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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Year In, New Ideas for Obama

Air Date: Week of

Michael Shellenberger is president and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute. (Courtesy of the Breakthrough Institute)

Many environmentalists and politicians have long looked to cap and trade as a way to control carbon emissions by making them more expensive. But not all environmental groups approve of the mechanism. Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute explains to host Jeff Young why technological advancements, and not carbon restrictions, are the key to controlling climate change.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

President Obama is preparing his first State of the Union address, where he will no doubt point to accomplishments from his first year. His supporters in the environmental arena say there are many: historic new standards for auto fuel efficiency, EPA action to control carbon dioxide emissions, and a new focus on chemical safety. And the President has made cleaner energy a high priority:

OBAMA: From China to India, from Japan to Germany, nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy. The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I'm convinced of that, and I want America to be that nation.

YOUNG: But not all the green reviews of Obama’s first year are positive: a provocative piece in the journal Foreign Policy says Obama promised to launch a green energy revolution but failed. Co-author Michael Shellenberger leads the policy think tank, the Breakthrough Institute.

He says the president erred by expending political capital chasing a cap on carbon emissions, and not spending enough to develop clean energy technology. Shellenberger titled the Foreign Policy article, "The End of Magical Climate Thinking."

SHELLENBERGER: The core of magical thinking about climate change is that we have all the technologies we need and we just need to implement them. Really we have to focus on solving particular technology problems in order to be in a place where it’s not going to cost a lot of money to deal with climate change.

Solar panels have to more efficiently covert sunlight into electricity; nuclear power plants have to become smaller, cheap and safer; biofuels right now, such as ethanol, are really not any better environmentally, some say they are worse, so we need to have much cheaper, much cleaner biofuels; and we need to have batteries that are inexpensive and that requires some basic advances at the level of chemistry so we can store a lot more energy a lot more cheaply in a lot smaller amount of space.

YOUNG: I thought the argument was though that by putting a price on carbon, or by setting a hard cap on emissions reductions, that’s what’s going the drive the investment in those kinds of technologies?

SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, and so the idea has been: well, we have to put a price on pollution because then the private sector will make the investments in the technologies. But what we’ve seen is that even in places like Europe where the price on carbon dioxide pollution reached 40 dollars a ton, Europe continued to build coal plants – and not the new kind that supposedly will capture the carbon pollution and store it underground, but just the same old kind.

Michael Shellenberger is president and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute. (Courtesy of the Breakthrough Institute)

In other words, it would require a cost on pollution, it would require raising the price of fossil fuels so high that no government in the world is willing to pay that price. The amount that the public is willing to pay in terms of an increase in energy prices has been exaggerated. Really, these are challenges that governments traditionally deal with.

In the space race with the Soviet Union, NASA needed computers, the federal government essentially invented the entire field of computer sciences, funding scholarships; we bought down the price of microchips from a thousand dollars a chip to 20 dollars a chip. You know, we point out that we didn’t get the personal computer through a cap and trade system on typewriters, we didn’t get the Internet by putting a telegraph tax or a fax tax; we create these new technologies and we make them cost competitive directly.

YOUNG: To be fair though, I mean, I think we have to look at the significant investment that has been made here. The Recovery Act alone put tens of billions of dollars toward clean energy R and D, right?

SHELLENBERGER: It did. The Stimulus Act by President Obama was an outstanding first step. But the most important lesson from that is that it really countered the conventional wisdom that the federal government just isn’t going to invest in technologies.

Well I think the stimulus disproved that. It showed that in fact, it’s much more popular for the federal government to invest directly in these technologies. In fact, I think the latest polls show that it’s the most popular of all energy policies. Direct energy R and D spending especially for things like renewables, solar and wind is extremely popular – far more popular than cap and trade or putting a price on carbon dioxide.

YOUNG: Isn’t it possible that this kind of single-minded focus on new technology as the answer is itself a bit of magical thinking?

SHELLENBERGER: The funny thing about climate change is that in contrast to so many other challenges in our society that we haven’t seen it as a technology problem. It’s funny when you think of a problem like Polio, we didn’t say, well we really just have to shut down all the pools permanently, we’re not going to be able to live the way we’ve been living – there was a big effort to find a vaccine, a technological fix. And in fact, even in the environmental community today if you want to criticize somebody you say, well they believe in technological fixes, as though it’s sort of illegitimate or as though it is magical thinking.

In truth, we solve a huge number of the challenges we face as human beings with new technologies, that’s how we’re going to dramatically reduce our emissions to deal with climate change. And so, I think that instead of viewing it magically we need to understand that technological progress is hard, it doesn’t happen automatically with a few new regulations or a price on pollution, that there’s a set of pretty clearly identified problems that energy scientists believe we need to solve. It’s not going to be easy to solve them, where it’s not a single Apollo project; we need several Apollo projects on these big technological challenges.

YOUNG: But with the budgets tight, as they are, is that still a viable option?

SHELLENBERGER: Absolutely. We’re not going to cut our way out of our current fiscal crisis; we’ve got to grow our way out. That’s what we did in the 90’s: we saw the Internet boom, we saw a huge growth in information technologies. That was a result of investments that we were making in the 50’s and 60’s.

We need to be making a much more serious investment today in these new clean energy technologies. There’s definitely going to be a market for them. The world is going to double how much energy it consumes by the middle of the century. Energy is the master resource of the economy. It’s the one thing that you know there’s going to be more demand for.

We can either meet that demand by rising to that challenge and doing the same thing that we know works, or we can kind of continue to engage in this magical thinking, which has led to no action over the last 20 years and really now at the point of being past by China, Japan, and South Korea when it comes to creating these new industries.

YOUNG: Michael Shellenberger is president of Breakthrough Institute and author of a piece that’s in Foreign Policy called “The End of Magical Climate Thinking”. Thanks for your time.

SHELLENBERGER: Hey, thanks for having me.



The Breakthrough Institute

Foreign Policy Article “The End of Magical Climate Thinking.”

Click here to hear President Obama’s October 30th speech at MIT


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