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Nordhaus encourages students to address global warming with new strategies

Ted Nordhaus, cofounder and chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, gave the spring Kenan Lecture titled “The Long Death of Environmentalism” March 7 in Haggin Auditorium.

Nordhaus sprang onto the environmentalism scene in 2004 after publishing a report on the politics of global warming with Breakthrough Institute cofounder Michael Schellenberger called “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming in a Post-Environmental World.” The duo sought to find what U.S. environmental leaders had learned since James Hansen’s testimony on global warming to Congress in 1988.

“We came away from the experience (writing the report) deeply disappointed,” Nordhaus said to the students, faculty, staff, and visitors in attendance. “Not one of the environmental leaders we interviewed articulated a compelling vision or strategy for dealing with the challenge. We heard again and again the same old riffs that environmental leaders had been using since the 1980s when they talked about global warming—it would be resolved through the same kinds of policies that were used to address the types of problems in the past like acid rain.”

The report went viral, and Nordhaus established himself as a widely recognized, and controversial, expert on climate and energy policy. Since then he has worked trying to affect climate and energy policy and founded the Breakthrough Institute, a political think tank in Oakland, Calif.

He said that efforts today to adjust climate change “lie in ruins,” pointing to specific instances in recent years where Congress rejected climate legislation that, even if passed, he believes would not have had the desired effect. He spoke to the audience about a “post-environmental movement” that learns from the mistakes of previous environmentalists who either were ineffective or short sighted, giving 12 theses for the movement. Those included better understanding of the evidence of climate change, moving away from fear-based publicity, and making clean energy technologies cheaper.

“The rising economies of the developing world will continue to develop whether we want them to or not,” he said. “The solution to the ecological crises wrought by modernity, technology, and progress will be more modernity, technology, and progress. An ecological politics capable of addressing global warming will require us to reexamine virtually every prominent strand of post-war green ideology.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote the book Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists. The book was called “prescient” by Time and “the most important thing to happen to environmentalism since ‘Silent Spring’” by Wired. Nordhaus has been profiled in The New York Times, Wired, The National Review, The New Republic, and on NPR. In 2007, he and Shellenberger received the Green Book Award and Time’s 2008 “Heroes of the Environment” award.


The lecture was part of Transylvania’s Kenan Lecture Series, which is funded by a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

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