Breakthrough Institute

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The Breakthrough Institute is an environmental research center located in Oakland, California. Founded in 2003 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute has policy programs in energy and climate, economic growth and innovation, conservation and development. It publishes a policy journal, organizes an annual conference, and offers a fellowship program for recent college graduates and graduate students.[1] Breakthrough Institute's analyses of energy, climate, and innovation policy have been cited by The New York Times,[2] NPR,[3] The Wall Street Journal,[4] and C-SPAN.[5] Philosophically, the Breakthrough Institute is associated with ecomodernism.[6][7] Breakthrough promotes technological solutions to environmental problems, especially nuclear energy and industrial agriculture.


Breakthrough's executive director is Ted Nordhaus.[8] Breakthrough also has a number of senior fellows including sociologist Bruno Latour, journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, political scientist Roger A. Pielke Jr., sociologist Dalton Conley, Oxford professor Steve Rayner, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, sociologist Steve Fuller, and environmental thought leader Stewart Brand.[9]


Breakthrough Institute maintains programs in energy, conservation, and food.[10] Their website states that the energy research is “focused on making clean energy cheap through technology innovation to deal with both global warming and energy poverty.” The conservation work “seeks to offer pragmatic new frameworks and tools for navigating" the challenges of the Anthropocene, offering up nuclear energy, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified foods as solutions.


In 2004, Breakthrough founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger coauthored the essay, “Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.”[11] The paper argues that traditional environmentalism must die so that a new kind of politics can be born. The essay sparked a large debate in the environmental community,[12] which was covered by the New York Times[13] and Salon.[14]

In 2007, Nordhaus and Shellenberger published their book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which was called "prescient" by Time[15] and "the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" by Wired Magazine.[16] Breakthrough has gone on to argue that climate policy should be focused on making clean energy cheap through technological innovation and has been critical of climate policies like cap and trade and carbon pricing that are focused primarily on making dirty energy expensive.[17][18]

Breakthrough has engaged in bipartisan efforts to produce a new strategy for climate and energy policy in the wake of cap and trade. In 2010, the Breakthrough Institute, along with the Brookings Institution and right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, published the report Post-Partisan Power, which calls for increased federal subsidies in order to make nuclear energy cheap.[19] The report was widely praised and endorsed.[20][21]

Breakthrough has engaged in extensive work showing that the federal government played a crucial role in the development of major technological innovations from the iPhone to the transcontinental railroad to the shale gas revolution,[22][23] with its work referenced by many including the New York Times,[24] and President Barack Obama.[25]

In 2011, Breakthrough published its extensive investigation into the origins of today's natural gas boom, showing that the government was critical to the shale gas revolution as well.[26] Breakthrough's findings were cited in the New York Times[27] and by President Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union[28] and were substantiated by the Associated Press[29] as well as the American Energy Innovation Council.[30]

In 2012, Breakthrough partnered with Brookings Institution and the World Resources Institute on the report Beyond Boom and Bust which aimed to reform energy policy in order to make clean energy technologies subsidy independent.[31] The report generated wide bipartisan interest[32] and endorsements.[33]

Breakthrough has also authored analyses on the planetary boundaries hypothesis,[34] promoted expansion of nuclear power,[35] and questioned the value of energy efficiency in the context of the Rebound Effect (conservation).[36]

An Ecomodernist Manifesto[edit]

In April 2015, An Ecomodernist Manifesto[37] was issued[38] by John Asafu-Adjaye, Linus Blomqvist, Stewart Brand, Barry Brook. Ruth DeFries, Erle Ellis, Christopher Foreman, David Keith, Martin Lewis, Mark Lynas, Ted Nordhaus, Roger A. Pielke, Jr., Rachel Pritzker, Joyashree Roy, Mark Sagoff, Michael Shellenberger, Robert Stone, and Peter Teague[39]

Breakthrough Journal[edit]

In 2011, Breakthrough published the first issue of the Breakthrough Journal, which aims to “modernize political thought for the 21st century.”[40] The New Republic called Breakthrough Journal “among the most complete efforts to provide a fresh answer to" the question of how to modernize liberal thought,[41] and the National Review called it “the most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time.”[42] Steven F. Hayward's essay “Modernizing Conservatism” received a Sidney Award from New York Times columnist David Brooks.[43] “Conservation in the Anthropocene” by Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz sparked a discussion on the future of the Anthropocene in the New York Times,[44][45] and Scott Winship's “The Affluent Economy” was debated in the National Review,[46] the Economist,[47] the New York Times,[48] and the Dish.[49]


Breakthrough has been criticized by both the right and the left. On the right, they have been criticized for arguing about the importance of the federal government in producing technological innovations.[50] On the left, they have been criticized for arguing that carbon pricing is not the solution to climate change,[15] for being pro-nuclear,[51] for promoting industrial agriculture that is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and for touting natural gas as a way to decrease coal usage.[52]

Journalist Paul D. Thacker alleged that the Breakthrough Institute is an example of a quasi-lobbying organization which does not adequately disclose its funding.[53]

The Institute has also been criticized for promoting industrial agriculture and processed foodstuffs while also accepting donations from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, whose board members have financial ties to processed food companies that rely heavily on industrial agriculture. After an IRS complaint about potential improper use of 501(c)(3) status, the Institute no longer lists the Nathan Cummings Foundation as a donor. However, as journalist Thacker has noted, the Institute's funding remains largely opaque.

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann questions the motives of the Breakthrough Institute. According to Mann the self-declared mission of the BTI is to look for a breakthrough to solve the climate problem. However Mann states that basically the BTI "appears to be opposed to anything - be it a price on carbon or incentives for renewable energy - that would have a meaningful impact." He notes that the BTI "remains curiously preoccupied with opposing advocates for meaningful climate action and is coincidentally linked to natural gas interests" and criticises the BTI for advocating "continued exploitation of fossil fuels". Mann also questions that the BTI on the one hand seems to be "very pessimistic" about renewable energy, while on the other hand "they are extreme techno-optimists" regarding geoengineering.[54]


  1. ^ "The Breakthrough Institute".
  2. ^ "The End of Clean Energy Subsidies?". New York Times. May 5, 2012.
  3. ^ Joyce, Christopher (March 11, 2012). "Nuclear Woes Push Japan Into A New Energy Future". NPR.
  4. ^ White, Joseph (January 27, 2011). "Obama's Energy Shift: It's Not About Climate". Wall Street Journal.
  5. ^ "Role of Government in Energy Innovation". C-SPAN. May 22, 2012.
  6. ^ Porter, Eduardo (April 15, 2015). "A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development". New York Times.
  7. ^ Kloor, Keith (December 12, 2012). "The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement". Slate.
  8. ^ "About --". Retrieved 2016-01-26.
  9. ^ "People". Breakthrough Institute.
  10. ^ "Programs". Breakthrough Institute.
  11. ^ Garofoli, Joe (June 16, 2011). "Thinkers take liberalism apart in order to save it". San Francisco Chronicle.
  12. ^ "A special series on the alleged "Death of Environmentalism"". Grist. January 14, 2005.
  13. ^ Barringer, Felicity (February 6, 2005). "Paper Sets Off a Debate on Environmentalism's Future". New York Times.
  14. ^ Mieszkowski, Katharine (January 14, 2005). "Dead movement walking?". Salon.
  15. ^ a b Walsh, Bryan (September 24, 2008). "Heroes of the Environment 2008". Time.
  16. ^ Horowitz, Mark (September 25, 2007). "Two Environmentalists Anger Their Brethren". Wired Magazine. Archived from the original on 2009-01-10.
  17. ^ Nordhaus, Ted; Michael Shellenberger (November 29, 2010). "How to Change the Global Energy Conversation". Wall Street Journal.
  18. ^ Shellenberger, Michael; Ted Nordhaus; Jeff Navin; Teryn Norris; Aden Van Noppen (January 2008). "Fast, Clean, and Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot" (PDF). Harvard Law and Policy Review. 2 (1): 93–118. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 25, 2012.
  19. ^ Leonhardt, David (October 12, 2010). "A Climate Proposal Beyond Cap and Trade". New York Times.
  20. ^ Levi, Michael. "Digging into the "Post-Partisan Power" Study". Council on Foreign Relations.
  21. ^ "Renewed Energy". Washington Post. November 13, 2010.
  22. ^ Zakaria, Fareed (2009-11-13). "Zakaria: Can America Still Innovate?". Newsweek.
  23. ^ Silverstein, Ken (2012-07-24). "Shale Oil and Gas and Green Fuels Share Common Thread: Federal Support". Forbes.
  24. ^ Leonhardt, David (January 24, 2011). "What Government Can Do". New York Times.
  25. ^ "Remarks by the President in his State of the Union Address". White House. January 25, 2011.
  26. ^ Shellenberger, Michael; Ted Nordhaus (December 16, 2011). "A Boom in Shale Gas? Credit the Feds". Washington Post.
  27. ^ Leonhardt, David (July 21, 2012). "There's Still Hope for the Planet". New York Times.
  28. ^ "President Obama's State of the Union Address". New York Times. January 25, 2012.
  29. ^ Begos, Kevin (September 23, 2012). "Fracking Developed With Decades of Government Investment". Huffington Post.
  30. ^ Burwen, Jason & Jane Flegal (March 2013). "Unconventional Gas Exploration & Production" (PDF). American Energy Innovation Council.
  31. ^ Walsh, Bryan (April 19, 2012). "Clean Tech Support Is About to Fall Off a Cliff. Here's One Way to Save It". Time.
  32. ^ Johnson, Keith (April 17, 2012). "Subsidies for Clean Energy Get Fresh Look". Wall Street Journal.
  33. ^ "The End of Clean Energy Subsidies". New York Times. May 5, 2012.
  34. ^ "Boundary Conditions". The Economist. June 16, 2012.
  35. ^ Walsh, Bryan (July 8, 2013). "Nuclear Energy is Largely Safe. But Can it Be Cheap?". Time.
  36. ^ Tierney, John (March 7, 2011). "When Energy Efficiency Sullies the Environment". New York Times.
  37. ^ "An Ecomodernist Manifesto". Retrieved April 17, 2015. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.
  38. ^ Eduardo Porter (April 14, 2015). "A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development". The New York Times. Retrieved April 17, 2015. On Tuesday, a group of scholars involved in the environmental debate, including Professor Roy and Professor Brook, Ruth DeFries of Columbia University, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., issued what they are calling the “Eco-modernist Manifesto.”
  39. ^ "Authors An Ecomodernist Manifesto". Retrieved April 17, 2015. As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.
  40. ^ "About". Breakthrough Journal.
  41. ^ Schmitt, Mark (June 30, 2011). "Breakthrough Journal: Has Liberalism Entered a Post-Obama Era?". New Republic.
  42. ^ Hayward, Steven (July 18, 2011). "An Environmental Reformation". National Review.
  43. ^ Brooks, David (December 19, 2011). "The Sidney Awards, Part I". New York Times.
  44. ^ Revkin, Andrew (April 3, 2012). "Peter Kareiva, an Inconvenient Environmentalist". New York TImes.
  45. ^ Revkin, Andrew (April 10, 2012). "Critic of Conservation Efforts Gets Critiqued". New York Times.
  46. ^ Salam, Reihan (February 19, 2013). "Absolute Change, Relative Change, and America's Economic Future". National Review.
  47. ^ "The Age of Diminished Expectations". Economist. February 20, 2013.
  48. ^ Douthat, Ross (February 23, 2013). "A World Without Work". New York Times.
  49. ^ Sullivan, Andrew (February 21, 2013). "Does the Middle Class Really Have it So Bad?". Dish.
  50. ^ Samuelson, Robert (July 31, 2013). "George P. Mitchell and the entrepreneurial edge". Washington Post.
  51. ^ Letzing, John (March 4, 2011). "Notebook: Environmentalists spar over nuclear power". MarketWatch.
  52. ^ Carey, John (June 10, 2013). "Gas Pains". Conservation Magazine.
  53. ^ "The Breakthrough Institute's Inconvenient History with Al Gore".
  54. ^ Michael E. Mann, Tom Toles: The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. Columbia University Press 2016

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