Ten Miles Square

July/ August 2013 The Monthly Interview: Ted Nordhaus

A conversation with Ted Nordhaus, the head of a green think tank who thinks that environmentalism is dead, nuclear energy and gas are alive, and maybe the conservatives had it right all along.

By Washington Monthly

ted nordhaus
It ain’t easy bein’ green: Nordhaus says reducing emissions in the U.S. isn’t enough. A comprehensive global warming strategy must center on the developing world.

In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.

WM: You’ve made enemies with many environmentalists over the years by arguing that the environmental movement has damaged the cause of real environmentalism. What do you mean by that?

TN: Environmentalists have defined the issue of environmentalism very narrowly. They’re always coming up with these apocalyptic scenarios—“If we don’t fundamentally change the way we live, human civilization will end, and if you don’t agree, you’re a science denier.” And then there’s all this hand waving about living harmoniously with nature. And they’ve defined the solutions very narrowly, too. There’s this idea that renewable technologies like solar and wind are good and other technologies like gas and nuclear are bad. The effect of all that has been incredibly polarizing and counterproductive.

The truth is, living harmoniously with nature and having solar panels on your roof and shopping at your farmer’s market doesn’t have much to do with actually helping soon-to-be nine billion people live sustainably on earth. If you want to save ancient forests around the world, you need more intensive agriculture, not less. I’m sorry, but the Brazilians are not going to develop their economy by harvesting nuts in the Amazon for the Body Shop. That was really an idea for sustainable development that came out of Rio in 1992! The point is, the environmentalists are talking about the wrong things. Imagine how different the politics of climate change would look if, back in 1992, the [George H. W.] Bush administration and the environmental movement had said, “We have this climate thing we’ve got to deal with and the solution is gas and nuclear.” Do you think the issue would be anywhere near as partisan as it is today?

WM: But at least environmentalists have been advocating for a solution. Republicans have just denied the problem is happening at all—why don’t you blame them?

TN: Republicans and conservatives are reconsidering where they are on a lot of issues right now, and climate is one of them. I think we’re going to start seeing them drop this purely denialist position and start defining a conservative position on climate change. That, I think, is going to be a lot of things that environmentalists hate—like nuclear and gas. But I would welcome that, because it would mean that conservatives were actually engaging the issue.

The national discussion around climate should look a lot more like the national discussion around education, where Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, are competing for who has the better strategy to improve it. The result of that is that neither side gets everything that it wants, but over time we do a lot of reform, make some progress, and have some sustained public policy and investment.

WM: The big news in the environmental world today is that the United States is sitting on an enormous amount of newly accessible gas and oil. As it stands, we’re more or less on track to become the Saudi Arabia of the twenty-first century. What does this mean for people who are concerned with the environment in the U.S. today?

TN: You have to appreciate the irony here. It’s primarily because of the gas revolution that U.S. emissions have gone down faster than any other place in the world. Gas has about half the carbon as coal, and when you have lots of cheap gas, you start shutting down coal plants, which has a much bigger effect on reducing emissions than anything else. But what does that mean for environmentalism? Look at what’s going on now. The environmental movement has gotten so swept up in all this anti-fracking stuff that they can’t even acknowledge why emissions are going down because it would make them look pro-gas. It’s indicative of a larger, historical problem with the environmental movement—it’s just been mugged by reality.

WM: We published an article a couple years ago, when mainstream environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council were in favor of fracking. Is that not still true?

TN: They’ve all reversed their positions. Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club.

WM: Why?

TN: I don’t know—Yoko Ono? I mean there are lots of NIMBY chickens coming home to roost. Look at what happened to the Sierra Club. A couple of years ago they took $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to promote gas and launched this “Beyond Coal” campaign. But then they had their grassroots base up in arms, and so they totally reversed course, climate benefits be damned.

WM: There have been reports recently—from Wall Street, of all places—predicting that as gas-electric infrastructure expands, there’s the potential for an explosion of wind and solar, too.

TN: It’s true that you can’t scale wind and solar without lots and lots of gas. You have to have a way to get electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. But the question is, what’s the cost of using wind and solar, compared to other pathways toward a lower-emission energy economy? Despite very large subsidies and very large investments, and some innovation with renewable technologies, renewable energy still plays a very small role in reducing global emissions. If we’re serious about reducing global emissions, renewable technologies that are currently available are not the answer. The only thing that has ever had a major impact on reducing emissions is moving toward gas and nuclear. In retrospect, that’s exactly what a lot of conservatives were saying from the beginning.

WM: But is building more nuclear plants feasible? Even if the politics against nuclear were to change substantially, there’s still the problem of sheer cost, right?