On Conflict and Progress
This year at the Breakthrough Institute brought a fair amount of controversy, even for a place that has never shied away from it. In April, Breakthrough’s Ashley Nunes and I published a widely read essay in theWall Street Journal’s Week in Review section expressing skepticism that mass adoption of electric vehicles was as close at hand as many environmentalists and progressive Democrats believe. In June, we were the first, and one of the few, pro-nuclear organizations to publicly oppose the confirmation of Jeff Baran, a long-time obstructionist commissioner, to a third five-year term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In July, Alex Trembath and I published a long essay on the risks of technocratic hubris in the wake of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. And in August, Breakthrough’s Patrick Brown published a widely covered peer-reviewed paper in Nature and follow-up essay in The Free Press that sparked a global debate about publication bias in the climate science literature.
Each of these episodes was polarizing—even for some of our friends, funders, and allies. Discomforting as this was, we were not surprised: paradoxically, disrupting deeply polarized debates around climate change, clean energy, and food and agriculture is itself polarizing and frequently requires challenging strongly held views about the nature of climate risk, the pace of technological change, and the role of government in addressing the former and driving the latter. Explicitly and unapologetically defending a science-based, non-apocalyptic view of climate risk and the human future, a meliorist view of technology, and a skeptical view that technological change can primarily be achieved via regulatory fiat or that emissions reductions can be driven by behavioral change is not for the faint of heart!
But over the long term, that controversial work has consistently held up, whether it related to the central role that public investment in technology, innovation, and infrastructure would play in climate mitigation efforts; the need for nuclear energy and intensive, technological agriculture; or the limitations of renewable energy and organic farming. Already, the same is proving true of this year’s controversies.
Six months after we sounded the alarm, automakers are slashing prices and scaling back their electric vehicle production plans, as demand has softened and inventories have risen. Barely a year into the Inflation Reduction Act, rising costs and regulatory barriers have sidetracked efforts to rapidly scale up clean technology and infrastructure. New projections for global emissions, meanwhile, increasingly show strong divergence from the high emissions and warming scenarios that the most widely cited climate impacts literature in high-profile publications like Nature is largely predicated upon. And our willingness to take a controversial stand on the Baran renomination appears to have killed it for the moment and has significantly improved the prospects for significant regulatory reform at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Simply being right, of course, is not enough. With the gap between the Biden administration’s climate ambitions and what it can deliver with traditional clean energy subsidies and environmental regulations growing and public sentiment turning sharply against many of its energy policy priorities, there is going to be a need to chart a different course on nuclear, permitting, electric vehicles, and the power sector. With a growing office in Washington, DC, we are now better positioned than ever to offer not only vision and leadership in that endeavor but the policy details as well.
Deconstructing conventional environmental politics must always be in service of reconstructing an alternative framework and agenda. We remain committed to de-escalating the climate culture wars, to championing quiet climate policy that charts a non-millenarian course of action, and to building a new politics of abundance in place of limits-based environmentalism and technocratic progressivism. Doing that will frequently invite controversy and reaction. But we continue to believe that, over the long term, being willing to do so is the key to building a successful ecological politics capable of making a future that is better for people and nature a reality.Click here to read the full report