The New Denial Is Delay at the Breakthrough Institute (Part 3)

Past is prologue as the contrarian environmental group splits apart, and both founders try for newish messages, while denying obvious industry ties.

This is Part Three of “The New Denial Is Delay at the Breakthrough Institute,” a three-part series examining the Breakthrough Institute and ecomodernism. In Part Two, we discussed their annual meetings to which they invite climate skeptics and Monsanto propagandists, the odd credentials for many of their affiliates, and their promotion of nuclear energy and GMO agriculture as techno-fixes to electrify and feed the world. To start at Part One, click here.

Months after the Breakthrough Institute released their 2015 ecomodernist manifesto, the declaration’s ideological binding started coming unglued. Breakthrough’s Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger met ridicule trying to sell the manifesto at a public event in England, and the duo later parted ways, as Shellenberger founded a new organization called Environmental Progress to publicize nuclear energy. The split has been somewhat acrimonious as both try to break from a past that neither seems capable of escaping.

The event in England focused on restoring science to environmentalism, and it was there that they planned to sell ecomodernism to British reporters. Conservative MP Owen Paterson, a climate denier who almost halved the UK’s climate preparedness budget when he was environmental secretary, hosted the media event. 

When announcing the press conference, Paterson called on the public to abandon the “relentless pessimism of the environmental movement” and warned in a Telegraph op-ed that “the Green Blob still infests the official bureaucracy with its influence.” Other conference panelists included Mark Lynas, a co-author of the the ecomodernist manifesto, and Matt Ridley, a British science writer noted for climate denial screeds

British politician and climate denier Owen Paterson tweeted a photo of the 2015 ecomodernism event featuring Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, and Matt Ridley

But after critics argued that the event provided a platform for climate denialists, DesmogBlog reported that Shellenberger dismissed those who warned the group not to participate in a press conference with Paterson.

“Fuck you all, we’re going to go to the press conference,” Shellenberger said. “Owen will say his thing, we’re going to say our thing, if people can’t deal with it, fuck ‘em. I’m done with the tribalism on this.” 

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Shellenberger’s cavalier attitude did not seem to impress the crowd, however, and many complained that Breakthrough had made the wrong decision by choosing to associate with climate denialists and anti-environmentalists

In a recent interview, Nordhaus explained this strategy as sort of a means to an end. “I've given talks to groups of climate skeptics, climate deniers—you know, real climate deniers,” he said. “You can have a variety of viewpoints on this question without having to put a tin foil hat on. And the thing is, you get to the end of those talks and if you go, ‘OK, so who supports nuclear energy?’ Everybody in the room supports nuclear energy.”

Neither Nordhaus nor Shellenberger responded to detailed questions sent by e-mail.


By late 2015, Shellenberger had left the Breakthrough Institute and started Environmental Progress. A photo at the organization’s website shows Shellenberger clad in a yellow t-shirt giving a Ted Talk. The summer after founding his group, Shellenberger partnered with employees of the nuclear energy industry to lead the March for Environmental Hope, which was billed as the “first-ever pro-nuclear march.” 

As part of their march, the group held protests outside the Bay area offices of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and attendees included a half dozen Exelon employees, who flew in from jobs working at nuclear reactors scattered across the country. 

“We support our employees’ efforts to advocate on environmental and climate-related issues that are important to them,” said a spokesperson from Exelon. “However, this was a voluntary employee activity and not part of an organized campaign. All participants attended voluntarily and were not asked to represent the company or its views.”

Months later, Shellenberger led a pro-nuclear march in Chicago that was said to be inspired by the Civil Rights March on Washington, the Stonewall Riots, and Gandhi’s Salt March. Counter protestors denounced Environmental Progress as “astroturf.” 

When not writing for the Environmental Progress website, Shellenberger sometimes has his views echoed on Spiked, a British website funded in part by the Koch Brothers that traffics in climate denial. He also runs a blog at Forbes where he ridicules climate policy while advocating for nuclear energy. In one example at Forbes, he cited studies by Ed Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as proof that fears of nuclear radiation are overblown. Shellenberger’s story picked up on a theme first introduced by the Breakthrough Institute where they interviewed Calabrese about his research.

As reported by The Los Angeles Times and HuffPost Investigations, Calabrese has long excited the tobacco, chemical, and nuclear industries with research called “hormesis” that argues tiny amounts of pollution and radiation are actually good for people. Public health experts have dismissed Calabrese’s hormesis studies as a type of religion, although Trump officials showed interest.

“Shellenberger is a propagandist,” said Paul Dorfman, Founder and Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group and Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London. Dorfman said that while some experts can make a case for nuclear energy that he disagrees with, Shellenberger is not one of them. 

“He’s not a scientist. He just comes up with stuff,” said Dorfman. Dismissing the hormesis theory as “quasi science” and “tosh,” Dorfman said there is no safe dose of radiation. “This is a fact. And all the regulatory bodies know this.” 

“My impression is that [Shellenberger] is sincere in his views that nuclear power needs to play a larger role in combating climate change,” said David Lochbaum, a former safety instructor at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who has retired from the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, Lochbaum noted by email, “Few technologies have a risk/reward scheme such that one bad day at one place can outweigh decades of good days.” He added that, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, “Japan is re-learning this lesson.”


To promote his recent book “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger added another piece to the canon of environmental apologist lit, with a post on his Forbes blog titled “On behalf of environmentalists, I apologize for the climate scare.” Forbes removed the blog shortly after, which Shellenberger decried as censorship. Nonetheless, Shellenberger references his blogging at Forbes to claim that he is a “leading environmental journalist.” 

But once again, reality diverges from the Shellenberger storyline.

Forbes has long been a breeding ground for industry messaging and corporate propaganda. Back in 1997, Forbes ran a takedown of EPA Administrator Carol Browner, warning the public that she was ignoring science to gain control over American lives. “Watch out for this woman,” read the scary headline splashed across the cover of Forbes magazine, “The EPA’s Carol Browner is exploiting health and the environment to build a power base.” 

The story’s co-author was Bonner R. Cohen, who also operated EPA Watch, a newsletter that Philip Morris described as an “asset” that they established to attack the EPA on second hand smoke. After EPA Watch disappeared, Cohen then joined various climate denial groups, including the Heartland Institute. 

When Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project, a corporate front group for the agrichemical industry, had a blog at Forbes, he dismissed the dangers neonic pesticides pose to bees, and argued that soda bans might lead to more (not less) consumption of sugary drinks. Relying in part on the expertise of scientist Geoffrey Kabat, Entine also called a New York Times series on the damaging health effects of fracking “advocacy journalism” that advanced an “anti shale gas bias.”  

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Geoffrey Kabat is a former tobacco scientist and affiliate of the American Council on Science and Health, and he was also a contributor for Forbes. Kabat’s Forbes column ended when award winning author, Guardian columnist, and research director for the consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know, Carey Gillam complained about an error-riddled Forbes post in which Kabat attacked her. Forbes removed the post and banned Kabat. 

Forbes has also removed several posts written by Kavin Senapathy and Henry I. Miller, after the New York Times reported that Monsanto had ghostwritten one for Miller.

Not to exhaust the list, but Texas energy consultant Dave Blackmon became a Forbes blogger after leaving the oil and gas firm El Paso Corporation, where he helped to start the oil-and-gas industry site Energy in Depth. At Forbes, Blackmon describes Energy in Depth as a “program designed to promote accurate information in media reporting on fracking.” Other media outlets tell a different story. 

In an investigation, HuffPost reported that Energy in Depth is a climate denial program run by FTI Consulting and financed by the oil and gas industry to attack scientists, such as Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, who are documenting the dangers of fracking and climate change. And Inside Climate News cited Energy In Depth as a ploy to manufacture an imaginary public enemy called the “anti-fracking industry.” 

“We flood the American public with a tsunami of crap every day in the media,” said Gary Schwitzer, an adjunct professor at U of Minnesota School of Public Health, and Publisher of Health News Review. He said Forbes is particularly terrible because it hosts fringe contributors with undeclared industry ties, and who write dreck. This is harmful, Schwitzer said, because it distracts the public from real news: “That’s what really pisses me off.”


“In some ways, it's just like a fabulous performance art piece that he's doing right now,” Nordhaus told Drilled News of Shellenberger’s campaign to promote his latest book. “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.”

Despite attempts to create space between themselves and Shellenberger, Breakthrough has also helped to prop him up. When both Shellenberger and Bjorn Lomborg published books last year, climate scientists rushed to condemn them. Writing in The Guardian, climate expert Bob Ward dismissed both books as "classic examples of political propaganda." 

Nonetheless, Breakthrough’s Alex Trembath came to Shellenberger and Lomborg’s rescue, writing that each author “wisely rejects some of the more outlandish environmental orthodoxies,” and added, “In place of catastrophism, each book offers optimism.” Trembath’s review appeared in National Review, long a venue for climate denial and disinformation.

Breakthrough’s troubling ties to climate denial continue to this day as a member of their board is Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute. Four years back, 19 Senators took to the Senate floor in a week-long event to denounce the Manhattan Institute and other fossil fuel-funded groups that deny climate science and stymie legislation. According to Exxon Secrets, the Manhattan Institute has received $1.39 million from Exxon since 1992, with $75,000 donated in 2018, the last year for which records are available.

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In his latest book “The New Climate War,” Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State university, called out Breakthrough for fossil fuel ties and funding from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation which was started with profits from shale gas. In response, Nordhaus and Breakthrough staff sent a sharp letter to Mann and his publisher, stating that they once received a small $10,000 grant from the Mitchell foundation, but Mann’s claim that they are “linked to fossil fuel industry” is demonstrably false.

But Breakthrough has other links to the fossil fuel industry, through the chair of their advisory board, the heiress Rachel Pritzker. Besides funding the Breakthrough Institute, the Pritzker Innovation Fund supports the Natural Gas Initiative at Stanford University. Other Natural Gas Initiative funders include Anadarko Petroleum, Gulf Energy, The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute. 

In 2017, the Natural Gas Institute collaborated with several groups including the Breakthrough Institute to hold a natural gas symposium. Breakthrough’s Alex Trembath spoke on two panels, including one that examined how small-scale distribution of natural gas could open up new markets to serve low-income countries. Financial sponsors for the event included Rachel Pritzker.

“Bad actors are practiced in the art of projection,” wrote Michael Mann, in an email to The DisInformation Chronicle. “When they accuse you of lying, it probably means they are. The evidence you’ve unearthed seems to bear that out.”

“If there’s one thing these guys are good at, it is getting the media to move a story for them,” said Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Center. Complimenting Breakthrough’s skills in public relations, Davies said that their counterintuitive “man bites dog” message gives Breakthrough an advantage over environmental organizations, which keep selling the same tired story.

“They are good at PR,” he said. “It’s where they came from. They’re good PR guys pretending to be policy experts.”