Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate change.

And to stop pushing for comprehensive “climate policy.”

That’s what New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, did last week when he gave $50 million to the Sierra Club to fight coal plants. Coal plants should be shuttered, he said, because they endanger public health, pollute the air, deposit mercury in lakes and contribute to asthma. “This is not about the future,” he said, “This is about today.” [See my blogpost, Mike Bloomberg takes on coal.]

Now here comes a group of international scholars and analysts, known as the Hartwell Group, with a new report called Climate Pragmatism, [PDF, download]  which argues that the best way to enact policies around climate change is to talk less about climate and more about curbing air pollution and promoting clean energy innovation.

Telling people to study climate science and make sacrifices–in effect, what Al Gore has tried valiantly to do–hasn’t worked and won’t, the report says.

Nor will the argument that we need to “save the planet” for future generations.

The report says:

The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in time–benefits who attributes, magnitude, timing and distribution are not knowable with certainty.

By contrast:

The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree that it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical and environmental benefits to economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resistance to climate impacts.

I called Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, to talk about the report. He’s one of a diverse group of 14 co-authors; the others include environmental scientist and author Roger Pielke, Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, academics Gwyn Pryns and Steve Rayner, and Steven Hayward of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

One of their goals, Michael told me, is to find policies that can win bipartisan support.

“When I started working on the environment,” he said, “it was one the issue that had strong bipartisan consensus—from Nixon to the first President Bush. It’s now become one of the most polarizing issues, right up there with abortion and gun rights.”

“Climate science is not going to bring us together,” he went on. “The conversation about solutions, and what he have to do has always been more popular than why we have to do it.”

So the report focuses on three goals that are or could be broadly popular. They are energy innovation, “no regrets” pollution reduction and resilience to extreme weather.

People support clean energy innovation, the report notes, for many reasons. Some are concerned by the entanglements created by America’s dependence on oil. Others worry about America’s ability to compete in growing global markets for solar and wind power. Still other see distributed solar or wind as a way to get cheap, clean energy to poor people in the global south.

Interestingly, the report notes that the only two countries to have significantly decarbonized their energy sectors in recent decades–Sweden and France–did so in response to oil shocks, not energy fears. It calls for small surcharges on electricity, or gasoline or oil use, or even a small carbon tax to support research and development of clean energy.

“Put simply, we must make clean energy cheap,” it says.

Further curbing air pollution, meanwhile, will provide public health benefits that are immediate, well known and popular across the political spectrum (if not with the regulated industries):

Whatever one’s view of climate change, most Americans and most nations can agree that reducing pollution at modest or no cost to the economy is the definition of “no
regrets” action. If many of these efforts also offer near-term climate mitigation benefits, so much the better.

More broadly, the report argues that environmentalists and their political allies should  give up, for now, on a comprehensive international climate treaty–the Kyoto-UN-Copenhagen process of the past two decades–and instead pursue multiple pathways.

None of these arguments are exactly new, as Shellenberger admits. This report is an updated, Americanized version of an analysis called The Hartwell Paper, in which a group of international scholars (some of whom also worked on this report) argued that decarbonisation can best be achieved “as a by-product of pursuing more pragmatic and popular primary goals, including expanding energy access, energy security and, ultimately, making energy less expensive and more abundant.”  In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama talked about “clean energy” but never said the words “climate change.” And, even during the cap-and-trade wars, messaging from environmental groups focused on “green jobs” and competitiveness and not on rising sea levels and melting ice caps.

None of it has got us even starting down the road we need to travel.

Having said that, I truly hope Shellenberger and the authors of Climate Pragmatism are right, and that politicians on both sides of the aisle can find a way to support energy innovation, energy access for the poor and pollution controls.

I’m skeptical, however. This week, House Republicans are pushing legislation to curb the EPA’s power to enforce environmental laws–an effort that the Environmental Defense Fund calls “one of the worst anti-environmental bills ever.” What groups like Breakthrough described as “innovation policy” remains unpopular with conservatives who prefer to call it “industrial policy” or “picking winners and losers.”

More than that, I’m not persuaded that we should talk less about the climate–because we really haven’t began to have an honest debate about global warming.

If U.S. president has gone on television to deliver a speech about climate change, armed with charts or graphs or TED-like videos, I missed it.

If politicians or environmentalists tried to persuade voters to  pay a few more cents for electricity or gasoline so that we can reduce the risks of climate instability, they didn’t try very hard. The exception, of course, is Al Gore–not Al Gore the presidential candidate or vice president, but Al Gore the filmmaker and late-in-life activist.

It leads me to wonder whether the authors of this report have the problem exactly backward.

Maybe it’s time to start talking about climate change.


  1. Ed Maibach says

    Is President Obama’s reluctance to mention climate change motivated by a false assumption about public opinion?

    In a recent story by Juliet Eilperin about actions under consideration by the administration to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute gave voice to his concerns that the President has gone silent on the issue of climate change:

    “I don’t blame the president for the failure of climate legislation, but I do hold him accountable for allowing opponents to fill the void with misinformation and outright lies about climate change,” (Lash) said. “By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.”

    The President’s near-total silence on this issue throughout 2011 is perplexing given the clarity of his past statements about the need to deal with the threat. Perhaps he has concluded that the issue has evolved into such a political loser that even speaking the words will jeopardize his plans. If that is indeed the reason for his silence, findings contained in two research reports released last month – one by me and my colleagues at George Mason and Yale, and the other by a team at Stanford – indicate that the President would be wise to reassess his assumptions.

    The Yale/George Mason study – Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies in May 2011 – shows that despite political polarization in Washington D.C., public support for a variety of climate change and energy policies remains high, across party lines:

    Issue Priority & Support for Action
    • 71 percent of Americans say global warming should be a very high (13%), high (27%), or medium (31%) priority for the president and Congress, including 50 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents and 88 percent of Democrats.
    • 91 percent of Americans say developing sources of clean energy should be a very high (32%), high (35%), or medium (24%) priority for the president and Congress, including 85 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Independents, and 97 percent of Democrats.
    • Majorities of Americans want more action to address global warming from corporations (65%), citizens themselves (63%), the U.S. Congress (57%), President Obama (54%), as well as their own state and local officials.
    • Despite ongoing concerns about the economy, 67 percent of Americans say the U.S. should undertake a large (29%) or medium-scale effort (38%) to reduce global warming, even if it has large or moderate economic costs.
    • 82 percent of Americans (including 76% of Republicans, 74% of Independents, and 94% of Democrats) say that protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs (56%), or has no effect (26%). Only 18 percent say environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs.
    Support for Specific Policies
    • 84 percent of Americans support funding more research into renewable energy sources, including 81 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of Independents, and 90 percent of Democrats.
    • 68 percent of Americans support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year, including 58 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats.
    • Majorities support local policies, including installing bike lanes on city streets (77%), more public transportation (80%), requiring all new homes to be more energy efficient (71%), changing zoning to promote mixed development (57%), decreasing sprawl (56%), and promoting more energy efficient apartments instead of single family homes (52%).

    The Stanford study – The Impact of Candidates’ Statements about Climate Change on Electoral Success in 2010: Experimental Evidences – provides even more direct evidence that climate change is not a political loser, but rather is a political winner for both Democrats and Republicans. Specifically, the study shows that “endorsing the existence of warming, human causation, and the need for ameliorative action” wins votes among both Democrats and Independents, and does not lose votes among Republicans. “These results suggest that by taking a green position on climate, candidates of either party can gain the votes of some citizens while not alienating others.”

  2. says


    Thanks for bringing this excellent book to the attention of your extensive readership. I’m a big cheerleader for corporate climate adaptation – or what these authors call resilience to extreme weather events. Why?

    1. It will help companies exploit new business opportunities.
    2. It will help companies to avoid negative impact.
    3. It will help companies contribute to more resilient communities, so that climate threats will minimally damage social well-being, the economy and the environment.

    Your influence over the private sector may help to increase the climate adaptation dialogue.

  3. jason says

    The problem is that runaway feedbacks started by CO2 is a hypothesis. The panic over what a significant number of people see as a beneficial gas that may have contributed to the current stability if the climate, yields etc, seems to many more grounded in religion than reality.

  4. says

    Useful to think about other ways of getting agreement on climate solutions, such as not mentioning the word climate. Less useful to propose giving up on an international climate treaty. More useful would be to think about how to frame the problem so that climate solutions and climate treaties can happen fast, whatever they’re called. My article about this ( ) suggests we need to learn to see the symptoms such as climate change, pollution, oil shocks, etc as outputs of a ‘system’ that causes them. Then the ‘solution’ becomes 2 stage; get good at discussing and changing systems, then let the changed system deliver changed outputs – often the reverse of what we get today.

    I hope that’s not too abstract – systems thinking is not common currency. We could talk about paradigms but that’s not much easier for most people. An example: our economy today runs as a largely linear flow of resources with nature shrinking at one end and junk piling up at the other – including junk in the air. This means that economic growth comes from activities that destroy the potential for future economic growth – not smart! A changed system would be cyclical and regenerative, with used resources ending up as new resources rather than junk. Growth would come from activities that support more growth. More about this in my proposal for MIT’s excellent Climate CoLab,

  5. says

    While refreshing, this new “climate pragmatism” strategy is bound to fail.

    Here’s an example, “People support clean energy innovation, the report notes, for many reasons.” That’s 100% true but energy innovation includes “coal-to-gas” technology, exploiting offshore gas hydrates and yes, fracking.

    The premise of “climate pragmatism” is that ““Climate science is not going to bring us together.” That is also 100% true but actually there is no reason for a climate-change mitigating carbon tax can bring us together, which is the premise of the LMAD plan.

    The LMAD plan advocates a carbon tax, not to save the planet but to save the country. If that ends of saving the planet, the great!

    So how do we ideological opposites to come together on a carbon tax? Two rhetorical questions will do the trick:

    1) If the solution to too much CO2 in the air is to use less fossil fuels, why is NOT the solution to too much federal debt to use less government?

    2) If the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm (current=389 ppm) because that is the maximum concentration of CO2 that life as we know it can continue, why is 18% of GDP (current =25% GDP) NOT the optimal size of government because that is the size that most likely yields maximum economic growth (of 4.1% historically)?

    Think about it. Liberals (including Obama) and Conservatives are actually making the same apocalyptic argument albeit on different issues. They both make good arguments for action. But the public is yawningly uninterested in AGW and unwilling to make the hard choices on America’s fiscal problems. Buying off the opposition is the American way so why not use the system we have to get the outcome you want. And that’s what Let’s Make A Deal—The Plan is all about: getting the outcome you want.

    It’s time for progressives concerned about rising temperatures and conservatives concerned about rising federal debt to realize the obvious: they need to BUY each other off in order to effectively address their pet ideological concerns-there is no other way. This means trading, among other things, a carbon tax for a balanced budget amendment and a more limited government. This plan is outlined at

    LMAD is more than just a carbon tax: Healthcare-for-All? It’s in there. Balanced budget? It’s in there. Carbon tax? It’s in there. Rational taxation? Amnesty? Border Security? Limited government? Social Security and Medicare solvency? It’s all in there; it’s all paid for and it’s all scalable and optimized for economic growth.




    Or just Google “LMADster” for more info.


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