In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.
WM: You’ve made enemies with many environmentalists over the years by arguing that the environmental movement has damaged the cause of real environmentalism. What do you mean by that?
TN: Environmentalists have defined the issue of environmentalism very narrowly. They’re always coming up with these apocalyptic scenarios—“If we don’t fundamentally change the way we live, human civilization will end, and if you don’t agree, you’re a science denier.” And then there’s all this hand waving about living harmoniously with nature. And they’ve defined the solutions very narrowly, too. There’s this idea that renewable technologies like solar and wind are good and other technologies like gas and nuclear are bad. The effect of all that has been incredibly polarizing and counterproductive.
The truth is, living harmoniously with nature and having solar panels on your roof and shopping at your farmer’s market doesn’t have much to do with actually helping soon-to-be nine billion people live sustainably on earth. If you want to save ancient forests around the world, you need more intensive agriculture, not less. I’m sorry, but the Brazilians are not going to develop their economy by harvesting nuts in the Amazon for the Body Shop. That was really an idea for sustainable development that came out of Rio in 1992! The point is, the environmentalists are talking about the wrong things. Imagine how different the politics of climate change would look if, back in 1992, the [George H. W.] Bush administration and the environmental movement had said, “We have this climate thing we’ve got to deal with and the solution is gas and nuclear.” Do you think the issue would be anywhere near as partisan as it is today?
WM: But at least environmentalists have been advocating for a solution. Republicans have just denied the problem is happening at all—why don’t you blame them?
TN: Republicans and conservatives are reconsidering where they are on a lot of issues right now, and climate is one of them. I think we’re going to start seeing them drop this purely denialist position and start defining a conservative position on climate change. That, I think, is going to be a lot of things that environmentalists hate—like nuclear and gas. But I would welcome that, because it would mean that conservatives were actually engaging the issue.
The national discussion around climate should look a lot more like the national discussion around education, where Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, are competing for who has the better strategy to improve it. The result of that is that neither side gets everything that it wants, but over time we do a lot of reform, make some progress, and have some sustained public policy and investment.
WM: The big news in the environmental world today is that the United States is sitting on an enormous amount of newly accessible gas and oil. As it stands, we’re more or less on track to become the Saudi Arabia of the twenty-first century. What does this mean for people who are concerned with the environment in the U.S. today?
TN: You have to appreciate the irony here. It’s primarily because of the gas revolution that U.S. emissions have gone down faster than any other place in the world. Gas has about half the carbon as coal, and when you have lots of cheap gas, you start shutting down coal plants, which has a much bigger effect on reducing emissions than anything else. But what does that mean for environmentalism? Look at what’s going on now. The environmental movement has gotten so swept up in all this anti-fracking stuff that they can’t even acknowledge why emissions are going down because it would make them look pro-gas. It’s indicative of a larger, historical problem with the environmental movement—it’s just been mugged by reality.
WM: We published an article a couple years ago, when mainstream environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council were in favor of fracking. Is that not still true?
TN: They’ve all reversed their positions. Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club.
TN: I don’t know—Yoko Ono? I mean there are lots of NIMBY chickens coming home to roost. Look at what happened to the Sierra Club. A couple of years ago they took $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to promote gas and launched this “Beyond Coal” campaign. But then they had their grassroots base up in arms, and so they totally reversed course, climate benefits be damned.
WM: There have been reports recently—from Wall Street, of all places—predicting that as gas-electric infrastructure expands, there’s the potential for an explosion of wind and solar, too.
TN: It’s true that you can’t scale wind and solar without lots and lots of gas. You have to have a way to get electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. But the question is, what’s the cost of using wind and solar, compared to other pathways toward a lower-emission energy economy? Despite very large subsidies and very large investments, and some innovation with renewable technologies, renewable energy still plays a very small role in reducing global emissions. If we’re serious about reducing global emissions, renewable technologies that are currently available are not the answer. The only thing that has ever had a major impact on reducing emissions is moving toward gas and nuclear. In retrospect, that’s exactly what a lot of conservatives were saying from the beginning.
WM: But is building more nuclear plants feasible? Even if the politics against nuclear were to change substantially, there’s still the problem of sheer cost, right?
TN: In the U.S., our electrical system is structured so that demand growth is relatively low. So, yeah, making a big bet on a one- or two-gigawatt nuclear plant that’s dependent on what you think energy demand is going to be over the next forty or fifty years? I don’t believe that’s going to happen on a large scale. But you’ve got to get your head out of the U.S. and into the developed world. China built something like eleven new nuclear reactors last year and has plans to build ten to fifteen new reactors every year for the next decade at least. India is building new reactors and coming out with new reactor designs. South Africa is building new reactors. Countries like that are still building the basic infrastructure of modern societies, and that takes enormous amounts of energy. They have a growing demand and the political and economic imperatives to deploy a lot of those technologies.
WM: The designs being road tested in places like China are different than the traditional reactors we have here?
TN: Fundamentally different. Their designs are much simpler and use different fuel configurations. They’re much smaller and better suited to modularity. In many cases, they’re basically meltdown proof because of the physical characteristics inherent to the fuels they use. And the scale of these designs is different, too. China isn’t planning to just build one or two of these things. They’ll build twenty or thirty or forty of them. And the more of them they build, the better they’ll get and the cheaper they’ll be. And that’s good news for us. Anything that can scale in China should be able to scale here—and I think that’s exactly what we’ll start to see. They’ll perfect and commercialize these technologies, and then we’ll end up buying their nuclear designs from them. There’s a whole generation of environmentalists who are taking a second look at nuclear because of these designs.
WM: What role do you think government should play?
TN: Innovation. If you want more renewables, then keep the production tax credit for wind and the investment tax credit for solar. If you want more nuclear, then create incentives for utilities to deploy new modular nuclear technologies. Right now, most of the resources are going to subsidies, but we also need to spend a lot more on research and development, too. We need funding to improve basic technologies, demonstrate them on a commercial scale, and help them through the early stages of commercialization. And that last part is important. We can’t subsidize new technologies in perpetuity. Again, look at the gas revolution. We’re displacing lots and lots of coal right now, and emissions are going down, because gas has been cheaper than coal in real, unsubsidized terms. That’s the way forward: make clean energy cheap.
WM: What about the carbon tax or cap and trade?
TN: Environmentalists buy into this idea that if we put a price on carbon, the market will magically deliver all the technology we need. That’s been the central environmental strategy for twenty years, but there’s just no evidence that the energy economy actually works this way. Energy markets aren’t free markets. Utility and electrical markets are heavily regulated monopolies, and energy technologies are incredibly capital intensive. They require lots of infrastructure, and there are lots of nonmarket barriers to their success.
The switch from coal to gas is not simply a function of market response to cheap gas. It’s a response to a whole set of things that cheap gas unleashes in the larger political economy. For example, the EPA is able to pass stronger regulations on public utilities commissions, which have an interest in approving smaller, cheaper gas plants that don’t cost as much up front for ratepayers. Prices do matter in the energy market, but the price signals are being interpreted in a bunch of different institutional contexts that are not purely market contexts.
The point is, if you want a carbon tax, go ahead and pass one, but I don’t think that it is going to result in a sort of rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. And given that in pushing each new policy, you’re expending political capital, I wouldn’t put a carbon tax very high on that list.
WM: What is high on your list?
TN: Three-quarters or more of all of the carbon that’s going to be emitted over the next century is coming from what we now call the developing world. If you don’t have your head around what that challenge is, and how you’re going to change that picture, you have no strategy at all.
This interview originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Washington Monthly. Reprinted with permission from Washington Monthly 2013 © Washington Monthly Publishing, LLC
Photo Credit: Gabriel Harber Photography