Yglesias on Break Through:

Matthew Yglesias has a review of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility in today's NYT. Here's a taste:

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have worked in the environmental movement not as grand theorists but as public opinion researchers, and their work in this realm is enormously valuable. Polls often cited as evidence of broad support for environmental goals, they note, also show that support to be extremely shallow, making it difficult to persuade people to give up things they enjoy or need — cheap gasoline, jobs in industries like coal mining or logging — in order to advance environmental ends. In response, environmentalists tend to emphasize the dire consequences of inaction and, when that doesn’t work, to ratchet up the doomsday narratives that Nordhaus and Shellenberger justifiably compare to religious tales of sin and damnation.

“We know from extensive psychological research,” they write, “that presenting frightening disaster scenarios provokes fatalism, paralysis and ... individualistic thoughts of adaptation, not empowerment, hope, creativity and collective action.” Insecurity, they argue, is an emotional pillar of reactionary politics, not a building block for the sort of farsighted, progressive thinking that is required to prevent ecological disaster.

Instead of sticking with this crucial point, however, “Break Through” tries to use postmodern philosophy to transmute an insight about public opinion into one about public policy. The authors conflate conventional environmentalist rhetoric and conventional policy prescriptions (mandatory curbs on carbon emissions) to create a supposed “politics of limits” that must be transcended through a “politics of possibility.”

But whatever the shortcomings of their rhetoric, environmentalists have a very good reason to push for some limits, however much of a downer that message might be. Global warming is caused by carbon emissions and can be contained only by reducing them. Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s preferred alternative — huge investment in alternative energy — doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. . . . even as a matter of crass politics, Nordhaus and Shellenberger neglect a basic point: the hard part about gaining support for a new initiative isn’t convincing people of its value but finding the money to pay for it. The conventional solutions to global warming posed by the “politics of limits” — taxing carbon emissions, or issuing tradeable emissions to carbon-producing firms — conveniently raises revenue that could be used to pay for the very projects the authors wish to see.

My own Break Through review is here, see also this post on the book.