Ted Nordhaus, Founder and Executive Director of the Breakthrough Institute

Amy Westervelt interviews the Breakthrough Institute co-founder on where the environmental movement's gone wrong.

by | Sep 22, 2020

In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and his former colleague Michael Shellenberger made big waves in the environmental movement with the publication of the essay “Death of Environmentalism.” It’s the last time before current shifts happening today that the movement was really shaken up, and so I wanted to get a sense from Nordhaus of what led up to that essay and where his and his organization’s thinking has gone since then.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series in the Drilled Podcast about the evolution of the environmental movement. You can read more about the series, and access other interviews, here.

Amy Westervelt: Could you start by telling me how you got started working on environmental issues?

Ted Nordhaus: In kind of the mid eighties, I got involved with public interest research groups and started working on door to door canvassing in my summers. The first two big environmental campaigns I worked on were the effort to establish the federal Superfund, and then doing bottle bills around the country.

AW: And then, what were you working on in the lead-up to writing “Death of Environmentalism”?

TN: I dropped out of college to do sort of real grassroots environmental stuff. And then I went back and I finished college in the early 90s and started working on just, initially, real grass roots campaigns. I was the sort of campaign director for what was then big environmental groups and small fishermen and a bunch of other interests that were trying to reform federal water policy in the early 90s. So I coordinated that. I ran a small nonprofit that was working on the Headwaters Forest issue in the mid 90s. And then I just did a bunch of consulting, and I was working with a consultancy started by the guy who had been the political director for many years at the California League of Conservation Voters.

We consulted for like everybody in California on climate, on zero emission vehicle mandates, we did a bunch of work on the first effort to do what was then called “tax shifting” and it’s kind of now expressed in a lot of carbon tax and dividend stuff. So I did a whole lot, and I worked for almost every big environmental group that was in the state of California during that time either in a staff capacity or running a coalition or as a consultant. And then I kind of made a slight career change.

I became a pollster. So I was working with a polling firm that I had done a bunch of work on campaigns with. And they were like, “ey, you want to be a pollster? Because you understand how the polling actually works.” I had no real training, but I did that for four or five years. And I had actually met Michael [Shellenberger] on the Headwaters Forest campaign, and we had done a bunch of different work together when I was a pollster.

And then we helped start the New Apollo Program a couple of years before “Death of Environmentalism,” and I did all the original polling for that [the New Apollo Program, a proposal for a comprehensive economic investment to build America’s clean energy economy]. So kind of all of the original framing around clean economy, green jobs, really. I think I did what were really about the first focus groups and survey research on the whole idea, back in 2002 or 2003.

AW: What were you seeing in the environmental movement at the time that was frustrating, or that you thought was really kind of like blocking progress?

TN: I mean, it was so wonky. You know, it’s sort of funny now because, half the climate activist world thinks that I don’t get activism and I’m some kind of uppity policy wonk. But, you know, I spent the first half of my career doing real grassroots activist work.

We wrote in “Death of Environmentalism” about what we call “literal sclerosis.” I was always really frustrated with , more than anything, the approach of environmental attorneys in developing environmental policy, and the way that they thought about it. It all came out of this paradigm, from the early and mid 70s, when those first groups kind of stood up in D.C. They had great success because they had this Democratic Congress in this political environment that was very open to environmental legislation.

So I’d be sitting in these coalitions around the politics of water policy in California. And you’d have these guys who were trying to write the legislation and we were kind of like, “Well, how are we going to actually get the politics right so that we can do any of this?”

That had been a deep frustration for me for a lot of years. And then, when you looked through the Clinton years, Kyoto [the Kyoto Protocol, which President Bush pulled the country out of in 2001] it was just really clear that there was not a lot of traction, even with Democrats in charge.here was very little ability to get anything done on the climate issue, which I was paying increasingly a lot of attention to at that time. You know, it’s kind of a combination of “This is not working the way it was in the early 70s when we got all these foundational environmental policies in place.” And then dealing with a whole generation of environmental leaders who still were acting as if it was the mid 1970s.

AW: And then at the time of writing “Death of Environmentalism”, did you guys have a goal in mind or was it just like, “We’ve got to express this frustration”?

TN: Obviously it was an expression of frustration. And I think there were real important, larger intellectual contributions there. But, you know, the initial impulse to do it was, “Let’s just sort of write a big thought piece on why this Apollo idea is the way forward.” I mean, we were very passionate about it.

And we were frustrated that the gatekeepers in the environmental community were just sort of at best indifferent and often hostile to the whole concept. So that was kind of the initial idea, and then you start unpacking it, and we started interviewing people and we started reading a bunch. And you go, “This is not a small argument, but actually a large one.” And so that’s how we end up where we ended up.

You know, I think we initially thought we were going to try to pitch it to The Atlantic or somewhere like that. And then it turned out it was I don’t know 30,000 or 40,000 words. And it was like, “Well, I guess that’s not going to work.” So we just ended up self publishing.

AW: You’ve talked before about how learning more about the energy system shifted your thinking between publishing “Death of Environmentalism” and starting the Breakthrough Institute. Can you talk a bit about that?

TN: I think that if you look at the essay, we were still very much in the mindset of Al Gore saying, ”We have all the technology we need, we just need the political will in a bunch of ways.” The “Death of Environmentalism” was really a document about what would be necessary to have the political will. And there was no question in our minds that we had all the technology we needed.

And then, in the course of writing [the book] Breakthrough, and researching that book, we started to have a lot of questions about whether that’s really the case. There was this very important paper for us that I think was published in Science around 1998, and the lead author was Marty Hoffert, who I love.

AW: Oh! Marty Hoffert, sure. He was a great source for us in the first season of Drilled–did a bunch of research on climate change and on solar, electric cars, consulted for Exxon way back.

TN: Yeah! Marty was literally the first senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute. He’s brilliant. So Marty had written this paper with a bunch of coauthors, including Ken Caldeira, (who a lot of people know) in 1998, saying, “This is fundamentally a profound energy technology and innovation challenge. And we really do not have remotely the technologies that we need to deeply decarbonize the global economy.”

That was hugely, hugely influential. Reading that, talking to Marty and Ken, and then working through a whole network of people in this academic world who had been raising these questions–that’s why we started Breakthrough. And the first thing we did was start naming senior fellows just to try to recognize and help provide some platform for a bunch of these folks who we thought were very, very important scholars, but who were not well enough known.

AW: What do you think about that question now? Do you think we have the technology we need?

TN: I think that we’ve made progress. The other thing is that the whole conversation around decarbonization and energy is so focused on electricity. And it’s because it’s the one thing we know how to decarbonize. So everyone spends all their time arguing about the electrical system, and doing models of how we’re going to decarbonize the electrical system. And it’s like 20 percent of global emissions.

If you electrify everything–which is a great headline but is a lot more complicated, once you get beyond light duty vehicles and a few other things–then you get to maybe 40 percent. But you still have 60 percent or more of emissions that are not going to be in the power sector anytime soon. And we don’t really know how to decarbonize most of that. You can do a spreadsheet where you just make up technologies, or pretend like they exist, or pretend like anyone would ever use them. But in the world these things don’t actually exist.

So, have we made progress? Yeah. Wind and solar are a lot cheaper. You know, obviously the big thing that changed for us when we started looking at this was nuclear, and we weren’t anti nuclear before. But the fact that a place like France was getting 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy was just this outlier that we didn’t pay a lot of attention to in the early years. And this gets into my empty radicalism piece—I mean, if you really are like, “We got to do this in a decade”, we can do most of it with old fashioned big nuclear plants. If we were really as serious about this and concerned about this as we often say we are.

But I’m a big believer in revealed preference:the idea that you can learn more about what people really believe and what they really think by watching what they do as opposed to what they say. When I watch what we do, I kind of go “I think we think a little differently about the climate crisis than what we often say about it because of what we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do to address it.”

AW: Do you think part of that is general human blocks to long-term thinking, too?

TN: If your climate strategy is predicated on the human species suddenly becoming this long-term thinking species, then you don’t really have a strategy. There’s just absolutely no evidence that people have really ever done this. And so, give humans some credit. I think there’s good reasons why we don’t.

You know, you don’t have to spend much time understanding all the ways in which we reliably get the future wrong, to understand why long-term thinking isn’t a thing. I think we implicitly sort of know that most of the things we believe about the future are probably going to be wrong, or if they’re not wrong, they’re just not going to matter as much as we think they matter. Maybe it’s just my old age, but the older I get– discussions about the future are always kind of a projection screen for our anxieties and concerns, often quite legitimate concerns, in the present. We just project them into the future and have these big debates about the future.

What we’re really arguing about is the present. I’m always kind of like, “Tell me what you’re going to do now. And tell me what you’re really committed to and what you really believe in right now. And let’s talk about what the costs and benefits of that are now, because those are the things that are gonna determine what we’re actually gonna do.”

AW: What’s your sense of how “Death of Environmentalism,” and then the Breakthrough book, and subsequently the work that the Breakthrough Institute has done. Have they influenced some of the thinking within the environmental movement, or influenced policy?

TN: I think that if you look at “Death of Environmentalism,” there’s really three big ideas there that define what’s happened since. And not to take credit for it, but at least to say that it anticipates it. So those three things: the first is, obviously, the clean economy, green jobs stuff. You know, Van Jones is very prominently featured in that essay and we played a pretty significant role in getting Van into the Apollo clean economy, green jobs space.

And so, from starting Apollo and then “Death of Environmentalism,” and then the book Breakthrough comes out in 2007. And really by 2007, 2008, green jobs and the clean economy are kind of as close as either Obama or Hillary could articulate a Democratic economic strategy or theory of the economy. Obviously that also anticipates the Green New Deal in a bunch of ways.

The second thing is the civil rights analogies and the idea of building a broad progressive coalition that was much more expansive than environmentalism. You know, Bill McKibben was really kind of a big proponent of “Death of Environmentalism” from the very beginning. And Bill plays this interesting role, particularly given some of our subsequent disagreements with him, in bringing “Death of Environmentalism” to everybody’s attention. What Bill takes from it is, “We need a bigger movement, it’s got to be like the civil rights movement.” There were studies that really got traction after the failure of the Waxman-Markey climate and cap and trade effort. There was just this failure to mobilize the grassroots, and it was too much of an inside the Beltway job.

Certainly after cap and trade failed, McKibbin, 350, a bunch of these groups are like, “You know, we’re just going to lock down two pipelines and whatever other energy infrastructure we can find. And we’re gonna get arrested and we’re going to build out a real bottom up grassroots movement.” So I think that’s the second big idea that came out of “Death of Environmentalism.”

The third is ecomodernism and the focus on technology and innovation. And that’s a very techno optimistic vision of the future. And, of course, there’s ways these three lines get mixed up in all sorts of ways, all the time. But I think the argument at the bottom of the Apollo idea, and the “Death of Environmentalism,” and Breakthrough is that you need to give people some kind of inspiring vision of a future they want to be part of, as opposed to just mostly threatening them with apocalypse if they don’t do what you say.

So, that’s this techno optimistic public investment to remake the economy in this different way, not only in the US, but globally. And in a way where everybody gets to live something that looks like a modern life.

AW: I know there’s the ecomodernist manifesto, but do you have an elevator pitch definition of eco modernism?

TN: Historically there’s been sort of two defining ideas in the modern environmental discourse. One is that we need to shrink the human footprint, the footprint of human activities, to reduce the impact on the environment. The second is that we need to harmonize human societies with nature and with the natural world. We need to get back closer to nature.

In the manifesto, we argue that you can do one of those things, but you can’t do both. And we argue that it’s the former, that in our world with seven billion people going on, nine or 10 billion people, most of whom want to live something that looks like a modern life, you need much more efficient technologies. You need cities. You need energy density. You need intensive, really efficient agriculture. And if you don’t have those things, you’re just going to turn the entire planet into kind of a big farm, basically. And people are going to be poor. And it’s actually going to be much higher emissions intensity. And you’re going to just destroy all of the biodiversity that remains.

Technology is the critical thing that mediates the relationship between human well-being and environmental impacts. And so, better technologies are the thing, and better socio technological systems. Technologies are always embedded in society, and they require institutions of various sorts to do the things that we want them to do. So, you know, sort of technology is the key fulcrum that mediates that relationship between living standards and the environmental consequences of those living standards.

There are some who would turn eco modernism into kind of a nuclear cargo cult, and that was never the intention. We call out solar and nuclear explicitly as two key technologies that can scale to the levels that would be necessary to provide clean energy for what is going to be a high-energy planet. And we always recognized that there were costs, there were tradeoffs. There is no magic solution that would make all those tradeoffs go away.

I think that in a lot of ways, eco modernism starts at a place that goes, “OK. How does everybody live something that looks like the kind of modern life that most environmentalists in this world take for granted. And how do we do that in a way that is equitable and just, and that minimizes human impacts on the natural world?”

AW: That’s interesting, because I’ve heard it described most often as basically a free market approach to environmentalism. What’s your take on that description being applied to eco modernism?

TN: It’s so funny. These environmental debates are so coded that it’s just like you’re either a free market libertarian, which means you’re really an anti environmentalist, or you’re an environmentalist and you’re not into the free market. Except you get to the bottom of it and everybody wants a carbon price, which last I checked, was a market based solution. I will not absolve those on the eco modernist side of some of these debates of doing a fair amount of their own strawmanning at times.

But this “eco modernism is a techno libertarian free market vision of the future” thing is bullshit. It’s just a strawman. And it was kind of invented by a bunch of people who wanted to attack it without actually having to deal with any of the actual things that we were saying, or the complexities of the argument, or the ways in which it pointed to a bunch of the contradictions in mainstream environmental discourse.

AW: There’s this small paragraph pretty far into your piece “The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse” that says “the exigencies of large scale technocratic action to rapidly build the infrastructure of a low carbon economy cannot be easily reconciled with the communitarian, small is beautiful localism that has defined the culture and politics of contemporary environmental thought and action since the rise of the movement in the 1960s.” That line seems to me like something that gets this whole thing across pretty well. And it also brings me to this emergent debate I’ve seen between ecomodernism and degrowth lately.here are there real differences of opinion between these schools of thought, and where is there manufactured controversy?

TN: Well I was going to say when you were asking about the techno libertarian thing, it’s mostly the degrowth folks saying that, misrepresenting eco modernism because it’s the thing they want to go argue against. There’s some folks in the degrowth community who I like and respect, and I kind of have fun arguing with them half the time. But there’s a way in which it’s all kind of a big troll.

I mean, these are the richest people in the world, the most privileged, entitled, freest, most individualistic people in the world making what are ultimately nihilistic arguments about how we’re gonna completely de-grow the global economy. And do this massive global wealth redistribution. And they can never tell you how it works. And then you do the math on it and you’re like, “Well, even if you do all this redistribution and you have no more growth, you still haven’t cut emissions.”

You’ve got seven billion people and there’s going to be nine or 10 by the middle of the century, and you need to not just stop the growth of emissions, you need to cut them by like 80 percent. And they explicitly argue that there’s this fundamental link between economic activity and carbon that can’t be broken. So you go okay, ”Basically everyone is living in something close to subsistence poverty.” And then they go, “Oh, no, no, no, no. Because the economy is going to be so different. Money’s going to be different.”

Really? Explain that to me. Then it very quickly devolves into a kind of hand waving. If you get any further and ask, “So what is it right now that you want to do?” Which is always my question. And it’s like they want … a carbon tax. At the end of the day, after all of this, it’s still kind of capitalism with a more generous social welfare state. A carbon tax and a bunch of windmills.

I mean, when you kind of get to these ideas around harmonizing with nature, so much of it is tied up in these very romantic ideas. The archetypal farm, in the American mind, is the sort of mid 19th century farm. And farming is nothing like this. And it could not remotely be like this when only two percent of the population works in agriculture.

AW: Is that where all the GMO and food modernization stuff comes into it for you guys? Could you explain that a bit because I think some people might say “Okay I was with you on nuclear but woah, I don’t know about GMOs!”

TN: Yeah it’s funny. I get that from both sides, because we bring the GMO folks and the nuclear folks together, and the nuclear people are like “Look I think it’s really bad that we’re getting nuclear tied up with GMOs because GMOs are really unpopular.” And then you get the GMO people saying, “You know, I understand why you like nuclear, but it’s really giving GMOs a bad name.” I guess, I take a really long view of what agriculture is and how it evolves.

Agriculture has been evolving towards more intensive systems since we invented it, for like ten thousand years. And GMOs are not some kind of radical new break from that. They’re just totally consistent with that process. And, we’ve been breeding seeds and leaving them out in the sun so that they would randomly mutate and, you know, throwing them into radioactive places to make them mutate, for a really long time. And that’s all evolved with better tools, and mechanization, and fertilizers and all of that. It’s a better, more precise technology to do what we’ve been doing since the beginning.

And if you don’t want to turn the entire planet into a gigantic farm, you’re gonna have to continue to figure out how to produce food more intensively. Obviously I think some of the GMO stuff gets oversimplified by advocates, too. There’s a lot more white space between the things we can actually do and the sort of promise that people hold up there.

AW: Michael Shellenberger was your longtime collaborator and he left the Breakthrough in 2015. Could you talk about the direction he has headed since leaving the Breakthrough Institute, and whether you worry about what he’s doing getting attributed to Breakthrough, and the impact that might have?

TN: I mean obviously there’s a long, fruitful relationship with Michael as a coauthor and a co-founder, and I think anyone who knows how these things work knows that they don’t last forever. I’m really proud of the work that we did together. I have obviously a lot more mixed feelings about what Michael has done since he left.

You know, I think he left because he just wanted to be a full-throated nuclear advocate. And, even as a big proponent of nuclear energy I’d never been like, “It’s got to be 100 percent nuclear and there’s no role that renewable energy or anything else should play.” I don’t think that nuclear can solve all of our environmental problems.

So, you know, I feel like in the most sort of generous interpretation, in some ways, it’s just like a fabulous performance art piece that he’s doing right now. Because it’s kind of like if you’re a very, very passionate climate advocate, look at Michael and realize that this is how you look to most of the world.

AW: Like an Andy Kaufman stunt?

TN: Yes, exactly. It’s like Andy Kaufman doing environmentalism in a way that environmentalists could sort of see how dogmatic it gets. How sort of shrill it gets, and how angry it gets. How kind of dark and conspiratorial it gets. And that’s the stuff where … there were some things that happened as Michael was leaving that was just kind of pretty nasty stuff, like calling into question people’s motivations and their values as opposed to, like we can have honest disagreements here, that I just really didn’t want to be a part of.

I think we’ve done a lot of work at Breakthrough over the years, and since Michael left, to be like “That’s Michael, that’s not us.” And yeah, some people still haven’t gotten the memo. I hope most people have.

look at Michael’s Facebook thing, and some of the debunking that people are trying to do, and I think it’s not wise, actually. Especially in the climate space, there’s been this thing of “Well, if you disagree with our agenda, you’re a climate denier and you’re misrepresenting the science.” A You can take issue with Michael’s interpretation of the science, but most of the things he claims are reasonably defensible. But you can draw quite different conclusions from them.

Whether it’s around what the climate signal and relationship to natural disasters is now and is likely to be in the future or, when we’re talking about extinction, putting aside the rhetoric around it. Three degrees of warming is clearly going to be really bad for biodiversity, whether you call it a mass extinction or not. I wish we could be more honest in these conversations, that one can legitimately bring different values and have different sorts of concerns versus, “If you disagree, you are a science denier and a misinformer.”

AW: Okay last question: where do you think the environmental movement is now and what sort of path do you think it’s on? I’m curious to hear what you think about what the Sunrise kids and the rest of the youth climate movement is doing, versus what you saw NGOs doing when you were writing “Death of Environmentalism”?

TN: What I will credit AOC and the Green New Deal and Sunrise for, is that until they came along in 2018-ish, I was convinced that for all the talk, once we had the opportunity to do sort of ambitious climate legislation, it was just gonna be cap and trade all over again. I actually now think that’s not the case.

If Biden wins the election and Democrats have majorities in Congress and they’re able to do some kind of ambitious climate bill, it’s not going to be sort of Waxman-Markey 2.0. I’m not as optimistic as many that what will come out of that process will be as game changing, as people hope. But I am quite grateful that we are not going to go do Waxman-Markey again.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.