The Best of Breakthrough 2019

More From Less

“When I encountered that headline, I had to click on it, which led me to one of the most interesting things I’d ever read.”

So begins Andrew McAfee’s new book More From Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources–And What Happens Next. The headline McAfee refers to is for “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment,” Jesse Ausubel’s 2015 essay in the Breakthrough Journal. In that essay, Ausubel charts the decoupling of human well-being and environmental impacts in food production, material extraction, water use, emissions, and more.

At the Breakthrough Dialogue this summer, McAfee cited Ausubel and Breakthrough’s broader portfolio of research as inspiration for his book. For McAfee, that led to an opportunity to tell a new story about growth and consumption, and to tell it well: the book was praised by the Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Economist, and many more. For us, it was a fitting capstone on a decade of research that has led us again and again to a core conclusion: with innovation and smart policy, it is possible for all of us to thrive while limiting human impacts on the environment.

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“More from less” is also an apt description of what a small think tank with a clarity of purpose, a unique perspective on environmental challenges, and a commitment to asking hard questions of our own assumptions as well as those of people we disagree with can accomplish. For over a decade now, Breakthrough has punched above its weight, consistently having an outsized impact on environmental debates with a tiny budget and staff based in Oakland, California. As we look towards a new decade, we are excited about all that we might accomplish with more resources, new allies, new research capabilities and new issues.

Quiet Climate Politics

Since the climate issue came fully into public view thirty years ago, the dominant framework for climate advocacy has assumed that insofar as policymakers succeeded in addressing the issue, they would do so through explicit climate policy driven by growing public awareness of the potential for catastrophic climate impacts.

That framework has, to date, demonstrably failed to much impact the trajectory of global emissions. As Breakthrough Executive Director Ted Nordhaus and former Energy Director Jessica Lovering demonstrated several years ago, there is little evidence that explicit climate policies, where they have been established have accelerated decarbonization. What has moved the needle are long term energy modernization processes, driven by energy security imperatives, technological innovation, rising energy productivity, and efforts to reduce conventional air pollutants. These efforts have mostly not been undertaken in the name of climate mitigation.

In this regard, Breakthrough argued this year, less — less apocalyptic rhetoric, less polarizing campaigning, less grandiose ambition and sweeping policy demands — might be more. In March, Nordhaus and Breakthrough Deputy Director Alex Trembath, following up on Trembath’s essay in Slate cautioning against calls to declare a “climate emergency,” argued that climate change was better framed as a problem like diabetes — “a chronic condition of global modernity... that will be managed but not solved.” In June, Nordhaus wrote about the disconnect between the apocalyptic rhetoric of the climate movement and the sorts of policies and actions they were actually willing to advocate in Issues in Science and Technology. “What is striking about the Green New Deal and similar proposals coming from climate hawks and left-leaning environmentalists is not their radicalism but their modesty,” Nordhaus argued. “In this, the disconnection between what the environmental left says about capitalism and the role of government and what it actually proposes to do is far more interesting than the predictable histrionics from conservatives.”

In July, Nordhaus made the case for what he called quiet climate policy in Foreign Policy. “A quieter and less sweeping approach, he argued, “one that disaggregates the costs of policy and avoids becoming a rallying point for either climate advocates or their opponents” is likely to be more effective than either sweeping progressive proposals like the Green New Deal or mainstream environmental approaches such as carbon taxes or cap and trade.

The case for quiet climate policy, for doubling down on energy modernization and innovation to accelerate long term trends that are slowly decoupling global carbon emissions from economic growth has only strengthened since then. As Breakthrough Director of Climate and Energy Zeke Hausfather recently demonstrated, new IEA projections for global emissions through the middle of this century suggest that emissions will likely be well below most IPCC reference scenarios, developed a decade ago and predicated upon a long and sustained expansion of coal in the global energy economy.

Part of the story is slower economic growth in the wake of the financial crisis. But a big part of it is better technology. Cheap lower carbon natural gas is now meeting most new energy demand globally instead of coal. Renewable energy is finally starting to displace fossil fuels at meaningful scale in many parts of the world. And new nuclear builds, along with higher capacity factors, have helped slow the expansion of coal generation in East Asia.

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3C or so of warming by the end of the century, not 4 or 5C, looks like the most likely trajectory absent further policy. But there is good reason to think that further policy, focused on innovation and modest incentives for continuing deployment is forthcoming. The death of bipartisan climate policy has been greatly exaggerated. A number of critical initiatives are moving through the US Congress presently with strong bipartisan support. Republicans on the newly formed House Select Committee on Climate Change have indicated willingness to embrace a climate agenda focused on innovation and technology. The newly formed and bipartisan Senate Climate Caucus has come together around the same pro-technology, pro-growth agenda. Many environmental pundits and activists have been dismissive of these developments. But these efforts reflect exactly the sort of long term commitment to innovation to make clean energy cheap that has already steered the world away from the sorts of very high emissions futures that a decade ago looked much more plausible.

An Evolving Vision of Sustainable Food Systems

If one were to choose a single story about the way in which modern science, technology, and infrastructure have allowed us to protect the environment by getting more from less, it is the story of modern, high-tech agriculture. Earlier this month, our food and agriculture analyst Caroline Grunewald and Breakthrough Generation fellow Sebastian Dueñas Ocampo published a data visualization documenting relative and absolute decoupling in the US agriculture system. From land footprint to water consumption to nitrogen pollution to carbon intensity, the environmental impact of American food production has declined significantly over the past few decades, even as food production has continued to increase.

As global food demand continues to grow, producing more food from existing US cropland represents a key opportunity to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, both because US farmers are already so efficient and because more production of key globally traded agricultural commodities in the US, such as corn, soy, wheat, and cotton can displace new production elsewhere, which often results in deforestation due to cropland expansion. The key, Breakthrough suggested in testimony to the House Select Committee on Climate Change, is increased public investment in research and development for better crops, fertilizer, meat production and meat substitutes, and biotechnology.

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To that end, this summer, Breakthrough convened a discussion of experts from government, academia, industry, and environmental organizations to discuss key opportunities for mission-driven innovation to improve the environmental performance of US agriculture. In June, Breakthrough also hosted the initial organizing meeting in June for the Genetic Editing Think Tank (GETT) Consortium. This new Consortium, which Breakthrough is an organizing member of, aims to identify key challenges to the safe deployment of animal and crop biotechnology policies; and find common political ground on policy options.

Breakthrough also continues to advance new thinking on agriculture and the environment. In July, we released “Achieving Peak Pasture,” a major research report by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist charting the unprecedented decline in global pasture land that has occurred over the past 20 years. In that report, we described the “livestock revolution” that has made peak pasture possible, the result of sustained improvements in breeding and pasture practices that have enabled substantial increases in livestock productivity.

In June, we published Marta Zaraska’s essay in the Breakthrough Journal titled “Meeting Meat-Eaters Halfway,” which made a strong case for moderation over abolitionism in meat consumption. In August, Alex Trembath published an essay in OneZero on the classist, anti-technology environmentalism that finds itself opposed to plant-based meat alternatives. In that essay, Trembath observed that “the problem with fake meat isn’t so much that it is ultra-processed as that it is mass-produced.”

Cities: The Third Leg of the Ecomodernist Stool

If modern agriculture is a testament to getting more from less, modern cities are the fulcrum that makes both energy modernization and agricultural modernization possible. Cities create economic opportunity that allows large populations to abandon agrarian poverty in search of better lives. They require dense sources of energy to power and land and labor efficient agriculture to feed. No society in the world has managed an energy transition or the provision of universal energy services to its population nor gone through the demographic, dietary, or forest transitions without urbanizing. Cities concentrate people, ideas, and opportunity in ways that accelerate innovation.

For these reasons, in addition to abundant modern energy and intensive agriculture, we have long considered dense cities the third leg of the “ecomodernist stool.” Making cities work, for those who live in them already and for those who will join them, will be the key to both improving global living standards and minimizing human impacts on the environment. In November, Breakthrough hosted its first workshop on cities and urbanism, specifically focused on the California housing crisis. The meeting included several of the country’s leading urbanist thinkers, including Nobel Laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank Paul Romer, the University of Chicago’s Luis Bettencourt, and civil rights attorney Jennifer Hernandez, along with policy-makers from the state of California and leading advocates from the state’s burgeoning YIMBY movement.

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California might seem an odd place to begin such a discussion. It is already largely urbanized. But, like so many other places around the world, it is attempting to manage powerful agglomeration effects that both drive urbanization and complicate it. How to address a housing crisis in a place that is unaffordable because too many people want to live there is precisely the sort of wicked problem that Breakthrough was created to address.

New Faces

The Breakthrough Institute is a small think tank, and better for it, too. Staying small to assure clarity and “going slow to go fast” have long been key principles around which we have built Breakthrough and supported the nascent ecomodernist movement. That has allowed us to have a large impact on environmental debates with a very small budget.

But demand for those ideas is growing and Breakthrough has begun to scale up in response. This fall, we welcomed Zeke Hausfather, former UC Berkeley researcher and longtime contributor to Carbon Brief, as Breakthrough’s new Director of Climate and Energy, along with food and agriculture analysts Alex Smith and Caroline Grunewald and energy and climate analysts Lauren Anderson and Seaver Wang. Dan Blaustein-Rejto, who has played a pivotal role in building our food and agriculture program over the last three years, was promoted to associate director of the program, and Jameson McBride became a senior energy and climate analyst.

New research staff. Clockwise: Lauren Anderson, Caroline Grunewald, Alex Smith, Zeke Hausfather, and Seaver Wang.

Already, the new research staff have made important contributions. Hausfather recently took Bill McKibben to task for misleading claims about methane emissions. Wang analysed the challenges of deep decarbonization which he helped dub the “Narwhal Slope.” Anderson published a series of analyses on the California wildfires and PG&E blackouts. Much more analysis, on the website, in peer-reviewed publications, and in the popular media is on the way soon.

We’ve also welcomed Thia Bonadies as our senior events manager, and Steve Reyes, our development associate. Thia and Steve have helped grow and professionalize our events, principally the Breakthrough Dialogue and our annual Ecomodernism event, as well as smaller workshops and presentations that are a mainstay of Breakthrough’s communications and convening efforts.

Finally, this year we also said farewell to our longtime research directors, Linus Blomqvist and Jessica Lovering, who left Breakthrough to continue their research and graduate school. Linus is beginning an economics PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara. Jessica is completing her dissertation work at Carnegie Mellon. Linus and Jessica helped build the intellectual foundations of our work on decoupling, advanced nuclear innovation, agricultural intensification, and more and both continue to consult with Breakthrough on ongoing projects. They join former Breakthrough staff who have gone on to do important academic work, including Jesse Jenkins, now at Princeton, Devon Swezey at Google, Sara Mansur at Lyft, and Yael Borofsky at ETH Zurich. We miss Jessica and Linus already, anticipate great things from each of them, and look forward to new collaborations with them in the future.

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