Interview: Ted Nordhaus on ecomodernism

20th May 2021
Issue 4

Are technology and the environment friends or foes? In this wide-ranging conversation, Nick Whitaker and Saloni Dattani discuss climate policy, activism and ecomodernism with Ted Nordhaus, director of the Breakthrough Institute.

PoliticsScience

Ted Nordhaus is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental policy think tank committed to technological solutions for climate problems, and the author of several books including Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and An Ecomodernist Manifesto.

It seems like there are a lot of climate activists who explicitly or implicitly advocate for degrowth and population control as responses to climate change. Where do you think they go right or wrong?

I think the degrowth and population control perspectives are not only the wrong way to think about solutions to climate change, but really counterproductive. The reality is there are almost eight billion people on the planet now. Because of the decline in population growth, we’re going to end up with a human population of something like nine or ten billion. 

The big driver in the decline of population growth is just actually economic growth, which is something that degrowthers will never recognize. This decline began when the entire human population, which a couple hundred years ago lived in rural agrarian poverty, began moving to urban, industrial, modern living arrangements. That is the fundamental transformation that human societies have been undergoing for the last couple of hundred years.

The demographic transition actually happens pretty automatically as people leave these rural, agrarian contexts. Families who once used children as farm labour moved to cities where children became a different human asset. People had fewer children but they invested far more resources in their future well-being. And children began to be educated. Because of these trends—children no longer being necessary for labor and requiring more investment—fertility rates fell to the point where, across most of the world, they are actually negative. The basic population trajectory that we are going to see is a peak in human populations at some point in the second half of the century, and then the start of a decline, which is going to create its own challenges.

And at the same time, various sorts of resource consumption and carbon emissions are going to rise, because what comes along with that transition from agrarian to urban is much higher material living standards. There’s a hard infrastructure to modernity that has a lot of energy and emissions embedded into it—they are associated with roads, sewage systems, rail, modern housing and so on. And when people eat higher on the food chain, they have more animal protein in their diet, which also has consequences.

All of that is good from a human development perspective. It allows all of us to sit here on our Zoom calls and have this conversation and not spend all of our time hauling water and collecting wood and tending fields and all the things that almost all of human labor was dedicated to up to a couple hundred years ago. 

When you look at contemporary environmental discussions I think there’s a tendency to want to paint environmentalists with this very broad brush. I think that’s a mistake. Obviously, if you look at your average rank-and-file environmentalist, sure, they’re going to farmers markets and say they want green energy. But most of the time they’re not saying, “We should all go back and live on the farm.” I think there’s at least enough self-awareness to avoid that. But there’s still a lot of inconsistency and incoherence, I think, because on the one hand, they will say that technology could never save us and in the next breath, it’s all about the promise of wind and solar. And there are very large segments of the environmental community who, when you get a glass of wine or two into them, will say,  “Yeah, we really need to do something about population.”

A lot of modern contemporary environmental ethics has been a reaction to mass consumption among elites, beginning in the postwar era. You had these mass consumer societies and elites thinking, “Now that everybody can do these things, they must be bad.” How would they establish their eliteness and differentiate themselves? And one way was to say, “All that terrible food that everybody eats or those suburban cookie-cutter houses, that’s not us. Those are all the sheep, and we are the creative intellectual thoughtful vanguard class who are going to lead people into whatever the future is.”

So you got a lot of moralizing about all sorts of consumption like plastic straws. There’s all this stuff around how bad video gaming is for the environment. One of my colleagues crunched the numbers and basically demonstrated that driving an hour each way to go for a hike is just vastly, vastly more greenhouse-gas intensive than spending all day video gaming. But of course, nobody moralizes about hiking or how terrible hiking is for the environment. If you just look at the environmental behavior of elites, these are the most resource-consumptive people who’ve ever lived on the planet. And at the same time, they are constantly producing these discourses around how terrible consumption and modernity are. 

Forecasting is at the center of these discussions of population, economic growth, and climate change. How well have climate predictions fared so far? What’s your view on climate models and are there some aspects that are easier or more difficult to predict?

We have these debates about models. First of all, on how the models have fared. The real question is not whether the models have successfully predicted the couple of percent degrees of warming that we’ve seen over the last 30-plus years since anyone was producing models that were predicting any of this. Instead the question is, “How are these models going to hold up over the next 50, 60, 70 years?” Those are the time horizons in which is when you really start to see a big divergence of potential futures in terms of temperatures.

If you look at the latest set of models, they have anywhere from 2–5 degrees Celsius of warming. The next IPCC report, I think, will forecast a range of 2.0–4.5 degrees of warming associated with the doubling of CO2. That’s a huge spread. And you have models all across that. So if we took that ensemble of models today and then went in 2100 or in 2070 when perhaps emissions have doubled and ask, “how accurate were the models?” most of the models are going to be wrong by definition. There’s too big a spread. The model saying 2 degrees and the model saying 5 degrees can’t all be right. A lot of them will be wrong.

What’s interesting in terms of the efforts to validate the models today is that the more recent vintages of the models haven’t done any better than the simple ones. We’ve been doing climate science for 40 years now, and there’s no evidence that any of it has actually made the models better. There’s a basic, pretty well-established physical principle here, which is that you put more of these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and you’re going to get some significant amount of warming. And there are feedbacks that will amplify that to some degree on one end of it, or moderate it on the other. But really, you double greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you’re probably going to get 2–3 degrees of warming. And if the feedbacks cut one way, it may be closer to two, and if they go the other way, it may be closer to three, and of course, there’s just huge uncertainty in terms of what the actual trajectory of emissions is going to be.

So honestly, we have this endless, incredibly stupid argument about are the models right? Are they wrong? Has there been a pause? Has there not been a pause? We’re arguing about all of these things based on evidence from time frames that are actually completely irrelevant to the question that we’re talking about. I think, on the one hand, the activist community, and some of the scientists closely associated with it, want to take what’s pretty well-understood and established in the science, which is that more greenhouse gases mean more warming, and first conflate that with really catastrophic consequences for human societies, which is not consensus science at all, and then further conflate that with basically a green ideological and political and policy agenda, which is even less established by any science. And then on the other hand, you get conservatives and climate skeptics who say, “Look at all that uncertainty, therefore, the models are probably wrong. We probably don’t know anything. We shouldn’t do anything.” And the truth is that there is risk, but it’s unquantifiable.

We don’t know how sensitive the climate is going to be, we don’t know how that’s going to express itself at the local and regional scales where the climate actually affects human societies. We don’t know how resilient human societies will end up being, especially when we’re talking about 2–3 degrees of warming and not, like, a degree, as we’ve seen to date. And we don’t know our real capability and what economic costs are going to be associated with basically eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions, which is what you actually have to do to really stop warming. Ultimately, you have to get pretty close to zero.

Do you think there’s a better way to think about radical technological change in climate modeling?

No, because that is one of the big uncertainties. When you move from the physical models to the integrated assessment models that factor in the cost of climate sensitivity, the cost of climate impacts, and the costs of mitigation, there are huge uncertainties that cannot be resolved. The models are useful when they’re used properly, which they’re mostly not. They actually tell us what these future outcomes are sensitive to, and that they’re really sensitive. 

The models are sensitive to three things. The first is that they are sensitive to the level of greenhouse gases, meaning, how much warming is associated with a doubling of CO2 or greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Secondly, they are sensitive to something called the damage exponent: at any given level of global warming, how does that translate to cost to human society? And thirdly, they’re sensitive to the rate of technological change. 

Basically on all three of those things, the uncertainties are so great that when you get to the bottom of all this complicated modeling, we’re just basically making shit up. Pick your climate sensitivity, pick your damage exponent, pick your rate of technological change, and you can get any outcome out of any integrated assessment model that you want. If you want climate to be not a big deal that we shouldn’t do anything about, use low climate sensitivity, use a low damage exponent, and use a high rate of technological change. If you want climate change to be an existential threat if we don’t limit warming to 1.5 degrees and cut emissions globally in half by 2030, use a high climate sensitivity, use a high damage exponent, use a low assumed rate of technological change, and it’s a catastrophe—it’s an extinction-level event.

The models can’t tell us anything other than that. Those are the three factors they’re most sensitive to. Some people go further, with a factor that everybody argues about endlessly, called the discount rate, which asks how we value current economic wealth versus future wealth. I’m inclined to find that rate important for two reasons. One is that assuming any level of sustained economic growth at all, future human societies are going to be much, much wealthier than today. So if you choose a low social discount rate, you’re basically asking a much poorer population to forgo economic growth today to avoid lost economic growth in the future.

The second reason is revealed preference. You can argue about what the discount rate should be when some dissociated “We” decide to stop climate change. But practically, if you look at the world, both policy-makers and the public have very high discount rates: they’re unwilling to forgo economic growth today to avoid lost growth in the future. If we use the decisions people actually make to look at how they think about far-off risks in the future versus present-day costs and benefits, it’s pretty clear which decision that people almost always make, even though there are some environmental economists or ecological economists who say, “That’s wrong. And so I’m going to put this very low discount rate into my model, and therefore we should spend huge amounts of money today to stop climate change in 2100.” And again, it’s just discourse. It’s not something that anyone’s actually going to do.

It seems we will need new sources of energy and need existing sources to become cheaper. Which of the new and existing sources are underrated, and which are overrated, in your view?

I’ve been a long-time nuclear advocate—I think nuclear is a really important technology for the long-term sustainability of human societies. I don’t think the current generation of plants are likely to play that role over the long term. As opposed to some folks who love nuclear energy, I don’t think solar and wind are terrible or an illusion. I think they’re important technologies that are going to play a significant role in any decarbonized future. But it’s not remotely possible to do it all with those two technologies. Once you get past wind and solar, you have to differentiate between energy technologies and various technologies that are necessary to use that energy to do various things that we use fossil fuels for for now. For instance, a battery is not an energy technology, it’s an energy storage technology. It’s an energy carrier like gasoline and gas are. And coal is both an energy source and a carrier.

Electricity itself is an energy carrier that is generated by various sorts of energy sources. On the energy production side, there are really not a lot of options. There are fossil fuels, which we’re trying to get rid of. Although you can continue to use them if you can capture the carbon from the fossil fuels in a zero-carbon future. There are also other things you can burn, like biomass, and there are big arguments about whether biomass is really carbon-neutral—I think, practically, in the world we live in, it’s not.

Then there are wind, hydro, solar and wave—things that harness natural energy flows. There is also nuclear and geothermal energy, which is tapped out of the earth. There are now ideas around using fracking technologies to pump fluid deep down, where it’s much hotter, to heat it up and use it. 

But in total, there aren’t many sources. We’re probably going to need most, if not all, of them. I don’t think that you can practically reach zero-carbon modern economies without either carbon capture or nuclear. I think you would probably need both of them, along with the other sources. You would need to do as much as is feasible and it would still be hard to achieve.

Beyond carbon capture and sequestration, there’s the question of whether we should pursue broader geoengineering. Do you think geoengineering will play a role in the future of environmental policy?

I know a lot of the people trying to figure out that role—how it could be done and where it would be feasible. I think that there are break-in-case-of-emergency scenarios where you might do this. For that reason, I think it’s worth at least having some clue what would have to be done and how you would do it. I think those are pretty unlikely, actually. There’s this idea that some part of the world wakes up and we’re headed towards disaster that we have to stop right now, and I just don’t think that’s the problem this is. 

The things that are more interesting to me in terms of geoengineering are the ways we might start using it very partially and incrementally. To, for instance, use it to smooth out year-over-year swings in temperatures and create more stable regional or local climates at very modest levels. You could actually learn a bit from trial and error over many, many years. And who knows, maybe 100 years from now, or 200 years from now, we might decide we want to maintain the climate at some level. The main thing about geoengineering is that it’s a very temporary lever if you’re still emitting emissions.

Imagine a world where we’re at zero emissions and we’ve had three degrees of warming, and a future human population decides that they would like us to revert to the climate of 1950. They could start geoengineering to get back there, but it isn’t something you can maintain without constantly geoengineering. If you want a stable 1950 climate from 2150, you can use geoengineering as long as you keep injecting these sulfur particles or whatever they might be into the atmosphere and maintaining that atmospheric balance. But if you wanted to be at that temperature sustainably, you would need to remove lots of carbon from the atmosphere, which would be a huge amount of carbon to remove, if you were going from 2100 to 1950.

So I don’t know. I think having any idea what future humans are going to want to do in response to any of this is a losing game. I’m always of the view that it’s a good thing to have more options on the table to navigate all of the uncertainty and complexity in the future. There’s this nonsense claim from a set of environmental actors that somehow even discussing this or researching it creates moral hazard and undermines determination to tackle emissions. Carbon removal has only entered public conversation in a meaningful way in the last five years, and before that we weren’t focused on how much it would take. Environmentalists have been telling us that catastrophe was on the high horizon for decades, before anyone ever started talking about carbon removal or geoengineering, but no one did anything at the scale that people were demanding then. The original moral hazard was actually a focus on adaptation to climate change.

All the folks like Al Gore and Bill McKibben who now say, “Discussions of solar geoengineering are creating moral hazard,” if you go back into the ’90s, we were literally seeing [them say that] discussions of climate adaptation were creating moral hazard. Now, they say “No, we have to actually be focused on climate adaptation. The climate’s going to change, we have to deal with this,” and suddenly climate adaptation is not a moral hazard. In fact, I think they all would now say that all the things we’re going to have to do to adapt to climate change will actually increase public concern about the issue and the desire to mitigate climate change. And honestly, I think, in so far as we continue to really have any focus at all on solar geoengineering or carbon removal, that’s actually how it works. There’s never been any evidence for these moral-hazard arguments.

It seems as though there’s a divide between those who think that we need to use policy levers such as carbon taxes to reduce our impacts on the environment, and those who think we should be focusing on new breakthrough technologies. Do you think that that’s a fair way of classifying the debate? Is there a way to move beyond it?  

It’s just a terribly reductive argument, as are almost all climate debates. First of all there is this implication that radical technological innovation is some policy-free space, which of course it’s not. [chuckle] It’s called R&D for a reason. It’s not just research. And when you really look at even what is considered R&D by people who are hard on the side of using technology, there’s a lot of policy, and frankly it often involves a lot of demonstration and deployment at the early stage of technologies.

This is really a hangover from the old environmental problems, and how and where the modern environmental movement came of age. It’s in the US and Europe, with the foundational achievements in the late ’60s, early ’70s with things like the Clean Air Act, which are classic regulatory fixes. Putting some scrubber or pollution control technology on the end of a pipe, and regulating what comes out the pipe. That was just never going to be a solution to climate change. It was a very different problem. While fossil fuels are entangled in economic modernity—social and economic modernity—and are distributed in so many different ways. Carbon is hard to capture, and there are vast quantities of it that you have to do something about. It’s just not like SOx or NOx or any of those older pollution problems.

When you look at climate and the environmental policy agenda around it, they come out of two things. One was the ’70s-era approach to just trying to get rid of fossil fuels by regulating them. That there was scarcity and we were going to run out of fossil fuels, so we would have to use wind and solar and electric vehicles. It really had nothing to do with climate change, and had nothing to do with these timelines. The second approach was out of pollution control, where in the ’90s and the 2000s, the whole environmental community was focused on regulating carbon as a pollutant. 

When you look at this innovation-versus-regulation debate, it’s now called innovation versus deployment, and that’s been a latter-day distortion of where the arguments started by the mainstream environmental community. If you go back to when I wrote “Death of Environmentalism” and Break Through, when my institute was started, the really radical thing that we were saying was that you weren’t going to be able to regulate or tax your way to a zero-carbon global economy. It just wasn’t going to happen—we didn’t have all the technologies we needed, despite what Al Gore claimed, but instead there was a massive problem in technology innovation. We were saying that there’s a role for regulation, maybe even a carbon tax, but the fundamental thing we needed was technological change and technological innovations. And a whole lot of people in the environmental community attacked us, basically saying, “You’re just saying do research and development, no policy. We just need to mandate the deployment of the technologies we have.” Their real claim was that we just needed to use carbon caps or taxes to mandate the deployment. We were cast as the technology R&D people versus the deployers.

But in fact, what we were always saying was that it should be deployed through public policy, at the scales where there would be technological learning. And the folks on the other side of that debate were saying that it would always fail, it would be captured and you couldn’t give large amounts of money to the Department of Energy because they would waste it. They would say that you would simply have to mandate the technologies that we had right now, and if you did that, better technologies would magically materialize. We won that debate. The same people who were saying that around 15 years ago have now switched to saying, “No, no, no. We just need to deploy the technologies today with subsidies and various sorts of public investment.” So when we talk about a Green New Deal now, what we’re really arguing about is the scale of that and exactly how that gets done.

On one level, it’s promising. This is how paradigmatic change happens. What we’re arguing about now is basically whether Biden is going to invest a couple of trillion dollars into green infrastructure and green technology, and whether he can get that through Congress. Insofar as there’s any regulatory part of that at all, it’s going to be very, very modest. There won’t be an economy-wide cap or tax or anything like that. 

How should we think about the concept of sustainability? 

Sustainability is such a gauzy, hand-wavy concept, though I find even myself using it sometimes. Insofar as “sustainability” suggests that there’s some set of natural limits that we need to keep human societies within, I think it’s just nonsense. We’ve been modifying natural environments on this planet to support numbers of humans that are much greater today than could have ever been supported even 100 or 1,000 years ago, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 years ago. There is, of course, some theoretical limit to how much energy we can harness or use, but we’re nowhere close to that.

If you have cheap, clean energy, you can ultimately solve everything else. I would offer an alternate framework for sustainability. I think what we would like is for large populations of humans to be able to live materially comfortable and prosperous lives, to pursue their imaginations, their dreams, and their ideas of what a good life is. I think it’s very hard for us, sitting here today, to know what the average person or someone in 2100 will think that is, and to do that in ways that preserve as much of our deep evolutionary ecological inheritance as possible, which was always already shaped by human agency and will continue to be. And that might mean that we do end up removing carbon and geoengineering the planet to have that 1950 or an 1850 climate, for that matter. It might mean that we decide to bring mammoths back, or to genetically modify the Great Barrier Reef so that it can supply the warmer oceans, or something else. I don’t know. 

I want to give people living in the future the options, choices, agency, and the ability to make those decisions on their own terms. I don’t know if you would call that “sustainability” or something else, but that’s the future that I think we ought to create for those who come after us. We can do that by building out the knowledge base, technology base, wealth base, and resource base that will make that possible. Do we have functioning institutions that are adaptive and democratic, and that can navigate what are always going to be trade-offs? That’s the future that I think we ought to be pursuing.

What’s next for the ecomodernist movement?

I think the movement is growing in a bunch of ways. I’ve always had a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach. We have ecomodernist socialists and ecomodernist libertarians, which I think creates a healthy tension in orienting us towards modernization, development, growth, technology, and how those things can serve the environment. I think we have a set of institutions that are still very nascent. Breakthrough Institute is one of them, maybe the original. But there’s many more people doing ecomodernist things and thinking like ecomodernists to varying degrees and I would expect that to continue to grow. When I think about some of our work, I’d like to create more capability to build these networks and institutions in emerging economies, which is where I think most of the human and environmental future is going to be determined. 

I think we’re in a very transitional time. Politics in the industrialized world is shifting in a bunch of ways. Conservatism does not look like what it looked like for the last 40 or 50 years. I think, in some interesting ways, neither does the left. I think how that sorts out and how ecomodernism will fit into this world is still to be written.

I’m as interested as anyone is in what Biden is going to do on climate. Will there be a sustainable coalition around climate change issues? What will the political right look like, post-Trump? And depending on how those play out, I think there are lots of interesting ways that ecomodernism may fit into the picture.

 

Image by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash.