The Breakthrough Institute is a think tank located in Oakland, California. The Breakthrough Institute is "committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century" and its mission is to “accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.” 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 grad students. Breakthrough Institute analyses of energy, climate, and innovation policy have been cited by the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, and C-SPAN. Philosophically, the Breakthrough Institute is associated with the ecological modernist movement, ecomodernism. Ecomodernists are characterized by their belief that technology can be harnessed to better humanity and the environment. They frequently support genetic engineering and believe that nuclear energy is necessary in order to address climate change.
Breakthrough's interim executive director is Peter Teague and its director of research is Ted Nordhaus. Breakthrough also has a number of senior fellows including sociologist Bruno Latour, journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Nobel prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., sociologist Dalton Conley, Oxford professor Steve Rayner, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, sociologist Steve Fuller, and environmental thought leader Stewart Brand.
Breakthrough Institute maintains programs in energy, conservation, and innovation. 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. And the innovation research “seeks to understand how economic growth and innovation happen in the real world and to consider the implications for policy makers.
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In 2004, Breakthrough founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger coauthored the essay, “Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.” 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, which was covered by the New York Times and Salon.
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 and "the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" by Wired Magazine. 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.
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 investment in innovation in order to make clean energy cheap. The report was widely praised and endorsed.
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, with its work referenced by many including the New York Times, and President Barack Obama.
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. Breakthrough’s findings were cited in the New York Times and by President Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union and were substantiated by the Associated Press as well as the American Energy Innovation Council.
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. The report generated wide bipartisan interest and endorsements.
An Ecomodernist Manifesto
In April 2015, An Ecomodernist Manifesto was issued 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
In 2011, Breakthrough published the first issue of the Breakthrough Journal, which aims to “modernize political thought for the 21st century.” 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, and the National Review called it “the most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time.” Steven F. Hayward’s essay “Modernizing Conservatism” received a Sidney Award from New York Times columnist David Brooks. “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, and Scott Winship’s “The Affluent Economy” was debated in the National Review, the Economist, the New York Times, and the Dish.
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. On the left, they have been criticized for arguing that carbon pricing is not the solution to climate change, for being pro-nuclear, and for touting natural gas as a way to decrease coal usage.
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.
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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.
- 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.”
- "Authors An Ecomodernist Manifesto". ecomodernism.org. 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.
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