Breakthrough! Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute Discuss “Climate McCarthyism” And Why They Now Support Nuclear Power

By Robert Bryce, Energy Tribune

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger spent most of their careers working for environmental groups as political strategists. Frustrated by the movement’s focus on pollution regulations rather than public investment in technology, they broke from the pack by writing a manifesto in 2004 called “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.” The piece argued that “issue group liberalism” was declining and that “the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power.”

A year later, after Robert F. Kennedy Jr. published an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that wind power developers should not be allowed to install offshore wind turbines near the Kennedy family’s famous luxury compound at Hyannisport, on Cape Cod, Nordhaus and Shellenberger responded with a broadside published in the San Francisco Chronicle, which called Kennedy’s opposition to the wind farm an example of a “a worldview born among the privileged patricians of a generation for whom building mansions by the sea was indistinguishable from advocating for the preservation of national parks.”

In 2007 Houghton Mifflin published Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which Time magazine called “prescient” and Wired said “could be the most important thing to happen to environmentalism since ‘Silent Spring.’”

In 2008, the two men published an article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review called “Fast, Clean, & Cheap.” The gist of their argument is this: making hydrocarbons more expensive is wrongheaded because it will inevitably spawn a backlash from consumers. The only way to create a long-term change in our energy infrastructure is to make alternative energy sources cheaper “through major investments in technology innovation and infrastructure.” Their solution: the governments of the world must “make large, long-term investments in technology innovation.”

Later that year Time named the duo “Heroes of the Environment,” for their writings.Nordhaus and Shellenberger now head the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based non-profit which says that it is aimed at “creating a new progressive politics, one that is large, aspirational, and asset-based.”

Their break with conventional thinking has led to some vicious personal attacks from one of the Democrats’ leading operatives, Joe Romm, a blogger on climate issues. In May he said the two were on a “disinformation rampage.” In June, Romm claimed that they were “lying about Obama,” that they are publishing “deeply flawed analyses” of climate legislation, and that “they are no longer credible sources.”

In early November, Nordhaus and Shellenberger struck back with a series of blog posts on “Climate McCarthyism.” They also wrote a long analysis, “Apocalypse Fatigue,” of declining public belief in global warming for Yale Environment 360. And earlier this week they released a 200-page analysis of Asian dominance of clean tech, “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giants.”I interviewed the two via email with Nordhaus and Shellenberger divvying up the responses.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute

RB: What motivated you guys to write the Climate McCarthyism series?

Ted: In the past we had only responded to Romm when he attacked us directly. The truth is that for months we kept trying to avoid the guy. We’d put out an analysis of climate legislation and instead of actually taking issue with the content Romm would attack us personally. We’d respond by saying things like, “No, we’re not global warming deniers or delayers,” duh.

After he started going after reporters and others we started saying to ourselves, “Somebody really ought to stand up to that guy,” but nobody ever did. So when he went after Keith Kloor — a guy we’ve never met but who was the editor of Audubon Magazine for eight years – and called him a “trash journalist,” we knew somebody had to say something. Romm was engaging in character assassination to intimidate the press corps, and it was starting to work.

RB: Your critics say that you guys like getting into these high-profile fights.

Michael: Funny, those critics, almost all of them prominent liberal green bloggers have had nothing to say over the last two years as Joe Romm made his name blatantly slandering our reputations and those of many others. Now that we are fighting back and calling out Romm’s tactics for what they are, McCarthyite, they claim we’re opportunists. The truth is they’ve been complicit in Romm’s McCarthyism and they know it.

RB: The series started by describing Romm’s use of McCarthyite like guilt-by-association and misrepresentation – you quote Romm calling Roger Pielke, Jr., one of your senior fellows, to the fictional murderer, the “talented Mr. Ripley.” But the third and fourth posts, “The Hyper-Partisan Mind,” and “The Headquarters,” put Romm in a wider context.

Ted: Romm is a particularly vitriolic manifestation of the hyper-partisanship of American political life. We pointed to evidence that America is more divided along partisan lines than it has been since the Civil War Reconstruction. Romm tries to pass himself off as an independent, nonpartisan expert. In fact, he is an employee of a highly partisan war room, the Center for American Progress, and he routinely compares liberals, greens and Democrats he disagrees with to Republicans.Michael: On climate, most Democratic, green and liberal partisans have taken an apocalyptic view of global warming ever since the Gore movie in 2006, and they’ve insisted that the solution be just efficiency and renewables through emissions regulations. In response, most Republicans and conservatives dug in their heels even further, resisting any action whatsoever as harmful to the economy.

Read more here.


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