TED NORDHAUS: What would it take to move beyond partisan politics to embrace environmental protection as a universal value?

Ted Nordhaus
PHOTO COURTESY OF TED NORDHAUS

Where are the green heroes when we need them?

In the past, when there were crises, we had people like FDR and civil rights leaders who stepped forward to confront some pretty stark challenges. But today we face what I call “wicked problems” far beyond the scope of what we’ve confronted before. These times demand a different kind of leadership.

You and Michael have identified severe limitations in the environmental playbook of old—namely, that mounting grassroots groundswells of people and getting people to testify on Capitol Hill aren’t as effective as they used to be. You’ve said tactics need to change.

Environmentalists need to start talking more about technology and stop believing that if you only put enough scientific facts in front of politicians and citizens it will lead them to adopt broad behavioral changes. That kind of thinking is fantasy.

What do you mean?

Many in the environmental movement seem very skeptical of technology, yet it is technology that realistically offers us the only hope of saving the environment and humanity. Things like having Big Cities and Big Nuclear replacing Big Coal and Big Oil and intensification of agriculture are rejected out of hand, but those who do so have it backwards.

Again, how so?

Well, if you want more forest, you have to make ag land much more productive, particularly on a planet that is rapidly urbanizing on a pace never before witnessed in history. Concentrating where people live and how food is grown is actually a good thing. Cities are more efficient because it’s easier to meet the needs of large numbers of citizens. As global human population rises from 7 billion toward 10 billion, you do not want people and development scattered across the landscape—not if your goal is protecting wildlife and wildlands.

Do you believe it is possible to advance the cause of environmental protection as a universal value?

What’s important is not that everyone agrees on exactly the same solutions or the methods to achieve them, but that we recognize different people have different motivations for taking action. We need to identify those places of intersection where different interests converge because that’s where progress can be made in getting us out of this mess.

When you look at climate change, this is not a dispute about science. It’s actually an example of where science is a proxy for different political, ideological and policy preferences, and we shouldn’t confuse it with anything else.

Where are some tangible areas where the partisan gridlock can be broken?

Where some see the curtailing of carbon emissions as environmental and social issues, others are interested in reducing America’s reliance on foreign oil to bolster national security and protect the economy from disruption in unstable regions of the world.

Cutting the size of government and implementing economic austerity will not fix the problems or position us well down the road. Investments in technological research and development can serve as a point of common cohesion that enables citizens on both sides of the divide to move together in the direction of what they want. Look at the strategy of investing in the future after World War II. Energy technologies have the potential to make the world greener and more economically prosperous while simultaneously making more efficient production of energy less resource consumptive.

You are deeply skeptical of the notion that wind and solar can make up the difference of energy generation lost if fossil fuels are reduced.

The only way America can wean itself off fossil fuels and still maintain economic productivity is to embrace nuclear power, with new generation technology being superior to the plants built decades ago. Methods of handling waste and safety are also vastly improved. Even James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who has publicly called for a prohibition in building new coal-fired power plants, is behind nuclear. It’s the only low-carbon option we have that can scale.

But isn’t there a hunger out there for consumers to do the right thing, be it driving hybrid cars or participating in curbside recycling?

That hasn’t translated into any substantive policy. What traction do environmental groups really have? Action on climate has gone nowhere.

You have made the point often that some of the best examples of progress are happening at the community level and not through broad mandates handed down from Washington.

There are a lot of interesting case studies showing how local stakeholders with different ideological perspectives have reached agreement in ways that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been unable to.

They are also doing much better in implementing solutions than federal agencies initiating top-down approaches—approaches, by the way, the environmental movement tends to advocate. We’re one country but the intersection between self interest and community interest are more easily integrated at the neighborhood, town and city level.

We’re a society with a widening chasm between haves and have-nots. What role do plutocrats play?

Entities like the Gates Foundation operate almost like governments unto themselves. There’s a kind of irony when you look at the extraordinary inequality that has emerged in recent years. What you have are people with mass fortunes.

Maybe with issues like malaria and polio eradication and confronting HIV/AIDs in Africa, you can realize huge gains by just going in and getting medicines quickly into the hands of those most in need. But then, when you look at an issue like education reform, neither those philanthropic entities nor government are nearly as effective. We are in desperate need of institutional reforms. In the past, we’ve faced challenges, but what we have today are what I call “wicked problems” that institutions as they’ve existed to date are now incapable of fixing. Education is key because if you’re not investing in the kids of today, you won’t have leaders capable of addressing the problems of tomorrow.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Globally, I’m optimistic. Look at China as an example. It has moved half a billion people to modern living standards in half a generation. That’s remarkable.

I do have faith in America’s ability to renew itself, but given the political realities of today, things appear pretty depressing over the short-term perspective. Caring about the environment is not your top priority if you’re out of work and concerned how you’re going to put food on the table for your family.

Breakthrough Institute co-founder TED NORDHAUS

With their single provocative essay—“The Death of Environmentalism,” published in 2004—TED NORDHAUS and Michael Shellenberger fired a shot across the bow of the American environmental movement. Their purpose wasn’t to declare war; the missive was intended instead to be a wake-up call. Nordhaus and Shellenberger praised the accomplishments of earlier green pathfinders who ushered forth landmark laws protecting imperiled species and wildlands, keeping polluters in check and safeguarding human health. But their basic premise was this: The world is changing fast, good intentions only go so far and it’s time to think differently about the rules of political engagement.

Evolve, they warned, or risk becoming irrelevant. It turns out they were remarkably prescient.

Today, in an age when ideological gridlock has brought vital public policy discussions to a standstill and called the effectiveness of large eco-groups into question, these founders of The Breakthrough Institute are calling for a paradigm shift. Some of those ideas were outlined in their 2009 book Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists.

Last year, Nordhaus and Shellenberger collaborated with thinkers from the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution in authoring a report, “Post-Partisan Power,” that addressed pragmatic options related to energy and cutting carbon emissions. The document identifies a need for increasing federal investment in developing clean energy technologies, bolstering investment in K–12 education to incubate problem solvers for the future, eliminating oil and gas industry subsidies, and harnessing the buying power of the U.S. military’s procurement process to scale up demand for new products and bring consumer prices down to affordable levels. Recently, Momentum caught up with Nordhaus.


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