Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Over the last 15 years, environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming.

They have strikingly little to show for it. 

From battles over higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks to attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation to reduce the threat of global warming. Every environmental leader we interviewed recognizes that climate change demands that we remake the global economy in ways that will transform the lives of six billion people. All recognize that it’s an undertaking of monumental size and complexity

And yet not one of North America’s environmental leaders is publicly articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards – proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political power needed to deal with the problem. Green groups are defining the problem so narrowly – so unecologically – that they have alienated potential allies and become just another special interest.

Environmental leaders are today like generals fighting the last war – in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago. It was then that the community’s political strategy became defined around using science to define various problems as environmental” and various solutions as technical. 

The problem with environmentalism goes deeper than better communication, language or framing. The problem goes to the way environmentalists conceptualize the problem. Environmental leaders have persuaded themselves that it’s their job to worry about environmental” problems and that it’s the labor movement’s job to worry about labor” problems.

The problem isn’t just that environmentalism has become a special interest. The problem is that all liberal politics have become special interests. 

Now is the moment – 35 years after the modern environmental movement was born – for the environmental community to take a step back, rethink its fundamental assumptions, get clear about its vision for America and the world and invent a radically different strategy for achieving it.

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