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.

The Breakthrough: 2013 – A Year of Hope and Change

Natural gas continues to demolish the notion that all fossil fuels are equal. On virtually every environmental and human measure, as Breakthrough found in its review of the evidence, Coal Killer, gas is better, sometimes by an order of magnitude, than coal.

Natural gas development is not without serious environmental and human consequences. Expanded gas production brings truck traffic, noise, and pollution to rural communities, and has resulted in NIMBY revolts from New York to Colorado.

But thanks to cheap natural gas, between 2000 and 2012, coal went from 52 to 37 percent of America’s electricity – a light-speed transition for the energy sector. During this time, US emissions declined more rapidly than any other nation’s, making America the global climate leader.

This reality has created a contradiction at the heart of the green movement. In the morning, green groups advocate coal regulations — many of which have been embraced by President Obama — that require cheap natural gas; in the afternoon, they advocate gas regulations (and moratoria, like the one in New York) that slow the transition from coal to gas.

The situation may be resolving itself. Toward the end of 2013, Environmental Defense Fund, co-published a study finding low levels of methane leakage, affirming natural gas’ climate benefits. The Associated Press noted how a growing number of local fracktivists have started working with the gas industry to improve rather than halt new production. And when Al Gore discussed natural gas at a Senate hearing earlier this month, he described it as a "transition fuel" and framed it not "as controversially as I thought he might have presented it," according to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

Tidal Shift on Nuclear

Where natural gas is now widely understood to be a stepwise improvement over coal, in 2013 scientists argued that, from a public health and climate perspective, nuclear energy is a vast improvement over gas. In the spring, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and a colleague found that nuclear had saved 1.8 million lives from air pollution, and could save millions more if future electricity needs were met by nuclear instead of natural gas.

Hansen's message was driven home by real-world events. The closure of one of California’s two nuclear plants resulted in carbon emissions from the state’s power sector skyrocketing 35 percent. The temporary closure of Japanese nuclear plants resulted in its emissions increasing 7 percent. Germany, which is investing billions in the transition to renewables, saw its emissions, coal-use, and even its wood-burning rise (along with electricity prices).

Meanwhile, nuclear innovation continued apace. The UK government announced in November that it would build a new nuclear plant, one that will provide an astonishing 7 percent of its power, in a partnership with the French and the Chinese. China will double its nuclear capacity by 2020, and is innovating: with help from the US Department of Energy, China is pursuing alternatives (including a molten-salt thorium reactor) to water-cooled designs, which were evaluated in Breakthrough’s summer 2013 report How to Make Nuclear Cheap.

The atomic awakening culminated in November. Four highly-respected climate scientists (Hansen along with Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley) urged green groups to embrace nuclear. So did Virgin's Richard Branson. As did Armond Cohen, whose Clean Air Task Force conducts energy analyses for environmental philanthropies.

All throughout the year thoughtful commentary was made by Eduardo Porter, Justin Gillis, and Andrew Revkin of the New York Times; Bryan Walsh of TIME; Ashutosh Jogalekar and David Biello of Scientific American; Tim Wu, Paul Blustein, and Keith Kloor at Slate; Stephen Stromberg at the Washington Post; Michael Specter, Gareth Cook, and Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker; and Christopher Joyce and Richard Harris at NPR.

Diet for a Large Planet

Small-is-beautiful took a hit on the food front as well. In a new book, In Meat We Trust, historian Maureen Ogle describes why moving from large-scale to small-scale meat production would mean ecological devastation for local environments. (Conjure a picture of the Bay Area's famous hillsides covered with thousands of cows.) In the New York Observer, Will Boisvert explained that small and local farms use far more land and resources per output than industrialized agriculture, making them far worse in terms of everything from carbon emissions to waste water.

The critique of foodie elitism addressed the welfare of the poor. In the Atlantic, David Freedman described how the prejudice against "artificial ingredients" is undermining anti-obesity efforts by chains like McDonald's. And at Breakthrough Journal, Helen Lee described how the narrow focus on local food environments to the exclusion of larger socioeconomic dynamics undermines the efficacy of anti-obesity initiatives.

Stanford’s Martin Lewis found hope in India’s declining birthrates. In a simple comparison of where birthrates have declined the most, Lewis found what appeared to be a surprising relationship between television and lower fertility. Lewis pointed to research showing that soap operas help the poor gain aspirations to become middle class, and have fewer children.

And of course, technology means that we grow ever-larger quantities of food on less land. "The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been," wrote Breakthrough Senior Fellow Erle Ellis in the New York Times. "Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems."

What Boisvert, Ogle, and Ellis teach us is that it is the intensification of modernization processes that leaves more of planet Earth to nature. When people move to cities and grow more food on less land, there is more of the planet for the lions, tigers, and bears. "There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature — a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever."


Since the early seventies, "small is beautiful" has been the invisible force that has held together environmentalist thought. Doing with less, returning to small farms, and reducing our energy consumption will result in a happier and greener world. Ever since, small, organic and local farms, solar panels, wind turbines, and energy efficiency have been bound together as the nucleus of contemporary environmental ideology.

Always elementally unstable, the green nucleus split in 2013, setting off a chain reaction. “There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron.” So began longtime environmental journalist Fred Pearce’s account of the rise of the high-tech, pro-development and big-is-beautiful alternative to moribund environmentalism, featuring Breakthrough staff and Senior Fellows at last June's Breakthrough Dialogue.

A big new idea is brewing to replace the smaller, older one. There is enough planet earth to sustain all of us. Big cities and big agriculture let us leave more of planet Earth to Mother Nature. We will struggle with too much food rather than too little. Rising emissions can be reversed with technology. These views are sometimes called "optimistic," and against serial doom saying by some green leaders, they certainly seem to be. But they are also real-world realities and trends that made 2013 a year of hope and change.