Putting A Financial Spin On Global Warming

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute.

hide captionMichael Shellenberger (left) and Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute made a recent trip to Capitol Hill to push Congress to spend more money on clean energy technologies.

Jessica Goldstein/NPR

Climate change is a potential environmental disaster — but it's also potentially an economic opportunity. President Obama spoke of it in economic terms Tuesday when he urged the House of Representatives to pass legislation that would address global warming.

"The nation that leads in the creation of a clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy," he said. "That is what this legislation seeks to achieve. It is a bill that will open the door to a better future for this nation. And that is why I urge members of Congress to come together and pass it."

Promoting responses to global warming as an economic opportunity — rather than as a pollution problem that needs to be solved through regulation — has long been championed by a tiny think tank in Oakland, Calif.

The Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute doesn't look like much — just a few offices in a shared suite in downtown Oakland.

There are only five people on staff. On a recent day, they were outnumbered by an incoming crop of seven freshly minted college graduates, who showed up for their summer internships.

Michael Shellenberger, 37, and Ted Nordhaus, 43, founded the Breakthrough Institute in 2002.

Shellenberger tells the interns that environmental groups — like the ones he used to work for — are going about it all wrong. By urging Congress to cast carbon dioxide as a pollutant that needs to be controlled, he says, they will constantly swim against the tide of public opinion.

"We're stuck in this kind of poor paradigm for dealing with climate change, this pollution paradigm," he says, "not because environmentalists are failures, but actually because they were so successful. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the cap and trade on acid rain — these things worked really well."

Pushing Innovation, Not Regulation

But reducing carbon dioxide is a different story. It's not just a nuisance byproduct, like the sulfur in coal that contributes to acid rain. Carbon dioxide is unavoidable when we burn coal, oil and natural gas. So getting rid of it means either capturing it at great expense, or regulating fossil fuels into oblivion.

In theory, regulation will force companies to develop cleaner alternatives as the price of carbon pollution grows. But Shellenberger says that'll never work.

"When was the last time human beings modernized our energy sources by making older power sources more expensive?" he asks the interns. "And, of course, by now you probably know that the answer is never."

Personal computers didn't take off because there was a tax on typewriters, he says. And the Internet didn't sprout up because the government made telegraphs more expensive.

"So is there a better way to do this? Well, we think that there is. It's very simple: It's that we need to make clean energy cheap worldwide."

China will never stop burning its massive reserves of coal unless there's something cheap to replace them, he argues. And the United States isn't likely to stop burning coal, either, he says.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that the best way to develop those clean technologies is to increase federal energy research tenfold, and to create a project akin to the Apollo mission to the moon. But a massive increase in federal energy research spending is not a popular idea at the moment.

"There's this idea that the government shouldn't be involved in technology, the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers," Shellenberger says. "Which is sort of a funny thing to say. It's kind of like, well, why not? And when hasn't the United States government been involved in picking technology winners and losers?"

He points to the computer industry as just one example of something that came into being because of deliberate federal investments.

Tapping Into Americans' Love Of Invention

Nordhaus and Shellenberger weren't always technology advocates. They met as young adults, trying to save redwood trees on the California coast. Working as pollsters and strategists, they spent a lot of time figuring out what motivates people. That led them to rethink how to frame global warming as an issue.

"The things that will drive or not drive action have nothing to do with how well you understand how fast the polar ice caps are melting," Nordhaus says.

A sense of doom or shame only motivates a small segment of the public — and puts off the rest, he says. Instead, their research shows that people are motivated when the issue is presented as an opportunity to revolutionize energy technology.

"In fact, not only is it popular, but voters get excited about it," Shellenberger says. "If you go and talk to folks in the Rust Belt, in Ohio, or you talk to people in Silicon Valley, you talk to people in New York, Americans love that. And they love that, I think, for reasons that are really specific to the national character, which is: That's what Americans do; we invent stuff. That is so much part of who we are. It just seems crazy that we wouldn't put that at the center of our policy agenda."

Critics Say There Isn't Time

The downside of this is that global warming is a looming crisis, and critics say their solution offers no timetable for action and no assurances that technologies will be ready before the world tips into a dangerous new state. So they often hear that their approach is a distraction.

"Well, I say, look in the mirror here," Nordhaus says. He says the pollution paradigm isn't succeeding either. Most countries aren't keeping the lofty promises they made in international climate talks. And the 1,200 page climate legislation now before Congress is so full of escape clauses and giveaways, it's not clear what exactly it will achieve. One thing it won't do is substantially increase federal research dollars.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger rail against the bill in the blogosphere. And they're trying to get attention on Capitol Hill.

Taking Their Agenda To The Capitol

A few days after our interview, we meet up again in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

They came to town with a simple plea: The government needs to spend more money — not less — to develop radical new energy technologies, and to help bring those to market.

On this day, they're accompanied by Peter Teague from the left-leaning Nathan Cummings Foundation — the Breakthrough Institute's main funder. Teague is pleased with what Shellenberger and Nordhaus have achieved to date.

"The president has adopted their language, their message, the story they helped to develop," Teague says. "The next stage in the development of all of this is for the actual reality of the policy to reflect the glowing, wonderful, positive, visionary rhetoric."

Turning Obama's rhetoric on energy opportunity into a fundamentally new approach to climate change will require a massive political shift. And that's the breakthrough that the Breakthrough Institute is hoping to achieve.

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