieve Universal Electricity Access by 2030

How long the night the dawn will break. Such is the saying – often quoted as an African proverb – attesting to the virtues of patience and perseverance. However, it also serves as an allusion to Africa’s gaps in infrastructure, particularly for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. As the well-known satellite photos of Africa at night show, very little of sub-Saharan Africa’s vast expanse is illuminated, so the nights are long indeed.

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Our Biopolitics Future

Public Debates Will Blur Left/Right Differences

If you follow the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine and the life sciences, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the more politically conservative United States. To be sure, history and happenstance play a role, but these differences also reflect public concerns that blur traditional left/right distinctions, suggesting the need for experts and their institutions to invest in a new type of public and media conversation about what scientific innovations mean for society.

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Green Haze

How Wood-Burning Environmentalists Show Behavior Changes Won't Solve Climate Change

While much of the US has been dealing with severe winter weather, California is experiencing a record dry spell. The clear skies have also brought some cold nights and, with them, wood smoke. What I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that the desire for a cozy wood fire cuts across political lines. And as the local air quality authority has called a record number of no-burn days due to poor air quality (high levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulates that can get through the respiratory system and lodge in lungs), the anger at restrictions on those cozy fires has also cut across political lines.

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Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

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Concrete Jungles? They, Too, Can Support Wildlife

Two-Thirds of Native Plant & Bird Species Continue to Exist in Cities

Mention the word biodiversity to a city dweller and images of remote natural beauty will probably come to mind – not an empty car park around the corner. Wildlife, we think, should be found in wild places, or confined to sanctuaries and national parks. But research shows that cities can in fact support biodiversity and this can have major implications for conservation efforts.

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On Keystone XL and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Civil Rights Metaphors Are Inappropriate for Getting Off Oil

Writing on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” former green-jobs czar Van Jones invoked Dr. King to justify the environmental movement's singular focus on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

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The Passion of Alvin Weinberg

The Humanitarian Behind China's Great Thorium Push

The 59-year-old physicist was in a something of a panic. The earth was getting hotter, and nobody in Washington seemed to care. Nuclear power — the only realistic way to produce a lot of electricity with few carbon emissions — was the solution. But rising costs for nuclear power and the power of the coal lobby appeared to be trumping environmental concerns, and rationality itself.

He started writing articles. The first he published in Science. It was called “Global Effects of Man’s Production of Energy.” Next, he co-authored an article evaluating what would happen if the U.S. moved away from nuclear. “Continued energy demands during the first few decades of the next century will push atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels which warrant serious concern, even for the low energy growth case.”

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Don’t Believe the Fever Pitch

Climate Change Plays Limited Role in Spread of Dengue Virus

In the summer of 2012, I spent a week in a Cambodian hospital recovering from dengue fever, which I had contracted in Laos. When my bout with dengue comes up in conversation, a standard response is a knowing look accompanied by the obvious explanation: climate change – as in,  “any fool knows that dengue is spreading around the world because of climate change.”

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Saving Lives Does Not Lead to Overpopulation

The Age of Peak Child

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. As recently as the Cold War, American foreign policy experts theorized that famine would make poor countries susceptible to Communism. Controlling the population of the poor countries labeled the Third World became an official policy in the so-called First World. In the worst cases, this meant trying to force women not to get pregnant. Gradually, the global family planning community moved away from this single-minded focus on limiting reproduction and started thinking about how to help women seize control of their own lives. This was a welcome change. We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering.

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A Mammoth Comeback

The Case for Resurrecting Extinct Species

Sequenceable DNA can be recovered from museum specimens and some fossils of extinct species. That discovery in the 1980s set in motion the idea that it might be possible to bring some extinct animals back to life. The advent of ever-cheaper shotgun-sequencing of living genomes meant that the highly fragmented condition of "ancient DNA" was no barrier to reconstructing the whole genome of creatures long gone. Meanwhile, the rise of "synthetic biology" since 2000 is providing highly precise genome-editing tools. 

Maybe we can edit long-dead genomes back to life. Maybe extinct species could walk the Earth again. Maybe they could once again thrive in the wild. 

 

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Der Kohle-Boom

Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out & Rising Coal Consumption

In September 2012 Germany's Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing the following: “If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”

Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany's new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase-out's most vocal proponents.

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Breakthrough 2013: Creative Destruction Agenda

Over the last century the view of the world as essentially dynamic has overthrown ancient notions of stasis. While naturalists once believed Nature existed in a state of delicate harmony, modern earth scientists describe disturbance as essential to life. While economists once focused on the way economies revert to states of equilibrium, hoping to discover universal laws, today’s investor class seeks disruptive new technologies that change the rules of the game. Little surprise then that the phrase “creative destruction,” once limited to economics, now seems appropriate shorthand for interpreting a multitude of contemporary forces. 

When it comes to the environment, we focus so resolutely on the “destruction” side of the equation that many of us, especially in the developed world, only refer to “progress” ironically. And yet, if some amount of destruction will always be required for any act of creation, it may also be that rising affluence, ingenuity, and wisdom are allowing us to radically reduce our destructive impacts. In an effort to explore these dynamics and the choices they present, Breakthrough Dialogue 2013 asked, “How can we shape creative destruction to create a world where all nine billion of us can live prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet?”

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Byting the Hand That Feeds

Why Silicon Valley Should Improve, Not Abandon, Washington

In Silicon Valley, 2013 will be remembered as the year the idea of separating from the United States went viral. There was the Stanford lecturer and investor, Balaji Srinivasan, who called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” declaring to a large audience of elite entrepreneurs, "We need to build an opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”

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Baucus Proposal A Promising Start, But Neglects Existing Nuclear

Current Fleet Supplies 60% of Domestic Zero-Carbon Energy

Last month Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus released a proposal to replace 42 existing energy tax incentives with two “technology neutral” tax credits, one for electricity fuels and the other for transportation fuels. By embracing natural gas and new nuclear power, Chairman Baucus’ proposal could contribute to a pragmatic climate strategy. But the plan could go even farther by extending incentives to the existing nuclear fleet, where an anticipated decline over the next two decades poses the largest threat to emissions reduction efforts. 

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The Coal, Hard Truth

China's New Coal 6 Times Higher than Wind, 27 Times Higher than Solar in 2013

The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.

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Steeling Ourselves for More Coal

Why Explosive Steel Manufacturing in China Matters

There is no material more fundamental to industrial civilization than steel. Modern buildings, ships, cars, planes and bridges would all be unthinkable without steel, and as pointed out by Allwood and Cullen in their fine recent book on materials production we currently have no viable substitute materials that could perform steel's multiple functions. We are still very much living in the iron age.

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Animal Planet’s Bogus Account of Chernobyl Wildlife

Fission for Scare Tactics

As someone who has spent the past four years making and distributing a documentary film about nuclear energy, Pandora’s Promise, it’s nice once in a while to spend a relaxing weekend at home with my kids thinking of more pedestrian things, like doing the laundry. But the battle over nuclear energy refuses to leave me alone despite my best efforts.

Recently, my 10-year old son, Luc, has become enamored with a highly popular fishing show on Animal Planet called River Monsters. To those of you unfamiliar with it, River Monsters is a British reality show that follows a dashing expert fisherman named Jeremy Wade around the world in search of dangerous freshwater predators. Last weekend, my son and his best friend were hanging out on a rainy day watching their favorite show when suddenly I hear shrieks from the TV room, “Dad, you gotta come and see this!”

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Can Geoengineering Save the Planet?

Two Climate Scientists Debate Pros and Cons of Climate Engineering

Geoengineering. It’s not the sexiest sounding topic, but a small group of scientists say it just might be able to save the world.

The basic idea behind geonengineering (or climate engineering) is that humans can artificially moderate the Earth's climate allowing us to control temperature, thereby avoiding the negative impacts of climate change. There are a number of methods suggested to achieve this scientific wizardry, including placing huge reflectors in space or using aerosols to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.

It's a hugely controversial theory. One of the main counter-arguments is that promoting a manmade solution to climate change will lead to inertia around other efforts to reduce human impact. But the popularity of geoengineering is on the rise among some scientists and even received a nod from the IPCC in its recent climate change report.

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Miracle WIPP

Nuclear Waste Worth Its Salt — for a Billion Years

250 million-year-old DNA has been recovered intact from a nuclear waste disposal site in New Mexico and provides ample evidence that the waste will be imprisoned for life, but likely prison time will top a billion years.

Forensic teams of scientists working over a decade in laboratories at University of North Carolina, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, and West Chester University carefully culled the evidence from original fluid inclusions in the massive salt rock that hosts America’s only operating deep underground nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The DNA and other biomolecules are remnants from ancient salt-loving bacteria that once lived in a drying-up ocean.

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The Revolution Won’t Be Distributed

Most Renewables Deployment Centralized

If you read the environmental press, clean tech media, or even the New York Times, you might conclude that America is on the cusp of a distributed generation (DG) revolution. “Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model to the ground,” wrote leading environmental news site Grist last April. “Renewable-energy technologies like solar and wind power,” the Times wrote, are now “challenging the traditional distribution system.”

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Love Your Frankenfoods

Anti-GMO Mob Scarier Than Biotechnology

The Frankenstein metaphor that opponents of genetically modified food use to promote their fears is more apt than they realize. Yes, the monster is an unnatural life-form created by scientific hubris that wreaks death and destruction, the way they describe biotechnology. But remember that frightened angry mob in the Frankenstein movie, the terrified townspeople that take up torches and pitchforks and follow their baying hunting dogs to kill what they fear? It’s a more-than-apt metaphor for how the most virulent segments of the anti-GM mob are behaving. And for society as a whole, between the perceived risk of GMOs and the real risks of making policy about safety under the torches of an emotion-driven mob that distorts and ignores the evidence, the latter is the FAR scarier of the two.

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Solar Lamps Are No Substitute for Access to Modern Energy

Energy Poor Need Cheap, Reliable Electricity

I’m a pretty big fan of cash transfers. I’ve become convinced that cash is an efficient immediate way to help the poor and very often a better alternative than other standard development interventions like training or building schools. Cash transfers may even be catalytic, giving poor people a floor to invest in business, their children’s health and education, and some breathing space to pursue higher value activities. 

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Galactic Guzzler

How Virgin Galactic's Efficient Spacecraft Opens Up New Frontiers for Energy Consumption

In a new article in today’s Wall Street Journal, two Breakthrough Institute staff members argue that the rise of commercial space tourism, heralded by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo upcoming launch, makes the case that humans will continue to use more, not less, energy in the future, despite improvements in energy efficiency. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, efficiency improvements may ultimately enable greater levels of energy consumption.

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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California Gets Coal for Christmas

SONGS Closure Produces Extra 18M Tons of Carbon Dioxide

California is getting a lump of coal for Christmas because it was naughty in shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in San Diego this year. The lump of coal comes in the form of an extra 18 million tons of CO2 per year delivered to the atmosphere by replacing the 15 billion kWhrs of electricity each year with a mix of gas, wind, and solar. Also lost will be 1,500 local jobs and $50 million in lost revenue to Southern California each year (EIANEI).

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Virgin’s Richard Branson Defends Nuclear

Sir Richard Urges People to Watch 'Pandora's Promise'

Few would question the environmental credentials of Britain’s business magnate Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group. As founder and chief benefactor of the Carbon War Room, Branson has long advocated carbon pricing, energy efficiency measures, and transforming business as the answer to global warming. Add to that list the expansion of nuclear energy.

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The Myth of America’s Great Stagnation

The Age of Innovation Isn’t Over

Is the great age of American economic growth over? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Despite recovering job growth—the US economy added an estimated 203,000 jobs in November—the United States is likely to experience slower GDP growth in the decades ahead. Since 1960, the rate has been 3.3 percent. But the Federal Reserve predicts a rate of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in the future, and JPMorgan even projects a rate of less than 1.75 percent. The longer trajectory is grim: US economic growth has been gradually decelerating for decades, from a 70-year average of 3.6 percent (1939-2009) to a 10-year average of just 1.9 percent (1999-2009).

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2013: The Best Year in Human History

Five Reasons to Celebrate Progress

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

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Emissions Impossible

United Kingdom & Australia Far From Decarbonization Targets

While I was working on The Climate Fix I published several peer-reviewed articles on climate policies in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. In recent months I have updated these analyses and will summarize the updates here. 

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Without Government the Market Fails and Fails Badly

What the Simon-Ehrlich Debate Reveals About Technological Change

In a previous post, we discussed some of the evidence suggesting that technology is indeed endogenous and does respond to scarcities and prices.

Many economists have worked on modeling this type of endogeneity of technology and how it responds to prices. Remember the great economist John Hicks’s assertion, which we quoted in our previous post, about how higher price of a factor will tend to induce technological changes directed at economizing on that factor.

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Climate Change Is Now in the Developing World’s Hands

Can Their Economic Self-Interest Help Us All?

This past weekend, exhausted diplomats from around the world climbed into fossil fuel–powered airplanes and bade good riddance to Warsaw, Poland. They had spent two weeks holed up in the frigid capital engaging in what has become an annual Kabuki dance over what to do about climate change. Almost exactly as has happened in prior international climate change conferences—gatherings that, like the falling leaves, have become autumnal rites—intonations about a global warming threat were offered, hope for selfless environmental cooperation was expressed, and battles over who should foot the bill were fought. By the time everyone headed for the airport, little of substance had gotten done.

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Food Biotech Gridlock

Why Allowing Labeling May Assuage Public Skepticism

--Todd Newman and Matthew Nisbet

In November, Washington state voters rejected Initiative 522 that would have required foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labeled. If the vote passed, Washington would have been the first state in the nation to require such labeling. With roughly $30 million in total spending, the ballot fight was the most expensive in the state’s history, making Washington the latest public stage for the ongoing conflict over GMOs that pits industry and many scientists against an increasingly well-funded coalition of media-savvy advocates. 

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GMO Fears Overblown

World Without GM Crops Poses Greater Risks

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of genetically modified (GM) foods and, more specifically, labeling food that contains GM ingredients. Recently, the state of Washington voted on an initiative that would force manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically altered crops. If it was approved, Washington would have become the first state to pass GM labeling requirements, although dozens more are considering similar legislation.

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Commanders in Growth?

Charting Economic Growth Under Republican vs. Democratic Presidents

The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post recently reported on a new paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson (here in PDF, hereafter BW13), which tackles what would seem to be a straightforward question: Why is it that since World War II the US economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents? This post looks at this question from the broader standpoint of policy research methods. I conclude that BW13 have asked the wrong question, one that lends itself to many answers or none at all, and perhaps it tells us more about policy research methods than anything else.

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America, Land of Carnivores

An Interview with Maureen Ogle, Author of "In Meat We Trust"

In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hit shelves Tuesday, November 12. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.

Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hendrik Hertzberg’s Nuclear Option

New Yorker Editor Endorses the Atom

Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”

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Embracing Our High-Energy Planet

More Energy, Not Less, the Key to Cutting Emissions

"The long story of human progress is one of continually rising energy consumption," says the Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath. 

In order to continue the path of human progress, and indeed to extend it to all of the world's inhabitants over the next century, Trembath argues that we need a "high-energy planet." 

This idea flies in the face of the conventional environmental movement. Our profligate energy use is our biggest problem, the story goes. So in order to avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to cut back. We all need to live simpler and smaller lives.

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The Socialist Case for Nuclear Energy

How Technology Can Achieve Marx’s Vision of a New Society

The deepest, the most objective and the most indisputable criterion says: progress can be measured by the growth of the productivity of social labour. -- Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (1932)

Energy, the environment, global climate change, and sea level rise are all huge, vast interconnected subjects that generate much debate and controversy at every level of society. One expects this when the future of our species, and all other species, are at stake.

The center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy. The historic application, or utilization, of various forms of energy is a measure of human progress. Even before the rise of civilizations such as the Indus, Greek, Persian, and others long gone were relegated to the anthropology text books and museums, and even before the development of class society, human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.

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Barriers to Climate Legislation Following the 2016 Election

Political Dysfunction Requires a New Paradigm for Climate Advocacy

Political forecasts are always difficult to make. But given the dysfunction in Washington and the fall out from Obamacare, as I write in a column at Ensia magazine this week, environmentalists would be wise to reflect on what are quickly appearing to be tough barriers to passing a major climate bill following the 2016 election. Even assuming that an experienced leader like Hillary Clinton is elected president, let’s take a moment to consider how these barriers are likely to shape up.

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The Explosive Rise of Subsidies to Chinese Industry

How China’s Mercantilism Hurts the Global Economy

The intellectual foundation of free trade, and the North Star guide for US international trade policy, was formulated by David Ricardo, a 19th century classical economist whose theory of comparative advantage holds that the market determines which nations are naturally good at producing and that more trade is always welfare-maximizing. What happens when a nation openly rejects Ricardo, desires absolute, not comparative, advantage, and employs massive state subsidies to attain that end, is the subject of Usha and George Haley’s comprehensive and groundbreaking book Subsidies to Chinese Industry: State Capitalism, Business Strategy, and Trade Policy. 

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