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.

Read more

Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: Panels

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. 

Read more

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.

Read more

Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

Read more

Price Nature or Make Nature Priceless?

Evaluating Conservation in the Anthropocene

A panel of leading scientists at this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue considered how best to protect natural areas, at regional and global levels. The panelists agreed that dominant forms of environmental protection have failed in many regards. 

Read more

What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Nature, Technology, and Politics in the Anthropocene

“Is ecomodernism a white elephant to kill as soon as possible, or a hopeful monster that requires the care of a whole bunch of Dr. Frankensteins?”

So asked sociologist Bruno Latour at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which was “The Good Anthropocene.” Latour offered a rollicking critique of ecomodernists and their manifesto, kicking off a discussion among the other panelists and participants about what it means to be human and the division between nature and society.

Read more

Who Cares About Wild Nature?

The Practical Realities of a Rewilded World

As wildlife populations rebound with reforestation in rich countries, including Europe and the United States, a question is increasingly being raised — do people really care about wild nature? Or do they view it as more of a nuisance than a blessing?

Read more

How to Think About Climate Risk in the Anthropocene

Climate Change Politics Post-Two Degrees

Increasingly few people believe humans are likely to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How then should we think about likely impacts — and possible responses? Those were the questions debated at a Breakthrough Dialogue concurrent session on climate risk.

Read more

Anthropocene Opportunities

Humanity as a Global Force for Change

The old biology fable suggests that all life on Earth is like a protozoan in a petri dish, where it multiplies, quickly exceeds its resources, and dies off. Are humans doomed to the same fate? Some environmentalists say yes, in a world of finite resources, the walls of the petri dish are not far off. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, argue that humans are not the same as protozoan, and that they can overcome ecological problems. A concurrent session at the Breakthrough Dialogue explored how recent socio-ecological thinking provides a strong basis for local, regional, and even planetary opportunities to achieve a “good Anthropocene.”

Read more

What Is the Economics of Ecomodernism?

What is the appropriate role of markets and the state when it comes to solving big environmental problems? A concurrent session at Breakthrough Dialogue debated different economic schools of thought with respect to how ecomodernists think about growth, innovation, and the environment.

Read more

Can Environmental Education Be Saved?

Preparing the Next Generation of Thinkers to Solve “Wicked Problems”

Following a productive concurrent session at last year’s Breakthrough Dialogue on the current state of the undergraduate environmental studies and sciences (ESS) curriculum, six participants went on to author four of six articles, a “mini symposium,” on future directions for ESS education for the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The mini-symposium called for ESS departments to ensure students are exposed to a diversity of environmental perspectives and taught to think independently, a key insight that was also the focus of the session at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue.

Read more

Can Ecomodernism Contribute to the “Rise of the Rest”?

Poor Countries Need Modern Energy for Development

The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.

Read more

The War on Ivory

Grace Ge Gabriel on China’s Fight Against Elephant Poaching

Although the trade of ivory from elephant tusks has been banned by international convention since 1989, demand for the “white gold” continues in countries like China, where ivory carvings and jewelry are coveted status symbols. As the leading consumer of elephant ivory, Chinese demand is driving the poaching of over 30,000 elephants a year in Africa. 

Since a third of the elephant’s tusk is embedded in its head, poachers kill the animals in order to harvest the ivory. Unfortunately, many Chinese consumers do not realize this. A 2007 survey led by Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 70 percent of Chinese consumers did not know elephants have to die for people to have ivory. Grace has been fighting to increase awareness and eliminate the ivory trade in China for decades. In the following interview, she shares her insights on grey markets, substitution, government collaboration, and why she feels hopeful about the future of wildlife trade in China.

Read more

A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation. Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness. Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.

Read more

Breakthrough Dialogue 2015

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 our negative impact 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. In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 will focus on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” And it will ask related questions: Given global complexity, inequality, and ideological diversity, should we speak of many Anthropocenes rather than a single Anthropocene? How do these visions draw on and break from traditional environmentalism, on the one hand, and the status quo, where modernization processes seem to be proceeding?

Read more

Approaching Backfire

Efficiency Rebound Highest in Places Where It's Least Understood

Energy consumption is going to explode in poor countries this century –– over 90 percent of the growth in energy consumption through 2050 will occur in non-OECD countries. These countries are also where the International Energy Agency (IEA) hopes to reduce future demand growth the most in the name of mitigating climate change –– 77 percent of the modeled demand reductions in the IEA’s 450pmm scenario come from non-OECD countries.

Read more

Jessica Lovering and Loren King to Present at Disruptive Energy Technologies Kickoff Meeting

Senior Energy Analyst Jessica Lovering and Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King will present at the Disruptive Technologies Kickoff Meeting at Idaho National Labs, a one-day meeting to discuss future disruptive energy technologies, policies, and investments that have the potential to dramatically change the way the US and world energy is produced, distributed, and consumed in this century.

Read more

Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus to Speak at Global Conference on Stranded Assets and Environment

The University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is hosting researchers and interested practitioners to a major academic conference on stranded assets and the environment. Despite its growing prominence as a topic, there remains a great deal of confusion about: what stranded assets are; what assets might be affected; what drives stranding; how financial institutions and companies can manage the risk of stranded assets; what it means for policy makers and regulators; and how it links to climate change policy. Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus will present a keynote speech on decoupling as a strategy for stranded assets based upon the forthcoming report Nature Unbound.

Read more

Ruth DeFries Bestowed 2015 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Mapping a Blueprint for the Good Anthropocene

Between 1845 and 1849 one million people starved to death in Ireland and another million fled the island. The immediate cause was a virulent fungus that destroyed potatoes. But the underlying reason, held good opinion in Britain, was that there were just too many Irish people. “The cheapness of this nourishing root [potatoes],” wrote Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus two decades earlier, “joined to the ignorance and barbarism of the people, have encouraged marriage to such a degree that the population has pushed much beyond the industry and present resources of the country.”

Read more

Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

Read more

The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture

Small-scale Food System Enlarges Human Footprint

The following keynote address was delivered by Ted Nordhaus at the first annual Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy Symposium on June 3, 2015. The speech has been lightly edited.

Thank you for having me today. It has come to my attention during the course of this conference that the fast food chain Chipotle has announced that it will no longer serve food grown with genetically modified organisms. Apparently, this occurred last month, but somehow I missed it on Twitter. Between the debut of Caitlyn Jenner, the latest royal baby, and the FIFA corruption scandal, I guess it just slipped through my stream.

Read more

2015 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Research on Global Challenges

A rollercoaster enthusiast who traveled to India to study tribal women’s empowerment; an energy analyst interested in the impacts of innovation on geopolitics; an engineer who has worked on alternative transportation and urban development; and a former scholar of the Victorian era who now writes on energy technologies and risk perception. These are among the seven outstanding thinkers who will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting pragmatic, new solutions to major environmental challenges.

Read more

Breakthrough President Michael Shellenberger to Speak at International Student Energy Summit

The International Student Energy Summit 2015, themed “Connecting the Unconnected,” will combine the visions of “striving forward” and “leaving no one behind.” In today’s interconnected energy world, there is a desperate need for energy rich nations to understand energy access issues that dominate a large portion of the globe. Here in Bali, ISES 2015 will give students a new frame for evaluating the energy challenges the world faces.

Read more

On Pragmatic Conservation

How Decoupling and Pragmatic Rewilding Are Key to Conservation in the 21st Century

The last few years have seen a big debate among leading conservationists over the future of parks and protected areas. On one side are groups like The Nature Conservancy that work with foreign countries to site hydroelectric dams so they are less destructive of river systems and with big corporations to protect wetlands and reduce pollution. These groups have tended to argue that all of nature is a kind of “rambunctious garden,” a mix of human and nonhuman influences.

On the other side are groups like the Center for Biological Diversity that sue US government agencies to protect more endangered species and try to stop dams in poor countries. These groups criticize the view of nature as a garden and defend older views of wilderness as devoid of human activity. The fighting has been so intense that a group of scientists last year urged both groups to calm down and seek common ground.

Read more

Rewilding Pragmatism

Or, What an African Safari Can Teach America

Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment that scientists have concluded that we are now living in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, there has been a resurgence of interest in rewilding, the large-scale restoration of nature and the reintroduction of plants and animals (particularly large carnivores) by people to areas where they once thrived. 

Read more

Is Feedlot Beef Better for the Environment?

Smaller Land Footprint and Lower Pollution Pointed to by Scientist Judith Capper

This past February, the nation's top nutrition panel released new dietary guidelines, urging Americans to start thinking about the environmental impacts of the food they eat. Meat, especially beef, was highlighted as having the most environmental impact. Not all beef is created equal, however, so what kind should conscientious consumers choose? If you thought “grass-fed,” you might be in for a shock. Dr. Judith Capper, an animal scientist, shares her surprising research into how grass-fed beef actually has higher environmental impacts than conventional beef.

Read more

A Look at Wind and Solar

Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables?

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.

This is a two-part series on the future prospects of renewables. Read Part 1 here.

In our last post, we offered a survey of the progress made so far in wind and solar deployment at the grid-wide scale throughout the world. An accurate and honest accounting of variable renewable energy (VRE) is essential to our goal of building zero-carbon power systems on a high-energy planet. In this follow-up post, we’ll consider what we can glean from VRE performance and modeling about scaling wind and solar further this century.

Read more

Looking for Leapfrogs

Where's the Evidence That Poor Countries Are Leapfrogging Fossil Fuels?

Today, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on energy demand in emerging markets titled Power Shift: Emerging Clean Energy Markets. The report offers some very encouraging and useful data on energy supplies and investments. Unfortunately, by cherry-picking their case studies and making strange analytical conclusions, Pew paints a selective and flawed picture of electrification in poor countries. 

Read more

The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted

Why Tesla’s Powerwall Won’t Catalyze a Solar Revolution

The announcement two weeks ago of Tesla Motor’s cheap new lithium-ion storage batteries set the renewable energy world on its ear. Breathless commentators pronounced them a revolutionary advance heralding cheap, ubiquitous electricity storage that would make solar power a 24/7-power source for the masses. Elon Musk, Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, fed these hopes at the glitzy product launch for the 10 kilowatt-hour (KWh) Powerwall home storage battery.

“You could actually go, if you want, completely off the grid,” he told them. “You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs, and that’s all you use.”

Read more

The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

Read more

The Fossil Fuel Subsidy Red Herring

Subsidies to Fossil Energy Aren't the Low-Hanging Fruit We Might Wish They Were

Every few months — or constantly, depending on your attention span — we hear another round of passionate recommendations that fossil fuel subsidies be phased out to level the playing field for clean energy. Most recently, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim emphasized that “we need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now” in his agenda for promoting clean energy.

Sounds like a sensible goal, but there’s reason to think that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies wouldn’t be nearly as transformative as is often suggested. In this post, I’ll briefly explain why that’s the case.

Read more

Waste Not, Want Not

The Rhetoric and Reality of Food Waste

Food waste has become a high profile topic in the world of food politics and the environment. In the wake of a recent report, the New York Times wrote an editorial urging food waste reduction, calling it a “serious threat to the global environment and economy.” The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and according to one expert, the amount of food wasted in the United States alone would be sufficient to feed 1 billion hungry people in the world. Jonathan Foley explained that smaller portions and eating more leftovers are some of the most effective solutions to increase food availability.

Read more

Alex Trembath to Speak at Annual AAG Meeting

Senior Analyst Alex Trembath will speak on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, which brings together the nation's geographers, GIS specialists, environmental scientists, and other leaders for the latest in research and applications in geography, sustainability, and GIScience. 

Read more

An Ecomodernist Manifesto

From the Death of Environmentalism to the Birth of Ecomodernism

Ten years ago the two of us wrote a controversial essay arguing that inaction on climate change required rethinking everything we thought we knew. Our assumptions had us defining the problem and solutions too narrowly. Too much negativism was turning people off. We needed the death of environmentalism so that a new and more expansive ecological politics could be born. 

Read more

Five Surprising Public Health Facts About Fukushima

Journalist Will Boisvert Investigates and Finds Fewer-than-Average Thyroid Cancers and Seafood Safe to Eat

Four years ago a large earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan. More than 15,000 people were killed. A subsequent nuclear meltdown added fear to grief. 

As terrible as the meltdown was, the radiation did not have significant public health consequences, much less the catastrophic ones that many feared and some continue to claim.

On the fourth anniversary of the tsunami, earthquake, and meltdown, journalist Will Boisvert investigates and unearths five public health findings from Fukushima that you've probably never heard.

Read more

China’s High-Energy Innovation

An Interview with Dr. Ming Sung, Clean Air Task Force

What’s the state of energy innovation in China? Breakthrough spoke with Ming Sung, Chief Representative for the Asia-Pacific region at Clean Air Task Force, about the work underway in China to rapidly develop and commercialize carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear, and renewable technologies to curb pollution and meet energy demand. 

Read more

The Increasing Complexity of Technology

An Interview with Innovation Scholar Don Kash

Following our Lessons From the Shale Revolution conference in late January, the Breakthrough Institute had a chance to catch up with Don Kash, professor emeritus of George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government. Kash spent his entire career working at the intersection of technology, policy, and society, and has been a major influence on contemporary energy and innovation scholars. Long before the Breakthrough Institute made the case for ‘making clean energy cheap,’ he highlighted the crucial role of public energy R&D to improve environmental outcomes.

Read more

Wicked Fat

Harvard Historian of Science Steven Shapin on the Nutrition Wars

Last month the US government issued a 571-page report suggesting it would be making significant changes to its dietary guidelines. Eggs are no longer a no-no. Caffeine consumption is encouraged to prevent Parkinson’s disease. The report comes at a time when new studies, and journalists including Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, and Aaron Carroll, have called into question the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by the nutrition establishment for more than half a century.

Breakthrough is interested in the battle over dietary advice as an example of “wicked problem” — a problem characterized by high levels of uncertainty and expert disagreement — and asked Harvard historian of science, Steven Shapin, to provide some historical and sociological context. Shapin is the author of numerous articles and books about the history diet and nutrition.

Read more

A Call to De-escalate the Climate Wars

Why the Congressional Investigation Into Scientists Takes Us Backwards

Democratic lawmakers in Washington are demanding information about funding for scientists –– including Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. –– who publicly dispute their party’s arguments on climate change, hoping to find information linking the scientists to the notorious Koch brothers or other fossil fuel interests.

Read more

Climate of Incivility

Climate McCarthyism is Wrong Whether Democratic or Republican

On April 23, 2010, the Attorney General of the state of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, initiated an investigation into the research of climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann is the creator of the so-called “hockey stick” graph, which used tree-ring measurements and other proxies to show that average global temperatures have spiked dramatically since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Mann’s research was cited by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but was controversial among climate skeptics.

Read more

Ted Nordhaus to Speak at The Wall Street Journal’s ECO:comics Conference

The Future of Business and the Environment

This March 25-27, the editors of The Wall Street Journal will bring together global CEOs, top entrepreneurs, environmental experts, policy makers and leading thinkers at ECO:nomics 2015 to identify and assess the most compelling opportunities — and pressing risks— emerging around the world in businesses impacted by the environment. Breakthrough's Ted Nordhaus is one of 20 featured speakers who will debate, discuss and get the inside story on essential issues: investing in innovation, disrupting current business models, the new meaning of sustainability and the future of the environmental movement, where energy policy is heading, and much, much more.

Read more

2015 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Three Trailblazing Ecomodernists Join Breakthrough

An iconoclast who forged a new path for environmentalism. A leading scholar on energy access and economic development in Africa. An industrial ecology researcher who shows us why human consumption isn’t a runaway train towards disaster. Breakthrough is proud to announce Stewart Brand, John Asafu-Adjaye, and Iddo Wernick as the 2015 Breakthrough Senior Fellows.

This is the seventh year Breakthrough has conferred Senior Fellows. Brand, Asafu-Adjaye, and Wernick join a group of 35 Senior Fellows awarded in previous years. 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. Congratulations and welcome to our new Senior Fellows!

Read more

Peter Teague Joins Breakthrough Institute

Senior Advisor to Focus On Energy Access for Development and Nature

Breakthrough Institute cofounder, advisory board member, and longtime environmental philanthropist Peter Teague has become Senior Advisor at the Breakthrough Institute, where he has joined the staff leadership team and will oversee the think tank’s energy access work.

Read more

Beyond Technology Tribalism

A Call for Humility and Comity in the Clean Tech Debates

Last week, Stony Brook professor and economics blogger Noah Smith published a blog post titled “Nuclear will die. Solar will live.” In the post, Smith argues that nuclear power plants are incredibly large, capital-intensive, and complex investments, while solar power “can be installed in large or small batches” and continues to benefit from cost reductions. Smith ties solar’s success to nuclear’s challenges and criticizes Breakthrough Institute for our “anti-solar antipathy.”

Read more

The End of the Clean Energy Race

The 'Cooperative Advantage' in Energy Innovation

Last year, the Breakthrough Institute and ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes released High-Energy Innovation. In the report, my colleagues and I argue that rapidly growing energy demand in emerging economies and increased multilateral investment represent the next great opportunity to accelerate energy innovation.

We contrasted this to a framework embraced over the last few years: the idea that the United States was in a race to capture the jobs and industries associated with clean energy technologies like solar panels, batteries, and advanced nuclear reactors.

Read more

Did the US Kill OPEC?

Why We Should Pay the Shale Revolution Forward

"Did the US kill OPEC?"

This is the question that New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter asks today, referencing Breakthrough Institute’s research, which found that 35 years of public-private investments led to the technologies that allow for the cheap extraction of natural gas and oil from shale.

Read more

To Protect the Gorillas, Protect Humans Too

An Interview with Primatologist Annette Lanjouw

How did you get involved in this field?

I started doing work in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo], in the early 1980s working at the Lomako Forest Bonobo Research Station of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Later, between 1987 and 1990, I ran a project to conserve chimpanzees, using tourism as a way to generate support for conservation. What was unique about the project was that we habituated the chimps for research and tourism without providing them with food. That worked well, but then war broke out with rebellion against [then-president] Mobutu, and all tourism was put on hold. Eventually I became Director of Programs for the International Gorilla Conservation Program, IGCP, a collaboration of three conservation NGOs, in partnership with the park authorities of the three countries.

Read more

Killing in the Name of Conservation

Can Trophy Hunting Help Save Africa’s Wild?

Conservation is not a morality play, but don’t try telling that to Kendall Jones. A 19-year-old student and cheerleader at Texas Tech, Jones has been hunting big game in Africa with her father since she was nine. This past July, she posted photos on Facebook of herself with her kills — leopard, lion, hippo, zebra, elephant, rhino. The response was overwhelming: 325,000 people signed a petition asking Facebook to remove the images, which it did, saying the act violated its rule about "graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence.” The “Kill Kendall Jones” page remained for three days before Facebook removed it, too. 

Read more

Interview with William Burnett, Formerly of the Gas Research Institute

The Gas Research Institute's Evolving Role in Shale Gas

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with William Burnett. William worked in energy R&D for the US Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, and Gas Research Institute (GRI). He retired from GRI as Executive VP, where he was responsible for R&D planning and management in natural gas supply, transportation, distribution, and utilization.

Read more

Interview with Bob Hanold, Formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory

On the Partnership Office Between Los Alamos and Sandia

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with Bob Hanold, formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bob completed his PhD in engineering science at Case Institute of Technology and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1966, where he worked until his retirement in 1999. Although initially involved in microseismic fracture mapping and hydraulic fracturing for geothermal projects, he transitioned entirely to oil and gas projects with the formation of the Partnership Office.

Read more

The Year of Our High-Energy Planet

Top Breakthroughs of 2014

If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.  

Read more

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

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

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

Read more

Grid Governance

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

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

Read more

High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

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

Read more

Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal

New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013

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

Read more

Frequently Asked Questions About Population

The Global Population by 2100

What is the current human population?

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

How do we measure world population?

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

Read more

Crashing the Party

Human Rights Activists Shake Up UN Climate Talks

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

Key issues, however, continue to divide countries.

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

Read more

US-China Climate Deal Underscores Need for Substantial Energy Innovation

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

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

Read more

High-Energy Innovation

A Climate Pragmatism Project

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

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

Read more

Extreme Conservation of Gorillas

An Interview with Primatologist Martha Robbins

What attracted you to mountain gorillas?

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

Are the mountain gorillas saved?

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

Read more

War and Peace and Gorillas

An Interview with Central Africa Scholar Laura Seay

How did you get interested in the Congo?

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

Read more

Violence, the Virungas, and Gorillas

An Interview with Conservationist Helga Rainer

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

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

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

Read more

Postcolonial Gorilla Conservation

An Interview with Ecologist Sarah Sawyer

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

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

Read more

Leapfrog or Backfire?

Wharton Economist on the Rebound Effect in Developing Economies

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

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

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

Read more

Saving Gorillas

A Special Breakthrough Conservation Series

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

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

Read more

Virunga, the Congo, and Oil

An Interview with "Virunga" Journalist Melanie Gouby

What initially motivated you to go to the Congo?

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

Read more

Frequently Asked Questions About Energy Efficiency

Q: What is energy efficiency?

Energy efficiency is a measure of the energy productivity of an economic good or service. The less energy required to produce a unit of output, the more energy efficient that economic activity is. Energy efficiency is correlated to energy intensity, a commonly used measurement of economic goods, services, and even whole industries and sectors. Energy intensity is typically expressed in some unit E (for energy) over GDP (gross domestic product), or E/GDP. 

Read more

Taking a Look at Lazard’s Levelized Cost Estimates

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

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

Read more

Interview with Norm Warpinski, Director of Technology for Pinnacle

On the Early Experiments That Catalyzed the Shale Revolution

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

Read more

Interview with David Northrop, Formerly of Sandia National Labs

On the Partnership Office That Facilitated Public-Private Collaboration

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

Read more