Wanted: better manifestos


I was pretty excited to read the “manifesto for a new environmentalism” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the latest issue of TNR. The authors know how to do good polemic. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” is still stoking conversations three years later. More importantly, the teaser for the manifesto is a sentiment that is both true and massively underplayed: conservation is not going to be the long-term solution to climate change.

And the piece starts out promisingly enough, noting that the worldwide energy consumption is set to quadruple by the end of this century, as standards of living continue to rise worldwide. Given this reality, the authors correctly prescribe a shift to low-carbon sources of energy as the only way out of our climate conundrum.

Then they get into the policy specifics and go deeply, weirdly, 100% off the rails. Based on the fuzzy logic that Americans hate regulations, they suggest we scrap the idea of pricing carbon, and instead invest a few billion in R&D in the hopes that we can outsmart the problem.

The piece is so confused that it’s not really worth the effort of unpacking all the errors. For example, at different points the article comes out both for and against carbon taxes/cap-and-trade. But one paragraph did jump out:

We did not invent the Internet by taxing telegraphs nor the personal computer by limiting typewriters. Nor did the transition to the petroleum economy occur because we taxed, regulated, or ran out of whale oil. Those revolutions happened because we invented alternatives that were vastly superior to what they replaced and, in remarkably short order, became a good deal cheaper.

This is one of the central confusions of the piece: N&S don’t seem to grasp the distinction between technology development and technology deployment. We already have the means to generate low carbon energy. The problem at this point is primarily one of cost. Energy from fossil fuels is too cheap. Fix that problem, and much of the rest will take care of itself. And by failing to grapple with that problem, N&S really don’t really leave themselves with much to say.

I really am a fan of N&S generally speaking, in the sense that I think their opinions are important, even when I don’t always agree with them. But it’s not so surprising that they go astray when the get into policy details. They have in the past criticized the environmental community’s “policy literalism,” the tendency to focus on narrow technocratic solutions.

It is our contention that the strength of any given political proposal turns more on its vision for the future and the values it carries within it than on its technical policy specifications.

Unfortunately, the alternative they’re offering is something akin to policy poetry, positions chosen more for the rhetoric they inspire than the solutions they offer. I see a lot of merit in their diagnosis, but it seems we need to look elsewhere for a cure.

Totally awesome monkey photo by Jill Greenberg.

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  1. richard schumacher - September 26, 2007

    Americans hate freeloaders, right? Maybe we just need to call a carbon tax something other than a tax. “External costs recovery”, or something snappier, to remind people that it is payment for the harm their emissions do to the environment, the economy and to public health.

  2. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff - September 26, 2007

    Well, if some set of brilliant technological discoveries did lead to a whole energy system that 1) emitted no carbon, and 2) was substantially cheaper than our current system and 3) didn’t have some compensating environmental problem, I suppose it’s fair to assume that we wouldn’t need any carbon emission fees. And some form of nuclear, solar and wind electricity generation + good rechargable batteries could represent a solution like this. The problem is that we need to start reducing CO2 emissions now, when clean energy is still more expensive. I’m sure we all agree that using at least some of the revenue from a carbon emission fee to subsidize R&D of clean energy tech so that carbon-free fuel becomes cheaper would be a good thing. Of course, if we knew for certain that a cheap zero-CO2 energy system was achievable in the near term, it might make sense to spend all our energy on bringing that new system into being, rather than on marginal imporvements to our current system. But advocates of this approach have a long way to go to prove that their ideal solution is achievable in time to avert the worst consequences of CO2 pollution.

  3. Chad - September 26, 2007

    Politicians are always caught in a conundrum. Imagine one asking a crowed “Should polluters pay?”. Of course, virtually the entire crowd would respond positively. Yet imagine the same politician asking “Should their be a gasoline tax?”, even to a crowd of Democrats. Support would be low. Far too many people are too dumb to understand that they are the same thing, and too greedy to be willing to pay with their OWN time, money, and resources.
    That being said, you probably can gain some ground by calling it a “fee” rather than a “tax”. There really is a meaningful distinction. A fee is money paid in order to use someone else’s (in this case, the public’s or the government’s) resources. A tax, in its purest form, is money paid based on your private, rather than public, behavior.
    Charging fees to those who would like to use our atmosphere and waters as garbage dumps is not only what we should be doing, but if done correctly, is an example of a market working well.

  4. Adam Stein - September 26, 2007

    There’s really way too much in the article for me to intelligently summarize in a ~500-word blog piece, but suffice to say that the authors are talking about much broader issues than the specific language used to describe any particular policy proposal. They are critical in general of the environmental community’s tendency to focus first on technocratic solutions, and they really don’t seem to be a fan of any sort of tax/fee/cap/whatever.
    As I mentioned, their policy ideas are pretty deeply confused, but their thoughts on the politics of climate change are stimulating. Funny thing is, I’m not even sure they’d disagree with this assessment.

  5. Greg Freistadt - September 26, 2007

    It’s not always a fact that new renewable energy is more expensive. In many cases the deposit might be however the long term benefits outway this. A lot of the reasons why renewable technology isn’t available or more expensive is because of the powerful companies that have too much to lose if the consumer switches goods. It is by their clock when alternatives are available, but keep in mind there are still numerous things that can be done personally from conscious local buying to do it your self energy savers and personal consumption watchfulness.

  6. Joe - September 26, 2007

    If the cost of coal or oil reflected the environmental and human costs, that would certainly encourage people to switch to cleaner energy, wouldn’t it? I’ve read that something in the hundreds of thousands die from coal-related illness, not to mention that ever-worsening coal mining practices have caused exponentially-growing loss of habitat and toxic runoff.
    I wonder what consumer confidence would be like if we weren’t anticipating the collapse of the imported oil we depend on.

  7. Chad - September 27, 2007

    I read the full article over lunch today.
    Two quick points: First, the author complains that too many people think “environmentalists” are extremists, yet only a few sentences prior complains about how the “right-wing” has taken over our government. Does he not see that he is part of the problem? Perceptions of extremism go both ways.
    Second, he falls into the “jobs” trap. Not only is this issue an easy win for the right, but almost everyone has it entirely backwards. JOBS ARE A BAD THING. REALLY BAD. I do not want a job. Rather, I want goods and services. So do you. When the distinction becomes clear to you, a lot of the politics around “jobs” appears completely phoney, as it always has been. Perhaps changing this mindset is the transformation we should be looking at.

  8. disdaniel - September 27, 2007

    For less than the cost of 1 year of Iraq occupation, solar would be cost competitive with dirty power?
    What are we waiting for?

  9. Tree Frogger - September 27, 2007

    Daniel K: You presume some sort of carbon tax is a good thing. It isn’t. For any solution to become the norm, it must be market driven. Adding a tax will simply allow the rich to pay the tariff and continue with their ways. See Al Gore.
    As you note, nuclear is a clean, viable option, yet most of the environmentalists won’t embrace it because, “it’s a tool of war”. That’s garbage. See France.
    We have the opportunity, RIGHT NOW, to significantly lower our dependence on foreign oil, to keep the “pristine” Alaska tundra and California coasts unblemished, and virtually eliminate the belched particulate pollution of coal. If for no other reason than to “buy time” for someone to invent a cleaner, cheaper, more efficient source of power.
    It is time for people like you, and those of your ecological point of view, to stand up NOW and embrace this proven, clean technology, and not try to modify behavior thru taxation. It never works, and creates a two-tiered system of have and have nots.

  10. Adam Stein - September 27, 2007

    I’m not sure where this notion comes from that taxes don’t affect people’s behavior, but…it’s wrong. People and corporations go to extremely outlandish lengths to minimize their tax bills. Both the laws of economics and common sense are pretty solid on this one.

  11. Tree Frogger - September 28, 2007

    Adam: Huh? Corporations have to hire tax-dodge accountants to minimize taxes – this has no relationship to modifying behavior by making something pricier.
    If that worked, countries in Europe would not have any cars because of the the obscene gas taxes they pay. Look at London. They still have so much congestion that they have only certain days you can enter the city in your car without being ticketed. Cars that run on gas. Ditto any major European city.
    People have a need to get from place to place. Public transit is often not feasible. Electric cars would meet the needs of the individual and of society at large (by reducing the supposed “carbon footprint”). Making all public transportation electric as well – buses, trains, et al. – would further cleanse the environment.
    Nukes are our best, proven technology to reduce pollution and buy us time while other market-driven technologies are developed.

  12. Adam Stein - September 28, 2007

    If you make something more expensive, people use less of it. If you something cheaper, people use more. That’s how markets work. This is not just some wacky economic theory. Taxes affect all sorts of behavior, right here in the real world. Home ownership rates, investment choices, food consumption decisions, employment, whatever.
    Pointing out that people still drive cars in Europe is pretty obviously unhelpful to your argument. What’s the per capita car ownership rate in Europe? What’s the average fuel economy in Europe? Is it different than in the U.S.? Of course people drive in Europe — elasticity of demand for cars isn’t infinite — but I can guarantee you that they drive less than they otherwise would if gasoline wasn’t taxed.
    In fact, London is a useful example. Not so long ago, the city instituted a congestion tax, which by most accounts has been very successful in lowering congestion.
    And in some ways this whole discussion misses the point. Even if taxes didn’t affect the demand side of the equation at all, they could still be hugely effective by altering the supply side of the equation. When carbon carries a price, then low-carbon energy sources suddenly become viable substitutes for fossil fuels.
    I understand that you’re trying to make a point about nuclear energy, but I don’t really get how denying economic reality affects your argument one way or the other.

  13. Michael Shellenberger - September 30, 2007

    Dear All,

    Policymakers seeking action on global warming face a Gordian knot: price carbon too low, and low and no-carbon technologies like solar and carbon capture and storage don’t become cost-competitive; price carbon too high, and risk political backlash from consumers and industry.

    Congress is opting to price carbon low. As a result, the new technologies we need to achieve large reductions will not come on line.

    Microchips, too, used to be expensive. If they were still expensive we wouldn’t be having this conversation through our personal computers. They only became inexpensive after massive DoD investments.

    We lay out this case in more detail here: