Top 2012 Breakthroughs

New Senior Fellows Announced

The last year has been an exciting one for the Breakthrough Institute. We grew to 30 Senior Fellows and 50 Breakthrough Generation Fellows, hired new staff and hosted our second annual Breakthrough Dialogue. We launched our revamped digital home at The Breakthrough. And we continued to make the case for the critical importance of innovation to environmental quality and economic growth, shaping public debates over the future of clean energy, the planetary boundaries paradigm, shale gas, carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and much more.

Here are some highlights from 2012:

1. Shale gas revolution models new paradigm for climate change.

Emissions have declined faster in the United States than any other country in the world. In April 2012, natural gas generated the same amount of electricity as coal. The reason? A 35-year, public-private effort to cheaply extract natural gas from shale. It is yet another strong piece of evidence that long-term government investment to make clean energy cheap is the key to reducing carbon emissions. Breakthrough's investigation into the history of government funding for the shale revolution was picked up by the The New York Times, WaPo, AP, and President Obama.

2. Clean tech advocates call for subsidy reform.

Thanks to significant public funding in Germany, China, the U.S. and other nations, solar and wind technologies became much better and cheaper over the last five years. But these technologies remain intermittent, and thus difficult to scale. With subsidies declining, clean energy advocates at the Brookings Institution, Breakthrough, and the World Resources Institute called for reforming subsidies so that they better incentivize innovation — a call endorsed by The Washington Post, The New York Times and, most recently, the wind industry's lobby group.

3. United Nations nixes "planetary boundaries."

Since 2009 a group of environmentalist scientists have argued for setting a single global limit on things like fertilizer and land use, and even got the concept inserted into an early draft of the United Nations document drafted for the Rio+20 environment conference. But Breakthrough and others pointed out that the science just doesn't support the planetary boundary hypothesis. And a single global limit on things like fertilizer doesn't make sense when some countries need much more of it and others much less. Happily, cooler heads prevailed, and diplomats stripped all mention of the hypothesis from the final Rio+20 proclamation.

4. "Modernist green" movement grows.

The last few years has seen a growing number of environmentalists embrace modernization as the key to dealing with climate change and other global environmental challenges. Previously taboo technologies, including nuclear energy, genetically modified foods, and natural gas, are increasingly viewed as critical to maintaining a livable and ecologically vibrant planet. Conservation is viewed as part of, not anathema to, development.

In 2012 Breakthrough welcomed five additional distinguished conservation scientists and energy experts as Senior Fellows: David McGrath, one of the world's leading experts on the Amazon forest; Paul Robbins, the author of a ground-breaking book on political ecology; Mel Guymon, a nuclear engineer at Google; Gwyneth Cravens, an acclaimed journalist and author of a powerful book on nuclear energy; and Michelle Marvier, a revolutionary conservation biologist.

The Breakthrough Institute is honored to work and be affiliated with five leading energy and conservation thinkers:

David McGrath is one of the world's leading experts on conservation in the Amazon. A scientist at Woods Hole Research Center and the Federal University of Western Pará, McGrath's research focuses on community fisheries and forestry and sustainable livelihoods along the Amazon and Tapajós Rivers. His interests range from smallholder settlement, community fisheries and forestry, and development of regional co-management systems to the evolution of conservation policy for Amazon development.

Paul Robbins is director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He served previously as director of the University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development. His research interests include conservation politics and the flourishing of biodiversity in human-made and human-influenced landscapes. He is the author of Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, a best-selling text, and Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.

Michelle Marvier is chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University. Her research and teaching are shaped by her philosophy that science can guide, but not prescribe, public decisions. Marvier's diverse research interests include the ecological impacts of genetically engineered crops, the demography of endangered salmonids, and the ecological interactions of parasitic plants. She is the coauthor with Senior Fellow Peter Kareiva of Conservation Science, Balancing the Needs of People and Nature.

Gwyneth Cravens wrote Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, which chronicles the eight-year journey that transformed her from being an anti-nuclear activist to a leading expert on next generation nuclear reactors. Cravens's writing has appeared in numerous publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Discover, and the Washington Post. She has also published five novels.

Mel Guymon leads AdSense for Search at Google and is a former nuclear submarine officer who led a research process to explore the expansion of nuclear energy in the developing world, including South Africa and Asia. Guymon is an expert on the economics of nuclear energy, next generation nuclear technology designs, public policy, and financing.

Photo credits: Flickr user Thierry Ehrmann