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June 27, 2013 12:44 PM Climate Breakthrough?

By Ed Kilgore

Those who follow the debate over environmental issues probably need no introduction to Mike Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, who exploded onto the national scene with a 2004 essay provocatively entitled “The Death of Environmentalism,” a pointed critique of the political strategies of mainline Green groups. Some of their targets have abundantly returned fire.

It’s interesting, then, that the president’s climate change speech at Georgetown yesterday attracted as much praise from Shellenberger and Nordhaus, in an essay at Ten Miles Square, as it did from more conventional climate activists (most famously Al Gore). Indeed, they hail Obama for having introduced a new era of “climate pragmatism:”

Where efforts to address climate change have for the last 20 years focused on reducing national emissions through sweeping policies, like cap and trade or carbon taxes, climate policy today has shifted decisively toward smaller bore, pragmatic policies that don’t promise to eliminate the climate crisis in one fell swoop but do help us move our economy toward greater “decarbonization,” sector by sector and technology by technology. Slowly but surely, a new climate pragmatism is taking shape.
Even as the global Kyoto Protocol collapsed and cap and trade legislation foundered in Congress, U.S. emissions have declined faster than any nation’s in the world. Cheap and clean natural gas, thanks to fracking technologies developed since the 1970’s with significant support from taxpayers, has rapidly displaced coal. New fuel economy standards have helped drive down automobile emissions. Federal Clean Air Act regulations on conventional air pollutants have made it more expensive to burn coal.
The administrative actions that the President announced in his State of the Union address last February and confirmed this week should further accelerate these trends. Regulation of carbon emissions from power plants will accelerate the shift from coal to gas and new fuel economy standards on heavy trucks will help further decarbonize the transportation fleet.
A similar transition is underway internationally, with bilateral and multilateral agreements among major emitters displacing efforts to make a grand bargain to cap global emissions at the United Nations, a shift proposed by a number of critics of the 20-year effort to cap emissions, including the two of us, over the last decade, that has only to begun to bear fruit since the collapse of international climate negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shellenberger and Nordhaus think the praise being heaped on Obama’s speech by “climate partisans” of the Left (as well as the reflexive criticism of partisans on the Right) misses the significance of the direction Obama is taking. I’d say it’s a token of the president’s skill in framing this speech that it is evoking similar reactions of pleasure from Shellenberger and Nordhaus as well as their usual sparring partners. Indeed, it may represent something of a breakthrough.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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