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Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm

Posted: May 26, 2009 04:17 PM

Memo to Media: Don't be Suckered by Bad Analyses from the Breakthrough Institute


I can't imagine why any serious journalist would cite the work of The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) -- except to debunk it. As we'll see once again, they constantly misstate and misrepresent what others say, and generally put out very bad analysis designed to push their anti-climate-action, anti-environmental agenda.

So why do major media outlets like Time, WSJ, NPR, and The New Republic have already been duped keep citing them? Simple -- the media love contrarians. So if you convince the media you are, say, part of the progressive environmental movement, you can get all the media attention you want by then trashing your supposed allies.

I would ignore TBI if the media did, but because they don't, I can't.

In just the last few months, TBI, and its founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have gone on a disinformation rampage with the help of the media:


  • They attacked President Obama's cap-and-trade climate plan as political suicide and doomed to fail, 18 months after endorsing the plan -- heck, they said it was their plan all along (see Salon debunking here).

  • They attacked Henry Waxman, the green groups, Tom Friedman, and Al Gore (for the umpteenth time) while utterly missrepresenting the findings of the International Energy Agency, McKinsey, and the Stern Review (see "The dynamic duo of disinformation and doubletalk return.")

  • They launched a lengthy attack against Al Gore that completely misstates his positions (see "Shellenberger and Nordhaus smear Gore by making stuff up").

  • The New Republic let them publish a string of factually untrue, egregious statements in an essay titled: "The Green Bubble: Why environmentalist keeps imploding." The biggest whopper: "It has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development--never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty." No one in the environmental movement believes that, but it is a right-wing fantasy of the "greens." Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Drexel University utterly debunks this essay (see below) and writes of this quote, "Who or what environmental group has ever said anything of this nature? This statement is an out-and-out fabrication. One wonders if there are any fact-checkers at The New Republic."


The key point everyone in the media must understand is that Shellenberger and Nordhaus need for Waxman-Markey to fail. Otherwise all their claims that the environmental movement keeps imploding would be seen by everyone as the sham that it is.

So it is perhaps not surprising that 18 months after I got them to strongly and publicly endorse Obama's cap-and-trade plan, they have launched a series of attacks on it -- attacks based on misrepresentation and misanalysis. What is surprising is that the media keeps treating them as if they were credible sources -- or even worse, as credible sources who are part of the environmental movement. They are not. They are non-credible sources whose core arguments and analsyses are indistinguishable from the anti-climate disinformation campaign driven by fossil fuel companies and conservative media, politicians and think tanks.

TBI has recently written two attacks on Waxman-Markey, "The Flawed Logic of The Cap-and-Trade Debate," which attacks any effort to significantly raise the price of carbon pollution through a tax or a cap (which Yale e360 bizarrely posted, tarnishing their brand), and "Waxman-Markey Climate Bill's Emissions 'Cap' May Let U.S. Emissions Continue to Rise Through 2030," which attacks the offsets provisions in the bill, asserting "If fully utilized, the emissions "offset" provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act would allow continued business as usual growth in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions until 2030."

The latter piece has gotten a lot of media attention, including in Time magazine, the WSJ, and NPR, so you'd never know that the TBI analysis is devoid of any analysis -- or understanding -- of the offset market.

I am certainly one of the biggest critics of the offset market as it is currently constituted, having coined the term rip-offsets. And I have previously worried that federal climate legislation would be significantly weakened by allowing domestic emitters to substitute substantial domestic and international offsets for their own emissions reductions.

I have, however, spent the past few months analyzing the offset market and talking to leading experts on it. It is clear that the offset provisions in Waxman-Markey do not vitiate the targets. Indeed, I have previously explained why the supply of domestic offsets provision does not undermine the target (see here). In a regulated market with a cap, many of the domestic offsets will represent real reductions of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the total supply of cheap domestic offsets will be limited for a long time. A recent EPA analysis of Waxman-Markey came to precisely the same conclusion. TBI's analysis never mentions this at all.

After the holiday weekend, I will blog at length on why the international offsets don't threaten the overall integrity of the bill. The bottom line is that the vast amounts of moderate-cost near-term domestic emissions reductions strategies -- energy efficiency, conservation, replacing coal power with natural gas-fired power, wind power, biomass cofiring, concentrated solar thermal power, recycled energy, geothermal, and hydro power (see "An introduction to the core climate solutions") -- will be cheaper (in quantity) than most of the offsets will be in 2020 and beyond.

Let me end this post by showing just what kind of bad analysis and misrepresentation TBI continues to do.

As but one example in "The Flawed Logic of The Cap-and-Trade Debate," Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:

"If the price of carbon dioxide is only $5 per ton -- a level Waxman-Markey supporters like the Center for American Progress's Joe Romm says it could reach -- there would be just $3 billion for energy technology and just $250 million for R&D."

It "could reach" $5?

Here is what I wrote:

The price of one ton of carbon dioxide is going to be very low at first maybe around $5 to $10 a ton in the first few years, and then no more than, say, $15 a ton in 2020.

Yeah, the price will START around $5 to $10 in the first few years, maybe 2012 to 2015. As I explained, "We are cramming vast quantities of renewables into the marketplace" and "We are cramming vast quantities of renewables into the marketplace." And we're coming out of a deep recession. It should also be obvious that the CO2 price will continue to rise quickly after 2020.

I subsequently asked for and got a correction from e360 -- too late for Time magazine, though, which repeats the original incorrect number. Worse, like many in the media, Time continues to treat the TBI as if it were part of the "environmental movement," when it would be far more accurate to describe it as part of the anti-environmental movement.

That is clear from the TNR essay, "The Green Bubble: Why environmentalist keeps imploding."

The essay is such a disinformation-filled anti-environmental screed, that I am reprinting a response by Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University -- and a widely published expert on the environmental movement:

The New Conservatism or Ecological Romanticism: A False Dichotomy


In their recent essay, "The Green Bubble", Nordhaus and Shellenberger launch a long attack against the green movement in the U.S. Based on a series of heroic misstatements, revisionist history, and unsubstantiated stereotypes, they construct an image of environmentalism based in liberal elite circles and searching for social redemption in premodern, aesthetic lifestyles. Thus much of what passes for "green" activity comprises little more than symbolic gestures to define an "alternative" lifestyle. Yet at the same time, environmentalists are also portrayed as dabblers in these bohemian lifestyles, floating in and out of aesthetic and consumerist roles. Hence environmentalism takes the form of fads or bubbles that come and go.

N&S critique the presumed attachment of environmentalists to romanticist premodernist images of society and celebrate economic modernization, along with the growing affluence, individualization, and freedom that this social process creates. The answer to ecological issues for all, they imply, is to increase economic modernization across the globe. For example, they note that "It is poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them (the poor) more vulnerable than the rest of us."

One can easily critique their essay on a factual basis. Note the sparse nature of their data sources and their lack of reference to any existing environmental histories. They can maintain their interpretation of the U.S. environmental movement only by speaking in broad generalities, without citing specifics. The manuscript is rife with historical inaccuracies and fabricated statements. This essay is a political fiction in which facts are created to support their argument. For example, one of the most egregious statements is that "it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development - never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty." Who or what environmental group has ever said anything of this nature? This statement is an out-and-out fabrication. One wonders if there are any fact-checkers at The New Republic.

While this lack of factual basis is an important critique of N&S's argument, it is not the most central. Essentially, they are attempting to dichotomize the environmental movement between hopeless anti-modern romantic yuppies, engaged in symbolic activities, and the sober modernists (exemplified by themselves) who celebrate and promote economic expansion as the only real way to address environmental degradation. The space created by this dichotomy only allows for "responsible" environmentalism, based on economic modernization, and irresponsible, premodern romanticism, and eliminates all other possibilities. Thus the essay seeks to paint environmentalism with a universal brush, and delegitimate the entire movement.

The core problem with this analysis is that we are held between two competing and rigid ideologies. Apparently, in the view of N&S, the modern environmental movement has no ability to reason, or to calculate trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection. Neither, apparently, do N&S. They are imprisoned within their own ideology of an uncritical and unreflexive modernization, without any corrective capacity based on democratic governance. The idea of the Enlightenment was to subject our institutions, including both the market and the state, to collective democratic control. Our society's capacity to learn, and change is enabled through democratic discussion. While economic modernization is one part of modernization, its uncritical application as the universal solution to whatever ails us is just another form of irrational ideology. Nowhere do we see any critical perspective on the limitations of markets, or the false freedom of consumer choice that N&S celebrate. How can one celebrate "individual choice" in a society permeated by a $300-billion-per-year needs-creation industry in the form of modern advertising? The so-called freedom and individuality lauded by N&S merely amounts to a false choice among consumer lifestyles, not a real and informed participant in our own governance.

N&S can only maintain their simplistic dichotomy by basing their argument on typifications, and ignoring the more complex reality of environmentalism in the U.S. Thus this is a false dichotomy. Thus Nordhaus and Schellenberger deny the legacy of the Enlightenment, and revert to a blind faith in the market and a celebration of the status quo.

There is a third alternative. Through democratic deliberations, we can define the shape of the world we wish to create, and then act collectively to realize it. Dealing with environmental degradation, poverty, and exploitation is a difficult task. But it will only be solved by looking truthfully at our situation, and rejecting easy and simplistic solution. Ideological diatribes only make a hard task more difficult.

We are not trapped in either hopeless romanticism, or at the whim of market dynamics. We can do much better than this.

And the media can do better than quoting the bad analyses and misrepresentations of TBI -- and must stop pretending that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are part of the environmental movement. They are as much a part of the environmental movement as I am of the conservative movement. [Note to self and media: But you do promote conserving energy, conserving resources, and conserving a livable climate -- so maybe you are a conservative after all and deserve lots of media attention for being a contrarian or an apostate.]