Passion and Pragmatism

Remembering David MacKay

I first met David MacKay in the summer of 2009 or thereabouts. Michael Shellenberger and I had just finished a talk co-hosted by Policy Exchange, a UK-based Conservative think tank, and IPPR, a think tank aligned with Labor. Afterwards, David was among the first people to approach me. He pushed a copy of Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air into my chest and told me, in his trademark manner (simultaneously respectful, polite, and direct) that while I was right that climate mitigation would require a clean energy revolution, I needed to stop banging on about renewable energy. 

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Lightbulbs, Refrigerators, Factories, and Cities

New CGD Report Calls for Clearer, More Ambitious Energy Access Targets

How much energy do people need to rise out of subsistence poverty? What do we mean by the phrase ‘modern levels of energy consumption?’ The answers to these questions have important consequences not just for human development, but also climate change, infrastructure investment, and governance. 

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Not Dead Yet

Global Nuclear Industry Picked Up Steam in 2015

Despite all the obituaries, last year’s stats show the nuclear renaissance is alive and kicking—and keeping pace with wind and solar. Here’s how to keep it going.

Last year the success of wind and solar power made headlines as installations of new turbines and PV panels soared. Meanwhile, “nuclear is dead” think pieces mushroomed in the press as old plants closed and new projects floundered in delays and cost over-runs.

But while the “rise of renewables” is indeed reason to celebrate, the “death of nuclear” storyline has been greatly exaggerated. Far from being moribund, in 2015 the global nuclear sector quietly had its best year in decades. New reactors came on line that will generate as much low-carbon electricity as last year’s crops of new wind turbines or solar panels. The cost of building those reactors was less than one third the cost of building the wind turbines and solar panels, and typical construction times were under 6 years. The conventional wisdom that nuclear projects must be decade-long, budget-busting melodramas proved starkly wrong last year. In crucial respects the nuclear renaissance has hit its stride and is making a fundamental contribution to decarbonization—one that will accelerate if the industry gets recognition and support for what it is doing right.

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How Much Radiation Is Too Much?

An Interview with Edward Calabrese

Everyone knows that the dose is critical when you are taking a prescription medication: a small amount can provide significant benefit, but a large dose can kill you. This “non-linear” effect is taken for granted in pharmaceuticals, but is not generally adopted for regulating the risks of radiation. Dr. Edward Calabrese is a professor and toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. He has spent his career studying non-linear effects in different carcinogens. From hundreds of studies, he has concluded that radiation should be treated more like pharmaceuticals, and regulators needs to change how they think about radiation risks and harm.

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Ammonia is Everest Base Camp for Clean Energy

An Innovation Policy in Disguise

In September 1987 twenty four countries signed the Montreal Protocol, beginning the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other materials that destroy the ozone layer. The international community decided the impact of a small group of industrial chemicals was simply too dangerous, and outlawed them.

Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at another industrial chemical with dangerous global warming impacts — ammonia. Specifically, ammonia that is produced from fossil carbon, with high CO2 emissions. Fossil ammonia.

A phaseout of fossil ammonia would do more than cut CO2 emissions from the fertilizer industry.  It is in fact an innovation policy in disguise. The real effect is to drive the technological innovation we need to take on the main game — the decarbonization of energy.

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Evolving Toward a Better Anthropocene

How did people evolve the capacity to push the planet into a new geologic era?

Humans have now transformed Earth to such a degree that a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene, may soon mark the emergence of humanity as a “great force of nature.” The big question is why? Why did humans, and no other single multicellular species in the history of the Earth, gain the capacity to transform an entire planet? What is the nature of this new global force? Can we guide this force to create better outcomes for both people and nonhuman nature?

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Towards Peak Impact

The Evidence for Decoupling

In the past few years, decoupling – breaking the link between economic growth and environmental impacts – has become the new catchword in environmental debates. The OECD has declared it a top priority, and UNEP’s International Resource Panel launched a report series on the topic in 2011. And last year, interest in the idea shot up after the publication of An Ecomodernist Manifesto” which declared decoupling a central objective of ecomodernism.

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Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

Even as adaptation has more recently gained mainstream acceptance as an unavoidable response to rising global temperatures, it continues to be a sideshow to the main event of limiting greenhouse gas emissions through international climate negotiations. This misses enormous opportunities for effective action to reduce human suffering due to climate and weather disasters, and to lay a stable foundation for cooperative international efforts to address both climate adaptation and mitigation.

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Bill McKibben’s Misleading New Chemistry

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Fracking Debate

One could be excused for concluding, upon reading Bill McKibben’s latest anti-fracking jeremiad in the Nation, that a new Harvard study released in February has found that US methane emissions over the last decade have risen due to increasing natural gas production.   “This new Harvard data,” McKibben writes, “suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”

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Exceptional Circumstances

Does Climate Change Trump Democracy?

Researchers who flirt with the idea that more authoritarian governance would help us address global warming are badly mistaken. What’s really needed is more democracy.


The threats to democracy in the modern era are many. Not least is the risk posed by the widespread feeling among different segments of the public in contemporary democracies that no one from the political class is listening. Such discontent reaches from the Tea Party in the United States and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the United Kingdom to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party in Germany and the National Front in France. But worryingly, similar sentiments can be found in the climate science and policy community. 
 

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March 31: Ecomodernism Debated: American Association of Geographers to Host Panel on Ecomodernism

Since its publication last year, "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" has attracted a great deal of academic and media attention, and contains numerous points of potential agreement and discord with environmental geographers. On March 31st, five panelists including Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Ted Nordhaus will discuss some of the primary itellectual areas of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" as part of the 2016 American Association of Geographers' Annual Meeting.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Population

Global Population in the 21st Century

Q: Why is population relevant to the environment?

Human economic activities impact the environment through land use, freshwater consumption, pollution, and so on. A larger population can increase these pressures, but not always in a linear manner. Environmental impacts depend not only on the size of the population, but also how wealthy those people are, the nature of their consumption, and how those products are produced.

For example, the average Northern European consumes more food and a larger variety of foods than the average West African. However, those two regions actually require a similar amount of cropland, per capita, for food production, because they use very different agricultural technologies.3 Ultimately, population size is an important, but not the only, factor determining human impacts on the environment.

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Zero-Carbon in the 50 States

An Interview with 'Footprint to Wings' Founder Rezwan Razani

While the Clean Power Plan is embattled in the courts, Rezwan Razani wants states to start playing the game. Her organization, Footprint to Wings, encourages states to join the race toward net zero-carbon emissions and offers a playbook and coaching. Drawing on her experiences in Hollywood and regional planning, Razani works to create a new narrative around decarbonization that both inspires and motivates us to act more aggressively to reduce emissions. The race to zero carbon is kicking off with an actual race on May 21st this year, the Race to Zero Carbon 5k and 10k in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The event includes clean energy expositions and Zero Carbon Coaching for those that want to know about methods for dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

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March 15: Jessica Lovering Speaking at Climate One

With many of America’s first nuclear power plants nearing the end of their expected lifespan, should they be shut down or given a new lease on life? In recent years the licenses have been extended on many nuclear plants while a few have shut down. There is a lively debate over whether California should shutter the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. If it does close, would its electricity be replaced by clean fuels, fossil fuels or perhaps new nuclear?

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Rebound Critics Misfire

A Response to Danny Cullenward and Jonathan Koomey

In a recent duo of blog posts energy economists Danny Cullenward and Jonathan Koomey broadly challenge the notion that so-called rebound effects are likely substantial and should be dealt with as such. The basis for their claim is their recently published peer-reviewed article, which challenges my 2013 analysis finding consistently large long-term rebound effects across 30 sectors of the US economy between 1980 and 2000.

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Apples to Apples to Atoms

The Problem with Comparing Learning Rates Across Energy Technologies

Future energy scenarios are dependent on assumptions about the prices and scalability of energy sources, often relying on historic learning curves to predict the future costs of various fuels or generation technologies. But the academic literature has become overly focused on comparing learning curves for different energy technologies, often in an attempt to divine intrinsic economic qualities about different technologies. In particular, it’s common to highlight the difference between the trends for solar PV panels, which are often described as following Moore’s Law, contrasted with nuclear power, where costs appear to only increase over time. But the metric that matters most, cost of generating electricity, appears to follow no guaranteed trend for these technologies, as new data shows.

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China and Germany Go Head-to-Head on Fusion

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism

If the sci/tech press is any indication, research labs in Germany and China appear to be racing towards a successful demonstration of fusion energy. I won't get into the physics because I don't understand them, but I was fascinated to see the consistent "Germany vs. China" meme across different outlets last week. 

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Historical Construction Costs of Global Nuclear Power Reactors

In Breakthrough’s 2013 report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, we argued that nuclear needed innovative new designs to become radically cheaper, able to displace fossil fuels. But in the aftermath of that report, we uncovered a large disagreement about why nuclear power became expensive. In particular, many critics have claimed that cost escalation and “negative learning” are intrinsic to nuclear power.

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Nuclear Costs Reconsidered

‘Negative Learning’ Not Inherent to Nuclear Power

Last month in Paris, the cognitive dissonance between environmental demands for immediate and rapid decarbonization of the global economy and the long standing rejection of nuclear energy by environmental NGO’s and advocates reached the breaking point. Four climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, flew to Paris to reiterate their call for environmental leaders to reverse their opposition to nuclear energy. “The future of our planet and our descendants depends,” the four scientists wrote, “on letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

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Improving on Nature

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism

"So sometime in the distant past, at least 20,000 years ago and probably much more, members of our species decided they could improve on nature."

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Risk and Time in the Anthropocene

Why the Doomsday Clock is No Longer a Useful Tool for Measuring Societal Risk

Yesterday, January 26, 2016, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adjusted their 60-year old Doomsday Clock. Outlets like the Independent and Fusion speculated as to the Bulletin’s ultimate decision: would we move closer to midnight, foretelling an acceleration on our path to the apocalypse? Or would progress made in 2015 – like the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement – push doomsday back by a minute or two?

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The Long Anthropocene: An Interview with Erle Ellis

Why Rush to Formalize a New Epoch in the Making?

Earlier this month, Science published a paper by the Anthropocene Working Group, or AWG, detailing the evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” reads the title of their paper. Erle Ellis, one of the authors of the new paper and a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, has a somewhat unique view on the issue as an ecologist. Below is a lightly edited interview with Ellis. 

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Ecomodernism in the New Year

Industrial Agriculture, GMO Labels, and the Formal Anthropocene

Responding to the Pope's climate encyclical in Nature, Breakthrough senior fellow Dan Sarewitz gives us all a New Years Resolution: "constructive engagement is the key to climate action," writes Sarewitz. Ditto all other political action. Here's to 2016, a year of debate, engagement, and ecomodernist progress!

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Do We Need a New Green Revolution?

Three Breakthrough Senior Fellows Respond to Sharp and Leshner

Earlier this week, Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner argued in the New York Times that we need a new ‘Green Revolution,’ a step-change in agricultural productivity. The United States achieved tremendous productivity gains over the 20th century, the two science advocates argue, but...

Maintaining this level of productivity has been quite a challenge in recent years and is likely to become more difficult over the next few decades as weather patterns, available water and growing seasons shift further and threats of invasive weeds, pests and pathogens rise.

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2016 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Leading Scholars Join Breakthrough

A brilliant plant geneticist bridging the debate between organics and GMOs. A sociologist who has argued for throwing out environmentalism’s hallowed ‘precautionary principle.’ A climate scientist as committed to pragmatic solutions as he is to the seriousness of the climate challenge. A geographer unequaled in her study of agricultural systems and land use impacts. And a founder of both the Breakthrough Institute and ecomodernism. The Breakthrough Institute is proud to announce Ruth DeFries, Steve Fuller, David Lea, Pamela Ronald, and Michael Shellenberger as our 2016 Senior Fellows.

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The Year of the Good Anthropocene

Top Breakthroughs of 2015

In 2015, the Breakthrough Institute welcomed that debate. In April, several of us co-authored “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which states that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The theme of our summer Dialogue this year was “The Good Anthropocene,” where Clive Hamilton debated Manifesto coauthor Mark Lynas on our stage. We also released the fifth issue of our Breakthrough Journal, themed “The Good Anthropocene.” 

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COP21 and the Shift Toward Climate Pragmatism

On December 12th, bleary-eyed negotiators walked out of the Paris-Le Bourget conference center to announce a global agreement to fight climate change. Reactions to the agreement have generally taken two forms  - overheated claims about the historic nature of the agreement from many proponents and dismissal from both those demanding stronger action and those opposed to any action at all, on grounds that the agreement represents little change from business as usual.

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What to make of the COP 21 Agreement

On Saturday, bleary-eyed negotiators walked out of the Le Bourget conference center to announce a global agreement to fight climate change. Reactions to the agreement have generally taken two forms  - overheated claims about the historic nature of the agreement from many proponents and dismissal from both those demanding stronger action and those opposed to any action at all, on grounds that the agreement represents little change from business as usual. 

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Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus is a leading global thinker on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. He is the co-founder of the Breakthough Institute and a co-author of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto. 

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A New Day for Ecomodernism

Big Changes at the Breakthrough Institute

Over a decade ago, the three of us created the Breakthrough Institute to help build a better environmental movement. The publication of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” in April of this year represents the culmination of that effort. The manifesto has been translated by volunteers into 10 additional languages, and has become a touchstone for conversations about how to advance human development while protecting the natural environment.

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Ecomodernism in Paris

The biggest news this week was the announcement by President Obama, Bill Gates, and other world and industry leaders that both the private and public sectors would step up their commitment to advanced energy R&D. Bizarre wet blanket skepticism from Joe Romm and Mark Jacobson nothwithstanding, this is huge.

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Seeds of a Good Anthropocene

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change's twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris is less than a month away. I'm not a huge fan of forums for hundreds of negotiators to figure out how to make business-as-usual sound like ambitious target-setting, but okay. 

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India — Re-Energized

Samir Saran Argues that India Must Hold Fast Against Western Climate Change Demands

What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?

Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”

Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?

Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.

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Songs of Ecomodernism

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

This week we published the German translation of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. I always like learning how 'ecomodernism' translates into different languages. In German, it's 'Ökomodernisten.' 

By my rough calculations, the Manifesto can now be read by about a third of the planet in their native language, and about half the planet in a primary or secondary language. 

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Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

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November 10: Jessica Lovering to Speak at American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting & Expo

Jessica Lovering will speak at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting's General Chair’s Special Session entitled "Nuclear Energy: The Federal and State Approach to Compliance with the Clean Power Plan (CPP)" on November 10 from 4:30pm-7:00pm. Jessica will join panelists Donald R Hoffman - President/CEO, Excel Services Corporation, Edward Kee - CEO and Principal Consultant, Melissa Savage - Senior Director, National Associations of State Energy Officials, and Donald R. van der Vaart - Secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to disucss issues surrounding compliance with the CPP. 

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Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green

An Interview with Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger

The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?

It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.

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Nope—There’s No Thyroid Cancer Epidemic in Fukushima

A New Study on Child Thyroid Cancer Gets Widespread Attention From the Media—While Another Study Proving It’s Wrong Gets None

A new study comes out with claims of a giant epidemic of thyroid cancer among kids exposed to radioactive iodine from the Fukushima nuclear accident. It’s disproven by another recent study showing that thyroid cancer rates are no higher in Fukushima than in distant regions uncontaminated by the accident. Which study gets lots of attention? And which one gets none?

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Keeping Nuclear Plants Open

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

Last week could have been better for the world's fleet of nuclear power plants. Entergy announced they were closing the 680-megawatt Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts, despite the plant having been relicensed in 2012 for an additional 20 years of operation. German utility Eon has also decided to shutter two units at Sweden's Oskarshamn plant. As we've seen everywhere from Germany to California to Japan, natural gas and coal fill in where nuclear falls off, which is the opposite direction from where we should be heading. For more on the situation in the States, check out the latest Energy Gang podcast, where MIT's Jesse Jenkins explains why it will be difficult to meet US carbon goals with so many threatened nuclear plants.

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October 19: Jessica Lovering to Speak at UC Berkeley on Real Costs of Nuclear Power

While most studies of nuclear costs focus narrowly on the US and France, Breakthrough Senior Analyst Jessica Lovering’s newly curated dataset includes complete cost histories of nuclear reactors for seven countries. By comparing the historical trends in countries like the US, France, Germany, and Canada with newcomers like Japan, India, and South Korea, many lessons can be learned about what types of policies can bring the cost of nuclear power down.

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Ecomodernism: A Third Way

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

"During a presidential election year, the eco-modernists have a prime opportunity to advance their agenda on a national level. Is it possible for candidates to actually move beyond the question of who’s to blame for climate change and make this about sound environmental and economic progress instead?"

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Ecomodernists Without Permission

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

A delegation of Finland's ecomodernists flew to London to see Breakthrough speak last month, where they were apparently quite thrilled to be welcomed as "Ecomodernists without permission." As vice-chair of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland Rauli Partanen (@Kaikenhuippu) wrote in a reflection, "we should not feel the need to ask permission when we do something we we believe (and what evidence suggests) to be a good thing." We agree! Hopefully lots more ecomodernists without permission emerge in the future.

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How to Strand Assets

Nature-saving Through Disruptive Technological Change

In 1849, the wife of an American entrepreneur named Samuel Kier was prescribed “American Medicinal Oil” — petroleum — by her doctor to treat an illness. The Iroquois Indians had used petroleum as an insect repellent, salve, and tonic for hundreds of years. The so-called “rock oil” that naturally seeped out of the ground was viewed as a blessing, and for hundreds of years they skimmed it off the surface of rivers and streams.

With his wife feeling better, Kier saw a business opportunity. He started his own brand, “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil,” and sold bottles for 50 cents through a sales force traveling through the region by wagon.

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Ecomodernists in Finland and Oysters in California

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

“Ecomodernism is an environmental movement that seeks to defend and enhance the environment’s well-being while simultaneously increasing possibilities for human prosperity. For ecomodernists, both the vitality and diversity of natural world and the existence and progress of humanity are fundamental values.” 

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2016 Announced: Great Transformations

June 22-24, 2016

Breakthrough Institute is excited to announce that the 2016 Breakthrough Dialogue will take place Wednesday, June 22, through Friday, June 24, at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, California. Breakthrough Dialogue is the research organization’s signature annual event, where its international network of Senior Fellows, Generation Fellows, scholars, policy makers, and allies gather to build an optimistic and pragmatic vision of the future. The theme of this year’s event is “Great Transformations.” Inspired by the profound challenges and opportunities afforded by modernization, this year’s Dialogue aims to address the hard questions of urbanization, industrialization, and the incipient “rise of the rest.”

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David MacKay Announced as 2016 Paradigm Award Winner

Scholar Has Opened Pragmatic Discourse for Meeting Future Energy Needs

The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses. 

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September 24: UK2020 – Ecomodernism (London)

UK 2020 is hosting Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute for an event that will consider the future of environmentalism, and how policy at a UN, EU, and state level needs to be guided by science and not ideology. Joining the panel are Mark Lynas of the Alliance for Science at Cornell University, journalist Matt Ridley, and Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, former UK Environment Secretary.

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September 24: Is It Time for Ecomodernism? (London)

Sense about Science, Energy For Humanity, and Breakthrough Institute will cosponsor an evening event at the Free Word Centre in London. Tracey Brown of Sense about Science will make opening remarks. American ecomodernist and president of Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger will kick off the program by arguing that ecomodernism — and only ecomodernism — can make the planet habitable for future generations. A discussion will follow, and wide audience participation will be welcome. He will be joined for a discussion by University College London professor of biodiversity and ecosystems Georgina Mace and Shadow Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change Baroness Byrony Worthington.

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Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

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Natural Gas Methane Problem Overstated

Research Shows CH4 Leakage A Minor Factor, Within Acceptable Ranges

Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.

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September 30: Battle of Ideas (Amsterdam)

We are living longer and more fulfilling lives than ever before. We’ve become healthier and richer in a world that’s more democratic and peaceful than ever before. This is not a rich-man’s fantasy; all these trends have even spread to billions of people in poorer countries. Yet, critics warn that the costs of all this progress begin to outweigh the benefits. Concerns about environmental degradation are gaining traction. Greens worry that the Earth cannot sustain the desire for more, more, more. What do greens want? Do they consider a cleaner, greener planet with a nice habitat for animals and plants more desirable than a world with thriving mega-cities with plenty of interesting things for billions of people to do? Is it really possible to have both? Lately, a new brand of greens is emerging. These so-called “ecomodernists” claim to get away with sentimental notions of traditional environmentalists. They believe the planet can be ecologically vibrant with many billions more people living a good life—if only we would rely on evidence-based policies to improve nature. 

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September 23: Linus Blomqvist at UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (London)

Global conservation efforts focus on protected areas and in recent decades on payments for ecosystem services. While important at the local level, these approaches have proven unable to halt the loss of wildlife and natural habitats on a large scale. Following the release of a new report Nature Unbound, Linus Blomqvist will argue that what spares nature is technological change, along with urbanization and modernization.

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Raiding Progress

How Ralph Nader and the Public Interest Movement Undermined American Liberalism

As contemporary American progressivism has come to be defined by the public interest movements associated with Ralph Nader, both the white working class and the business community have abandoned the Democratic Party. For working-class whites, the regulatory assault upon manufacturing, resource-extractive industries, and agriculture threatened both their employment and the local economies in which they lived and worked. With the postwar New Deal compact between business, labor, and government fractured, business groups and industries mobilized themselves as a countervailing force to the increasing power and organization of the public interest movements on the Left. For these reasons, the decline of New Deal liberalism in the last half-century owes as much to assaults by the public interest Left as it does to attacks by a resurgent Right.

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September 9: Linus Blomqvist to Present New Report at Resources for the Future (DC)

Environmental policies typically reflect an assumption that today’s scarcities will be tomorrow’s scarcities. Yet in the past, many social and technological innovations have radically altered the nature of scarcity, often reducing environmental impacts in the process. Several current trends (in agriculture, materials use, energy, and water) suggest that, with the right policies and investments, the human footprint could peak and decline in coming decades. Breakthrough's Director of Conservation Linus Blomqvist will present his findings from a pathbreaking new report, Nature Unbound.

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Breakthroughs for an Ecomodernist Future

Energy Access, Radical Innovation, and the Land Impacts of Energy

Another summer, another wealth of research from the Breakthrough Institute thanks to our annual Breakthrough Generation research fellowship. This summer, the Breakthrough Generation Fellows examined the role of development banks in funding energy projects in poor countries, the land footprint of energy, and the role of the state in innovating around complex technologies.

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It’s Time to Scrap the Ecological Footprint

Earth Overshoot Day Is Fundamentally Meaningless

Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the day when, according to the Global Footprint Network, “humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year.” By the end of the year, we are told, humanity will have consumed 1.6 Earths’ worth of renewable biological resources

Considering all the defaunation, pollution, freshwater depletion, and climate change caused by humans, the idea of global ecological overshoot seems commonsense. Farms, production forests, and cities together take up nearly half the Earth’s ice-free land, displacing and fragmenting natural habitats. 

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Lessons from the Shale Revolution

A Report on the Conference Proceedings

Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?

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Earth Makers

The Ancient Practice of Ecosystem Creation

Hawaii.

Thursday, March 26, 987 BC.

On the other side of the planet, smelters are bellowing in Europe. The Zhou Dynasty has begun. 52,403,609 people inhabit the Earth. None of them live in Hawaii.

I fill my lungs with cool, fresh air. A rich, thick taste of vegetation with floral notes. It is 6:26 a.m. Rays of sunshine kiss the tops of hulking, gnarled Ohia trees, lighting up their soft red flowers. I hear and see birds. Lots of them.

I recognize ‘I‘iwi, a cardinal-size bird with screaming red feathers and a gently curved beak, dancing happily through the canopy. Alongside it is a smaller red bird with a black tail and black beak, called Apapane. The equally small Elepaio is a flycatcher with brown and white feathers and a straight, tiny black beak. It sings an effortless jumpy chatter and eagerly raises the feathers on top of its head. 

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Clearing the Air

EPA Climate Rule Not Designed to Keep Nuclear Plants Open

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Michael Shellenberger

The recently released final rule of the EPA Clean Power Plan projects to reduce US power sector carbon emissions by 32 percent under 2005 levels by 2030. That's awesome. But by allowing existing nuclear capacity to close and be replaced by fossil fuels, the CPP jeopardizes almost one-half of EPA's emissions reduction goals from 2013 to 2030.

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The Diablo We Know

The Case for Keeping California’s Last Nuclear Plant

Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear power plant. It has been the state’s most famous and most controversial plant ever since it divided Sierra Club members in the late 1960s. Perched amidst spectacular natural beauty on the California coast, Diablo faces threats on many fronts. State regulators are demanding that it build expensive cooling towers to ease its impact on marine life. Harsh claims are being made about its vulnerability to earthquakes. And there are lawsuits filed by environmental groups aimed at shutting it down.

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Technology Leads, Regulation Follows

EPA Clean Power Plan Locks in Existing Energy Trends

This week marks the release of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, an EPA Clean Air Act regulatory platform designed to reduce carbon emissions from American power plants. The #CleanPowerPlan has been called “the biggest action ever taken by the US to combat global warming.” It has also been called “really kind of eh.”

So at the very least, we’ve added another Rorschach test to the climate policy debate.

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Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: Panels and Sessions

The Good Anthropocene

Over the last few years, ecomodernist thinkers have articulated a vision of a “good Anthropocene,” one where humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink humankind's negative impacts on nature. But the very discussion of a good Anthropocene triggered a critical response from some who see modernization processes and the age of humans itself as inherently risky and destructive. Critics of the good Anthropocene say, ecomodernism doesn’t adequately consider the potential for civilization-ending catastrophe or for a stronger societal connection to nature. In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 focused its agenda on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” In late June, around 170 scholars, policy makers, philanthropists, friends, and allies of Breakthrough Institute gathered in Sausalito to pose tough questions of the ecomodernist project and its stated goals. The following articles offer summaries of the panel presentations as well as the resulting conversation. 

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A Good Anthropocene?

Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future

Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.

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