Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

You don't write an essay with the title "The Death of Environmentalism" and expect to get off easy. But when Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published their contrarian tract in 2004, even they were taken aback by the vitriol flung at them by the mainstream environmental movement. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, called the essay "shoddy," while author Bill McKibben dubbed them "the bad boys of environmentalism." For Shellenberger and Nordhaus — two San Francisco Bay Area veterans of the green movement who now run an environmental think tank — the message was clear: You'll never eat locavore in this own again.

They shouldn't have been surprised. "The Death of Environmentalism" (and a follow-up book entitled Break Through) argued that for all the media and fund-raising attention, the green movement had failed to make real progress on the most important environmental issue of our time: climate change. That failure was due to an essential misconception. Global warming was not an "environmental" problem like acid rain or local water pollution that could be solved through regulation — in this case, cap-and-trade programs like the Kyoto Protocol. Rather, it was an all-encompassing threat that would demand changes to our global energy system far more revolutionary than anything that could realistically be achieved by regulation. As they saw it, cap and trade, which involves putting limits on greenhouse-gas emissions and allowing companies to buy and sell the right to produce carbon, was a political dead end — no one would accept the kind of high carbon prices that would be required to make a significant dent in global warming.

That's environmental apostasy, but nearly a year after Break Through was published, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are looking prescient. The first serious attempt by the U.S. Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation — the Warner-Lieberman bill in June — met an embarrassing defeat. High gasoline prices have emerged as a defining issue of the American presidential election, and the sudden public support for offshore oil drilling has left the greens on the defensive. Far from accepting the idea that high energy prices are a fair short-term trade for averting long-term climate change, a little economic pain at the pump has seemingly been enough to undo the work of Al Gore and friends. In Europe (where even pro-Kyoto nations have struggled to reduce their carbon emissions), and in China and India (where there is zero support for environmental policies that will restrain economic growth), the story is not that different. Environmentalists have made the world care about global warming; they just haven't made us willing to do anything tangible about it.

Depressing stuff, but Shellenberger and Nordhaus — despite the title of that infamous essay — are optimists. The green movement's mistake has been to define climate change in terms of limitations: to our lifestyles, our energy use, our economy. Instead, they argue, what's needed is a shift to "the politics of possibility," fed by epic government investment in energy technology that will make renewables economically viable on their own merits against fossil fuels. That will be a tough battle with the global economy entering choppy waters, but at least Shellenberger and Nordhaus have injected a vital strain of realism into an issue far too critical to founder on green dreams.