RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If the House of Representatives does what President Obama wants it to do, it will pass a law this week that would be a milestone in efforts to restrict greenhouse gases. The president yesterday spoke of the pending legislation as an opportunity to develop new energy technologies.
President BARACK OBAMA: The nation that leads in the creation of a clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st century's global economy. That's what this legislation seeks to achieve. It's a bill that will open the door to a better future for this nation, and that's why I urge members of Congress to come together and pass it.
MONTAGNE: The idea that global warming is more attractive and saleable as an economic opportunity is an approach that's been championed by a tiny think tank in Oakland, California. NPR's Richard Harris paid a visit and spoke with the group's founders.
RICHARD HARRIS: 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, and on a recent day, they were outnumbered by an incoming crop of seven freshly minted college graduates who showed up for their summer internships.
Mr. MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER (Co-Founder, The Breakthrough Institute): Okay. Come on in. You want to - should we just sit?
Mr. TED NORDHAUS (Co-Founder, The Breakthrough Institute): You want to stand up here?
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: Should we - yeah. We'll stand.
HARRIS: Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus founded the Breakthrough Institute in 2002. Shellenberger's 37, with a fashionable buzz cut. Nordhaus is 43 and so casual he hasn't even bothered to shave. Both wear jeans and loose shirts.
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Mr. SHELLENBERGER: All right. So, I'm going to start and really this is…
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Mr. SHELLENBERGER: …well, this is your introduction to downtown Oakland.
Mr. NORDHAUS: Welcome to downtown Oakland.
HARRIS: Once the sirens subside, Shellenberger and Nordhaus take a few minutes to lay out the philosophy of their think tank - in particular, their approach to climate change.
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, they will constantly swim against the tide of public opinion.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: We're stuck in this kind of poor paradigm for dealing with climate change, this pollution paradigm - 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.
HARRIS: But reducing carbon dioxide is a different story. It's not just a nuisance byproduct. It's unavoidable when we burn coal, oil and natural gas. So getting rid of it means either capturing it or regulating it 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.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: When was the last time human beings modernized our energy sources by making older power sources more expensive? And, of course, by now, you probably know that the answer is never.
HARRIS: Likewise, 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.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: 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.
HARRIS: China will never stop burning its massive reserves of coal unless there's something cheap to replace them, he argues. And we aren't likely to stop burning coal, either.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that the best way to develop these clean technologies is to increase federal energy research tenfold and to create a project akin to the Apollo mission to the moon. Shellenberger acknowledges that a massive increase in federal energy spending is not a popular idea at the moment.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: There's this idea that the government shouldn't be involved in technology, the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers, 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?
HARRIS: He points to the computer industry as just one example of something that came into being because of deliberate federal investments.
After the introductory meeting breaks up, Shellenberger and Nordhaus settle into a brown naugahyde couch in Ted's office to tell their story. 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.
Mr. NORDHAUS: 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.
HARRIS: Nordhaus says a sense of doom or shame only motivates a small segment of the public and puts off the rest. Instead, Shellenberger says their research shows that people are motivated when the issue is presented as an opportunity to revolutionize energy technology.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: In fact, not only is it popular, but actually voters get excited about it. If you go and talk to folks in the Rust Belt, in Ohio, or you talk to people in Silicon Valley or you talk to people in New York, I mean, Americans love that. And they love it for, I think, reasons that are really specific to the national character, which is that that's what Americans do. We invent stuff. That is so much part of who we are. And it just seems kind of crazy that we wouldn't put that at the center of our policy agenda.
HARRIS: The downside of this, of course, is that global warming is a potential 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.
Mr. NORDHAUS: Well, I say, you know, look in the mirror here.
HARRIS: Nordhaus 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 exactly what it will achieve. One thing it won't do is dramatically increase federal research dollars.
As a result, Nordhaus and Shellenberger rail against the bill in the blogosphere. And they're trying to get attention on Capitol Hill.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, I'm taking off.
HARRIS: All right, man. Good luck in D.C.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: Hey, thanks, yeah.
HARRIS: A few days after our interview, we meet up again in front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Mr. NORDHAUS: Hey, Richard.
HARRIS: Greetings. Hi.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: Long time no see.
HARRIS: Indeed. You actually have coats and ties, huh?
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: I know.
Mr. NORDHAUS: I know.
Mr. SHELLENBERGER: You got us on, like, maybe the two days a year I will put a tie on.
HARRIS: Shellenberger and Nordhaus came to town with a simple plea: The government needs to spend more money, not less, in developing radical new energy technologies and helping bring those to market.
Today, 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.
Mr. PETER TEAGUE (Nathan Cummings Foundation): The president has adopted their language, their message, their story that they helped to develop. The next stage is for the actual reality of the policy to reflect the glowing, wonderful, positive, visionary rhetoric.
HARRIS: Turning President 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.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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