The New Denial Is Delay at the Breakthrough Institute
How ecomodernism’s attempt to revolutionize environmentalism became a tragic slide into techno-hype lobbying and endless bickering with "Big Green"
In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of a scrappy Bay Area think tank called the Breakthrough Institute, shot to prominence when they published “The Death of Environmentalism,” an essay that argued the environmental movement had failed.
“[M]odern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live," they wrote.
As they pushed environmentalists to modernize and embrace technology, the press-savvy contrarians constantly underlined their years of experience providing public relations advice to green groups like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, to differentiate themselves from commonplace climate skeptics. “We’re not like Bjorn Lomborg or whatever,” Shellenberger told a reporter around that time, referring to the Danish climate contrarian best known for the fact-challenged book “Cool It”and, more recently, “False Alarm.”
Because they spoke from within the movement and defined themselves against climate science deniers, they found a sympathetic audience among mainstream intellectuals. “Sadly…Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, are right,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote.
But it turns out they weren’t so different from run-of-the-mill climate skeptics after all. A few years after seeking to separate the Breakthrough Institute from Lomborg, Shellenberger joined the Danish writer on a panel at Brown University, where both bashed Al Gore and urged more tempered rhetoric on climate change. This time, Shellenberger expressed sympathy with Lomborg. As reported by the Brown Daily Herald, Shellenberger argued that climate change scientists dismissed him and Lomborg because experts did not allow for their “alternative voices.”
In the years since, Breakthrough’s antics and loose relationship with facts have caused most environmental groups and climate change experts to give them the cold shoulder.
“They had this idea of molding environmentalism to attract conservatives and what actually happened was they turned into conservatives themselves—writing for Forbes, Quillete, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal,” said Sam Bliss a graduate student in environmental economics at the University of Vermont. Along with research professor Giorgos Kallis, Bliss published a study in the Journal of Political Ecology that documents the Breakthrough Institute’s promotion of a strange idea called ecomodernism. Bliss describes it as a tragic tale, where Nordhaus and Shellenberger turn into exactly who they didn't want to be: conservative lobbyists for techno-fixes who engage in endless battles with environmentalists.
But while Breakthrough may have become a pariah in much of the environmental movement, ignoring them is not the smartest strategy. Most of their early critics have vanished after becoming exasperated at the group’s constant failure to correct errors, granting Nordhaus and Shellenberger an open license to peddle “ecomodernism” as a gadget to address the world’s environmental challenges.
Indeed, while it’s been 12 years since Shellenberger and Lomborg shared a stage to promote their “alternative voices,” the veracity and quality of their scientific advice has not improved. Both Shellenberger and Lomborg released new books in 2020—and as in the past, experts immediately savaged them. In a review at Yale 360, Pacific Institute emeritus president Peter Gleick wrote, “Bad science and bad arguments abound in 'Apocalypse Never' by Michael Shellenberger.” Taking a pickaxe to Lomborg’s book “False Alarm,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in the New York Times, “This book proves the aphorism that a little knowledge is dangerous. It’s nominally about air pollution. It’s really about mind pollution.”
But despite criticism of the Breakthrough Institute’s ideas and turmoil within it — Shellenberger left the group in 2015 — Breakthrough shows an uncanny knack to survive and spread bad ideas, even managing to attract the occasional reasonable scientist such as Steven Pinker, an attention-starved Harvard professor, who is sometimes touted as one of his generation’s leading minds.
Neither Nordhaus nor Shellenberger responded to detailed questions sent by e-mail.
A decade after they burst on the scene firing shots at Big Green, Shellenberger followed Sierra Club president Mike Brune onto the stage for Brainstorm Green, Fortune Magazine’s 2014 conference for environmental leaders. After opening remarks from Brune, dressed the part of an environmental nonprofit boss in boring suit and tie, Shellenberger stepped up to the podium in slacks and a fitted shirt—uniform-ready to host an inspiring Ted Talk.
He then proceeded to berate Brune for failing to offer real solutions to climate change.
By this point, Shellenberger no longer felt the need to namecheck Breakthrough’s environmental roots before launching a missile, aimed in predictable fashion, at Big Green. In contrast to Brune and his ineffective Sierra Club, Shellenberger explained, he and Breakthrough co-founder Nordhaus had successfully lobbied for the New Apollo Project, a coalition advocating for cleantech and renewable energy. Shellenberger added that the New Apollo later convinced the Obama administration to put $150 billion into a stimulus bill.
After leaving the podium, Shellenberger plopped down in a chair next to Brune to continue the debate. Brune then punched back, “We operate differently from your Breakthrough Institute. We are not a think tank; we are a group that gets results . . . on the ground.”
With a grin and a shrug, Shellenberger quipped, “We had pretty good results with the stimulus, actually.”
The sparring was vintage Breakthrough: tiny, Left Coast think tank smacks down Big Environment for sclerotic thinking and green solutions less palatable than last week’s stale, organic, whole grain muffins. Also standard: Shellenberger’s Apollo parable relied on a string of selective facts, loudly paraded onto stage for political theater.
Started in the early 2000s, the Apollo Alliance banded together dozens of labor unions and green groups in a coalition that advocated for federal funding to advance technologies and create jobs for clean energy. Members included everyone from the NAACP, SEIU, Greenpeace, Tides Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, and the AFL-CIO. Anyone who was anyone began adopting Apollo-like rhetoric, including Bill Clinton, and The Nation editor and publisher Katrina Vanden Heuvel. Not surprisingly, a founding board member of Apollo was the Sierra Club’s executive director, which makes it odd that Shellenberger would try to seize sole credit for the coalition’s purported success, let alone use it against Brune.
In reality, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were two of the many people that helped get the coalition off the ground. And in 2005, nearly a decade before that public spat with Brune, Shellenberger announced that he had left Apollo over disagreements with members. In an interview with Drilled News, Shellenberger was blunt, “I was shitcanned from Apollo over ‘Death of Environmentalism.’”
Despite that happening more than fifteen years ago, Shellenberger still references his time with the Apollo Alliance when plugging his tale as a hero striving to save the planet. When he testified last January before the House Science Committee, Shellenberger noted, “In 2003 I co-founded the Apollo Alliance to advocate for a Green New Deal, which we called a ‘New Apollo Project.’” He added that Obama’s stimulus (passed in 2009) funded many Apollo proposals for renewables, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles.
In a recent interview, Shellenberger detailed his role in passing this enormous stimulus package after meeting with Obama’s policy team. “And the Obama people, they got it right away,” said Shellenberger of this meeting. “And then the rest is history. They basically were like, ‘Yeah, we want to do a big investment in clean energy.’ And that was the stimulus investment.”
A recently retired Hill staffer, who did not want his name in the media, said he worked for decades on appropriations for the House but never heard of the Breakthrough Institute. He wondered how Shellenberger—or anyone—could claim personal credit for passing billions of dollars in renewable energy policy with just one or two meetings, when the Hill is swarming with hundreds of professional lobbyists working around the clock.
“He’s constantly reinventing his story to build the appearance of power and access,” said Kert Davies, who spent 13 years at Greenpeace examining energy policy, before founding the Climate Investigations Center in 2013. Davies said he first met Shellenberger in the early 2000s, when Shellenberger was vying to get a communications contract with Greenpeace. “He takes credit for things [that happened] years after he was boosted from the Apollo Alliance. He can say whatever he wants, and it’s all vapor because the organization is now gone.”
“They aren’t players up here on the Hill,” said a senior Democratic Committee staffer, who has spent decades working on climate policy and is not authorized to speak to the media. “They spend most of their time shooting spitballs at mainstream environmental organizations and that makes them a bright, shiny object to some journalists.”
Nonetheless, when Nordhaus and Shellenberger flew from California to Washington in 2009 to discuss climate policy, NPR interviewed them outside the Senate Dirksen Office Building, and repeated their funder Peter Teague’s claims that President Obama had adopted Breakthrough’s “language and visionary rhetoric.”
Jockeying to position themselves as the smart, thoughtful adults on environmental policy is core to the Breakthrough model, along with constant bashing of “Big Environment.” In 2005, after Greenpeace created the website Exxon Secrets to track the oil company’s funding for climate change disinformation, Mother Jones published a sprawling investigation detailing how Exxon was throwing buckets of cash at 40 organizations that attacked the scientific consensus on climate.
Senators then sent Exxon a letter demanding that they cease paying for the “effective climate change denial myth” and Britain’s Royal Society called on Exxon to stop financing American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change.”
In response, Nordhaus and Shellenberger penned a 2007 op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Look who's in denial about global warming now”) that belittled Mother Jones for investigating Exxon’s finances and Greenpeace for creating Exxon Secrets. “The truth is that global warming deniers have had little impact on public attitudes,” the duo wrote.
Eight years after this Nordhaus-Shellenberger op-ed, Inside Climate News, The Los Angeles Times, and The Columbia School of Journalism published another large-scale investigation of what Exxon knew about climate change and the company’s subsequent deception. Once again Shellenberger defended Exxon.
Shellenberger’s denial that Exxon suppressed or spun what it knew about climate change is now referenced by mainstream climate denialists, such as Marc Morano of the fossil fuel-funded Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). In his climate denier bible, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change,” Morano cites Michael Shellenberger as proof that Exxon in “many cases advocated for climate policy” and that if the company did spend money on denial it was “a drop in the bucket compared to green money.”
Lifelong comms experts, both Morano and Shellenberger now claim to be reporting on climate change as “journalists.” In the new documentary Purple Mountains, Morano says, “I come at these issues as an investigative journalist.” On the website of his new organization Environmental Progress, Shellenberger notes in his bio, “Michael is a leading environmental journalist who has broken major stories.” The stories Shellenberger cites are posts at his Forbes blog.
Beltway insiders may dismiss their influence on policy, but since launching the Breakthrough Institute in 2003, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have generated gigawatts of media buzz — along with a pile of disapproval taller than a West Virginia coal mountain. Scientists and environmentalists have noted the duo’s penchant for portraying the fossil fuel industry as a tiny corporate Goliath picked on by David, the environmental giant. But Breakthrough’s counterintuitive narratives, headlined with sparkly buzzwords and backfilled with selective facts, make sense when you remember that Nordhaus and Shellenberger forged their expertise in public relations.
In the tech-crazed, libertarian San Francisco of the early 2000s, Breakthrough’s ideology perhaps made sense to those who saw the environmental movement as stuck in the past, unwilling to embrace necessary technology, and too resistant to corporate solutions. This has caused a few moments of public embarrassment for Breakthrough such as promoting fracking as a “clean energy” alternative.
Last year, medical experts writing in the New England Journal of Medicine dismissed fracking as a clean energy false promise that data show is less a bridge to future, than a tether to the past. Today, Breakthrough promotes fracking and eagerly embraces nuclear and solar energy, while cheerleading for GMO agriculture, as preferred technologies to electrify and feed the world.
“I've had this from both sides of it because obviously we kind of bring a lot of the nuclear and GMO people together,” Nordhaus told Drilled News “But, you know, you get the nuclear people who say, ‘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, ‘I understand why you like nuclear, but it's really giving GMOs a bad name.’”
But over the years, Breakthrough also began defending oil companies and cozying up to climate contrarians. Denying that they traffic in climate denial, while constantly ending up in the same room with contrarians and climate denialists, is a constant dilemma for the Breakthrough crowd, as are spine twisting arguments to soften human impacts on the planet and to hype technology solutions. It’s a subtle, more modern version of denial and catnip to some journalists. When celebrated data cruncher Nate Silver relaunched his 538 website in 2014, one of his first hires was Breakthrough Fellow Roger Pielke Jr.
A professor of science policy at the University of Colorado, Pielke Jr. has a long track record of wildcat contrarian writing on climate change and receiving invites to promote his views at congressional hearings from Republicans who deny climate science. The deceased, famed climate science policy scholar Stephen Schneider once referred to Pielke Jr. as a “self-aggrandizer who sets up straw men, knocks them down, and takes credit for being the honest broker to explain the mess.”
It only took Pielke Jr. a brief time as a 538 contributor to live up to Schneider’s claim. In a baffling article, Pielke Jr. diminished the effect climate change has on damages caused by hurricanes, blasting Silver with a category 5 level shit storm. When Silver then appeared on “The Daily Show” to discuss the new launch of 538, Jon Stewart jabbed, “You are taking a rash of shit in a week and a half like no one I've seen in a long time."
Shortly after this, Silver commissioned a response by an MIT scientist that largely debunked Pielke Jr.’s analysis, and Pielke Jr. left 538, complaining that the outlet was reluctant to publish his work. Rushing to protect their Senior Fellow, the Breakthrough’s Alex Trembath then posted a blog arguing that the science actually agreed with Pielke Jr.
Since that event, Pielke has left Breakthrough and scientists have now begun to cite climate change as the cause for specific natural disasters and have published research explaining how climate change has likely increased hurricane wind speeds and the amount of rain hurricanes dump on cities. And a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused global warming is making larger tropical cyclones more common.
But in his new book, Shellenberger resurrects Pielke Jr’s old work to breathe new life into claims that climate change is not making natural disasters worse. Shellenberger arrives at this conclusion with a few fanciful leaps, arguing that the United Nation’s definition of “natural disaster” means that technically climate change is making extreme weather, not natural disasters, worse.
However, such Talmudic quibbles might be lost on Americans whose homes and possessions were destroyed last year in climate-fueled forest fires out West, or whose communities on the East coast were drowned by hurricanes made more powerful by global warming.
This ends part one of “The New Denial Is Delay at the Breakthrough Institute” a three-part series examining the history of ecomodernism and the Breakthrough Institute. To continue with Part Two, click here.