The TH Interview: Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

At Treehugger we have read the book, done the interview and seen the lecture. Up first: Part 1 of our interview with Ted Nordhaus, author, researcher, political strategist and co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

TreeHugger: I will say up front that I like the book a lot, because it was optimistic; we at TreeHugger try to look for solutions and be positive. However the one thing that troubles me is your key position on that big breakthroughs in technology are needed, but I certainly can't see anything in the pipe that can deal with this, and you certainly don't say in the book.

Ted Nordhaus:This is a major criticism of the book and it was intentional. We did not write this book to offer our detailed analysis of new energy technologies. We wrote a book with the intention of laying out the broad philosophical outlines for a different kind of politics that can address the things that we have to do and address not only global warming but the other large issues that we have to deal with in this new century. That said we have looked at this a lot, including the IPCC and Stern review to see what it is going to take to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. People say that we don't need breakthrough technologies, we have them now, like solar and wind and geothermal, but right now, they cost too much and the performance is too low. When we say breakthrough we are talking about dramatic changes in the costs in the technologies we already have. This is even more important at the global level, in the developing world, where ultimately and very quickly these new technologies have to be cost competitive with coal in an environment where there is going to be a low price for carbon.
TreeHugger: In America where everything is so polarized, where Gore is dumped on, where the O'Reillys and the Limbaughs think global warming is a joke, how do we get through that and reach that half of the country?

Ted Nordhaus:There are two things that we have been attacked for in our book because they sound so, well, Republican. We say that we do need technology and we are not going to solve this problem unless we get a lot of new technology, so we get accused of sounding like George Bush; on the one hand it is true that we need technology, on the other hand Bush has used that entirely cynically, so the whole thing gets set up as "sacrifice and regulation" vs technology. It is stunning to me that the environmental movement has let itself get stuck in that kind of debate where they are seen to be anti-technology.

Similarly, the other thing we have been attacked for is saying that simply mitigating carbon emissions is not going to be sufficient; that even if we stopped emitting all carbon tomorrow, we are going to see significant impacts from climate change, and we better start preparing for that. This has been considered heresy by the environmental movement, to suggest that the natural world is going to change, and we are not going to stop all that change, it will have impacts and we better prepare for it. If you want to figure out how to create a discourse with those who are not dyed-in-the-wool true believers, who are sceptical of of environmentalists, aren't particularly interested in sacrificing their lifestyles and aspirations in the name of the planet, then we have to create a discourse that speaks to people's optimism, that we can innovate and invent our way through this problem and also get them focused on the reality that whatever the cause, be it man or nature, the climate is in fact changing, and that we have to do something about this. This also helps people buy into the idea of limiting carbon emissions.

BedZed zero carbon housing in UK
TreeHugger: In the book you mentioned that to a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. I am an architect and to me, the world looks like a big design problem; you say in the book that we need new economies, new patterns of development, and new consumer culture, but that has nothing to do with technology; from Berlin to Banff people have learned how to live at greater density, how to use transit, etc; why do we need an Apollo-style massive intervention is necessary when what we should be doing is creating the right conditions, like the appropriate pricing of resources, to encourage people to make the appropriate choices? If pricing took into account all of the externalities, then we could design our way out of this.

TED NORDHAUS: I think that this is partially true, and we write in the book that we need to transform our cities, but it won't get us to 80% reduction. Consider that western Europe has all of the features that we argue are necessary, denser cities, smaller cars, great transit, more efficient appliances, better design, yet emissions have gone up, not down, since 2000. From what we can figure, if you max all that stuff out, the best you can get is 30% to 40% emission reductions.

Even as gas prices have doubled or tripled in the last few years, we have seen people make choices to drive smaller cars, we have seen no decrease in the rate of increase in vehicle miles travelled. We should do all this, but it will lead to modest reductions in the developed world and will accomplish very little in the developing world.

picking garbage from the water in Citarum, near Jakarta
TreeHugger: This past weekend has seen a lot of stories about water, from Atlanta to the southwest. You make the point that environmentalists are reducing the entire issue to CO2, yet the water goes up on the coasts, down in the interior, how do address the breadth of the issues without looking like Lomborg and his talk of malaria being more important than global warming?

TED NORDHAUS: I disagree with Lomborg about a lot of things; he overestimates the cost of addressing climate change and underestimates the impact. However a fascinating professor at Arizona State made a stunning comment to me recently, noting that environmentalists are saying that the reason we have to take action about climate change is that there will be flooding and drought and starvation that will affect the poor and that we have a moral obligation to help them. Yet all of those things have been happening for years and we have done almost nothing about them.

In the name of saving the planet and thereby ourselves, we invoke those things happening to the very same people fifty years from now, and it is said that this is a great moral issue of our times, but well, what kind of morality are we talking about? Who are we trying to save here? Apparently for all of the invocations of saving the global poor we don't care that much, because we are letting them die in enormous numbers right now all over the world from exactly the same things that will kill more of them fifty years from now. Dealing with the ecological crises can no longer be separated from dealing with development, from creating infrastructure, from meeting peoples' needs, and we have to see these things holistically.

More tomorrow.

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