Ted Nordhaus's Fake Fake Climate Debate

TL;DR — Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute lumps together Greta Thunberg (by which he means the youth climate movement) with Donald Trump (i.e., climate deniers and cynical profiteers) as the two poles of the “fake climate debate”; he places himself and other serious experts in the “real climate debate”. There has already been significant progress from these experts, and governments and other funders should double down on these efforts; the fake debate is just silly noise, and the real debate is how we'll navigate to a prosperous global society that can ride out the climate changes that do occur. But Nordhaus is flat wrong to dismiss the youth-led climate movement; in order to do so, he relies on obviously flawed, bad faith arguments. The only productive response from those who have been fighting the climate fight toward those who are newly joining it - whether by coming of age or waking up to the challenge - is to welcome them and help them along.

Nordhaus’ Argument

Ted Nordhaus, a founder of The Breakthrough Institute and a main proponent of its Ecomodernist approach, decries in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece what he terms the “fake climate debate”. This fake debate is improperly dominating the discourse, at the expense of the “real” debate:

Beyond the headlines and social media, where Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump and the online armies of climate “alarmists” and “deniers” do battle, there is a real climate debate bubbling along in scientific journals, conferences and, occasionally, even in the halls of Congress. It gets a lot less attention than the boisterous and fake debate that dominates our public discourse, but it is much more relevant to how the world might actually address the problem.

The opposition he sets up is Thunbergians and Trumpists shouting at each other on one end (fake!), and a serious and legit debate among experts and policy-makers at the other (real!). That's…not how I would arrange the pieces, but I'm relatively new to this area and I wanted to explore this framework.

Nordhaus next elaborates on the nature of the two debates:

In the real climate debate…the disagreement comes down to different views of climate risk in the face of multiple, cascading uncertainties. On one side of the debate are optimists, who believe that, with improving technology and greater affluence, our societies will prove quite adaptable to a changing climate. On the other side are pessimists, who are more concerned about the risks associated with rapid, large-scale and poorly understood transformations of the climate system.

In the fake climate debate, both sides agree that economic growth and reduced emissions vary inversely; it’s a zero-sum game. In the real debate, the relationship is much more complicated. Long-term economic growth is associated with both rising per capita energy consumption and slower population growth. For this reason, as the world continues to get richer, higher per capita energy consumption is likely to be offset by a lower population.

But most pessimists do not believe that runaway climate change or a hothouse earth are plausible scenarios, much less that human extinction is imminent. And most optimists recognize a need for policies to address climate change, even if they don’t support the radical measures that Ms. Thunberg and others have demanded. (emphasis mine)

What is the prescription for addressing the climate crisis? Nordhaus clearly favors an incremental and technocratic approach guided by experts drawn from the optimist and pessimist camps of the “real” debate. This is, indeed, how he defines a serious response. Nordhaus’ bottom line is that “continuing political, economic and technological modernization, not a radical remaking of society, is the key to both slowing climate change and adapting to it.” (emphasis mine)

Let's Unpack That, Shall We?

My spidey sense started tingling with his formulation of “radical measures that Ms. Thunberg and others have demanded”. What, exactly, is Nordhaus trying to lay at Greta Thunberg's feet? Why is she the figurehead? The message for WSJ readers is: a young, non-expert girl, along with unnamed (but surely extreme) “others” demand “radical measures”, and of course smart and serious people needn't engage with them on substance.

But before we dismiss “Ms. Thunberg and others” as unrealistic radicals, we should first ask a few simple questions:

  1. What are the measures being demanded?
  2. Who are the “others” he is referring to?
  3. What is the source of those demanded measures?

To the first of these: Greta Thunberg and many other leaders in the youth movement have been consistent in framing their “demands”, which I would paraphrase as, “We are teenagers scared about the world we are inheriting, not climate scientists with specific recommendations. But you, world leaders, must start listening to that body of science, and acting according to its predictions.”

So those are the measures being demanded (i.e., those entailed by the scientific research), but this also addresses the second question: the “others” are, at least in significant part, climate scientists, and in particular the hundreds of contributors to IPCC reports. Why wouldn't Nordhaus state this plainly? That brings us to the third question - what is the evidential basis for the radical measures that these silly kids are loudly pushing for?

What If The Facts Have A Radical Bias?

The following passage is from the first Chapter of last year's IPCC Special Report on the prospects for limiting average warming to 1.5 ºC (3 ºF):

Embedded in the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C is the opportunity for intentional societal transformation. The form and process of transformation are varied and multifaceted. Fundamental elements of 1.5°C-related transformation include a decoupling of economic growth from energy demand and CO2 emissions; leap-frogging development to new and emerging low-carbon, zero-carbon and carbon-negative technologies; and synergistically linking climate mitigation and adaptation to global scale trends (e.g., global trade and urbanization) that will enhance the prospects for effective climate action, as well as enhanced poverty reduction and greater equity. The connection between transformative climate action and sustainable development illustrates a complex coupling of systems that have important spatial and time scale lag effects and implications for process and procedural equity, including intergenerational equity and for non-human species.

IPCC Special Report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Section 1.4.3

I remember when I read that passage in late 2018, in a draft version of the report (the passage survived in the final published version, which is linked above). It electrified me then, and I have returned to it many times since. To me, the most remarkable aspect of these sentences is where they appear: in the first chapter of one of the most vetted, committee-driven, rigorously researched documents ever produced. The authors directly confront the complex web of interactions between socioeconomic development and climate mitigation, and these interconnections are a major theme in the hundreds of pages that follow. For Nordhaus to relegate Thunberg and the larger youth movement to a “fake debate” in which “both sides agree that economic growth and reduced emissions vary inversely”, when their primary message has been to listen to the science - the science that grapples more deeply with these interdependencies than I could frankly believe on first reading - is wildly disingenuous.

As another tell, Nordhaus feels it necessary to declaim that, “Affluent, developed societies are also much better equipped to respond to climate extremes and natural disasters. That’s why natural disasters kill and displace many more people in poor societies than in rich ones.”

This is very true — but it is also axiomatic for many parties to Nordhaus’ so-called fake debate. The fact that he holds this out as a factor that differentiates the “real” debate from the “fake” one is a dumbfounding straw man, and I think a damning one - it can only count as Serious Argument because Nordhaus exploits the ignorance and biases of his audience. This rhetorical move also shows that he is stuck in the past: when Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger co-founded BTI fifteen years ago, the notion that socioeconomic development represented a moral imperative on par with protecting the environment lay much further outside the mainstream of green thinking and politics than today. But times have changed, and they will continue to change; the Sustainable Development Goals are now pervasive in their impact on planning and investment. Dismissing the burgeoning youth climate movement as nothing more than “zero sum thinkers” is preposterous.

What Should We Do Instead?

As many people have pointed out, the current set of facts are not only inconvenient, but they demand a course of action that is, by current sociopolitical standards, radical. Some have noted that, in this setting, so-called “centrism” - good-faith compromise between the “two sides”, meeting in the middle - is itself an extreme approach to take.

That said, BTI's preferred solutions are not centrist, and my argument is not that the organization or its leadership are offering weak tea. A quick review of their website yields the following main tenets:

  • The key to dramatically cutting emissions would be to “make clean energy cheap”, [and thereby] reconcile the conflict between global economic development and climate mitigation
  • Addressing climate change will require abundant, cheap, safe, and reliable nuclear energy
  • Decoupling human well-being from natural resource use…is the precondition for successful global conservation
  • Large-scale industrial food systems are more land-, water-, and GHG-efficient than small scale low-intensity farming, and are better able to harness technology to increase land productivity

The problem is not that these are cautious proposals that fail to stack up to the challenge, but rather in how Nordhaus seems to think that these and other approaches can best be brought to fruition. On this deployment front, he sees enemies in the wrong places.

I'm a tech guy. I believe that successfully addressing the climate crisis will require significant technology innovation, though I'm more interested in technology deployment than breakthroughs per se. Unlike Nordhaus’ benighted zero-sum bogeyman, I do not believe that “natural” is necessarily better (though I do have deep respect for the quality of nature's solutions, and deep humility about our understanding of them). In my techno-optimism, I am probably closer to Nordhaus than most. But artlessly tying an ascendant popular movement that is bringing badly-needed urgency and moral authority to the climate fight (a movement that, we must remember, embraces and champions the scientific consensus, wherever it leads) with the luddite, reactionary old-school environmental movements to which BTI formed in reaction - this seems profoundly misguided. In particular, the suggestion that this explosive movement should sit back and allow the existing experts and ongoing processes to continue their current path is…hard to answer with a straight face. Nordhaus and BTI were surely a new and needed voice when they started out, but these times demand agility, humility, and openness to change and learning, especially from those who are, or feel themselves to be, most qualified.

The correct response for BTI - or anyone else who has been in the climate trenches - in light of the new energy around the climate crisis is to welcome newcomers and strive be of service to them in their learning and actions. As one example: if BTI believes strongly that next-generation nuclear is essential to rapid action (I do too!), then they should be making that case to the youth in order to earn their help. The problems with nuclear, many believe, are cultural and political rather than technical - there are awesome designs and startups just dying to build new reactors. The climate crisis is a collective action problem; deciding, as a society, what we should do is the main event. And don't we think the Parkland generation is better at unsticking long-jammed debates?

The Real Real

Borrowing from Alex Steffen, I'd submit that the “real” climate debate is actually being waged among those who already acknowledge the urgency and magnitude of the challenge, and differ from one another regarding the most effective ways to mobilize at a speed and scale that is commensurate with the situation. Nordhaus’ push for new nuclear fits squarely in this real debate - I support new nuclear, others don't (and I think they're wrong), but we're all talking about how best to mount a massive undertaking.

Who, then, is in the “fake” debate (the real fake debate, that is, not the fake fake debate)? Certainly the outright climate deniers are in there, as well as the rear-guard petro interests, and those so-called dark green environmentalists who believe that a retreat from modern life is the appropriate path. But there's another faction we should include on this stage: as many of the clearest voices in the climate fight have started to articulate, appeals to delay and centrism are also unworthy of serious consideration. These And so, what of Nordhaus’ advice that we leave the next phase of the climate battle to the experts, and put aside the notion that radical societal change is necessary? That's some fakery.

Acknowledgements and Resources

This post was inspired by Ben Franta‘s thread in response to Nordhaus’ piece:

I also want to link to Mary Heglar, whose two-tweet response managed to take down the core of his argument: