These excerpts are from “The Death of Environmentalism: Global-Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” a controversial report circulated last October among environmentalists and their funding organizations. The paper, written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, criticizes the environmental movement for using outmoded strategies to promote its positions. Though some, such as current Sierra Club director Carl Pope, have called the report divisive and self-serving, others have seconded its message, particularly following the Democrats’ failure in last year’s presidential election. Shellenberger is interviewed in this issue. The full text of “The Death of Environmentalism” is available at

— Ed.


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

We have strikingly little to show for it.

From the battles over better fuel efficiency to attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation that would reduce the threat of global warming. As a result, activists in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than they were two decades ago.

Yet, in their public campaigns, not one of America’s environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes such as pollution controls and higher vehicle-mileage standards — proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances necessary to deal with the problem.

By failing to question their most basic assumptions about the problem and the solution, environmental leaders are like generals still fighting the last war — in this case, the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than thirty years ago. It was then that the environmental community’s political strategy became focused on using science to define the problem as “environmental” and crafting technical policy proposals as solutions.

The greatest achievements on reducing global warming today are happening in Europe. Britain has agreed to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent over fifty years, Holland by 80 percent over forty years, and Germany by 50 percent over fifty years. Russia has ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and even China — which is viewed fearfully for the amount of dirty coal it intends to burn — recently established fuel-economy standards for its cars and trucks that are much tougher than those in the U.S.

Environmentalists are learning all the wrong lessons from Europe. We closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible.

The environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global-warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet nothing about the behavior of environmental groups indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back and rethink everything. We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially technical.

The entire political landscape has changed radically in the last thirty years, yet the environmental movement acts as though proposals based on “sound science” will still be sufficient to overcome ideological and industry opposition. Environmentalists are in a culture war, whether we like it or not. It’s a war over our core values as Americans and over our vision for the future, and it won’t be won by appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest.

Part of what’s behind America’s political turn to the right is the skill with which conservative think tanks, intellectuals, and political leaders have crafted proposals that build their power through setting the terms of the debate. Their work has paid off. According to a survey of fifteen hundred Americans by the market-research firm Environics, the number of Americans who agree with the statement “To preserve people’s jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future” increased from 17 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2000. The number of Americans who agreed that “most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people” leapt from 32 percent to 41 percent over the same period.

The truth is that the environment never makes it into most Americans’ top-ten list of things to worry about. They support protecting the environment; they just don’t support it very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s possible to grasp why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut thirty years of environmental protections.

If one understands the environment to include humans, then the way the environmental community designates certain problems as “environmental” and others as not is completely arbitrary. Why, for instance, is a human-made phenomenon like global warming — which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century — considered environmental? If it is, then why are poverty and war not also considered environmental problems? What are the implications of understanding global warming as an environmental problem — and handing off the responsibility for dealing with it to environmentalists?

“When we use the term ‘environment,’ it makes it seem as if the problem is ‘out there’ and we need to ‘fix it,’ ” says Susan Clark, Executive Director of the Columbia Foundation. “The problem is not external to us; it’s us. It’s a human problem having to do with how we organize our society. This old way of thinking isn’t anyone’s fault, but it is all of our responsibility to change.”

Not everyone agrees. “We need to remember that we’re the environmental movement and that our job is to protect the environment,” says the Sierra Club’s global-warming director, Dan Becker. “If we stray from that, we risk losing our focus, and there’s no one else to protect the environment if we don’t do it. We’re not a union or the Labor Department. Our job is to protect the environment, not to create an industrial policy for the United States.”

Most environmentalists don’t think of the environment as a mental construct at all — they think of it as a real thing to be protected and defended. They think of themselves, literally, as representatives and defenders of this thing. Environmentalists do their work as though these were literal rather than figurative truths. This is because liberals are, at their core, children of the Enlightenment who believe that they have arrived at their identity and politics through a rational and considered process. They expect others in politics to do the same and are constantly surprised and disappointed when they don’t.

The effect of this orientation is a certain “literal sclerosis” — the belief that social change happens only when people speak a literal “truth to power.” Literal sclerosis can be seen in the assumption that to win action on global warming one must talk about global warming instead of, say, the economy, industrial policy, or healthcare. “If you want people to act on global warming,” stresses Becker, “you need to convince them that action is needed on global warming, not on some ulterior goal.”

What do we worry about when we worry about global warming? Is it the food shortages that will result from reduced agricultural production? If so, shouldn’t our focus be on increasing food production?

Is it the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream, which could freeze upper North America and northern Europe and trigger, as a recent Pentagon scenario suggests, world war?

Is it the refugee crisis that will be caused when Caribbean nations are flooded? If so, shouldn’t our focus be on building bigger sea walls and disaster preparedness?

Most environmental leaders would scoff and retort, “Disaster preparedness is not an environmental problem.” It is a hallmark of liberal rationality to believe that we environmentalists search for “root causes,” not “symptoms.” What, then, is the cause of global warming?

For most within the environmental community, the answer is easy: too much carbon in the atmosphere. Framed this way, the solution is logical: we need to pass legislation that reduces carbon emissions. But what are the obstacles to removing carbon from the atmosphere?

Consider what would happen if we identified the primary obstacles as:

  • The radical Right’s control of all three branches of the U.S. government.
  • Trade policies that undermine environmental protections.
  • Our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision.
  • Overpopulation.
  • The influence of money in American politics.
  • Our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values.
  • Poverty.
  • Old assumptions about what the problem is and what it isn’t.

The point here is not that global warming has many causes, but that the solutions we dream up depend on how we understand the problem.

We can no longer afford to address the world’s problems separately. Most people wake up in the morning trying to reduce the number of things they have to worry about. Environmentalists wake up trying to increase that number. We want the public to care about and focus not only on global warming and rain forests, but also species extinction, nonnative invasive plants, agribusiness, overfishing, mercury, and toxic-waste dumps.

Talking at the public about this laundry list of concerns is what environmentalists refer to as “public education.” The assumption is that the American electorate consists of 100 million policy wonks eager to digest the bleak news we have to deliver.

Whereas neocons build a political majority by basing proposals on core values, liberals try to win on one issue at a time. We come together only around elections, when our candidates run on our issue lists and technical policy solutions. The problem with tackling each issue individually is that liberal politics looks less like a cohesive whole and more like a conglomeration of special interests.

Industry and conservative lobbyists prevent action on global warming by framing their attacks around an issue of far greater salience for the American people: jobs. The industry opposition claims that action on global warming will cost millions of jobs. They repeat this claim, ad nauseam, through bogus studies, advertisements, lobbying, public relations, and alliance-building among businesses and labor unions. Environmental leaders tend to reinforce the industry position by responding to it, in typical literal fashion, rather than attacking industry for opposing plans that will create millions of good new jobs.

Josh Reichert, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s environmental program, says, “Ultimately, the labor movement in this country needs to become positively engaged in efforts to address climate change. They need to recognize that, if done properly, reducing greenhouse gases will not be detrimental to labor. On the contrary, it will spawn industries and create jobs that we don’t have now.”

The unspoken assumptions here are (a) the problem is greenhouse gases, (b) labor must accept the environmental movement’s framing of the problem as greenhouse gases, and (c) it’s the responsibility of labor to get with the program on global warming.

The real problem is that 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. If there’s overlap, they say, great; but we should never ever forget who we really are.

“Global warming is an apt example of why environmentalists must break out of their ghetto,” says Lance Lindblom, president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “Our opponents use our inability to form effective alliances to drive a wedge through our potential coalition. Some of this is a cultural problem. Environmentalists think, You’re talking to me about your job — I’m talking about saving the world! Developing new clean-energy industries will clearly help working families and increase national security, but there’s still no intuition that all of these are consistent concerns.”

The tendency to put the environment into an airtight container away from the concerns of others is at the heart of the environmental movement’s defensiveness on economic issues. Our defensiveness only elevates the Right’s contention that action on global warming will cost jobs and raise electricity bills. Environmentalists’ strategy of answering industry charges, instead of attacking those very industries for blocking investment in the good jobs of the future, is yet another symptom of literal sclerosis.

Answering charges with the literal “truth” is a bit like responding to the Republican “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ad campaign with the facts about John Kerry’s war record. The way to win is not to defend — it’s to attack.

Given the movement’s adherence to fixed and arbitrary categories, it’s not surprising that even its best political allies fall into the same traps. At a Pew Center on Global Climate Change conference last June, Senator John McCain awkwardly and unsuccessfully tried to flip the economic argument on his opponents: “I think the economic impact [of climate change] would be devastating. Our way of life is in danger. This is a serious problem. Relief is not on the way.”

Senator Joseph Lieberman did an even worse job, as one might expect from someone who makes conservative arguments for liberal initiatives: “Confronting global warming need not be wrenching to our economy if we take simple, sensible steps now.”

A June poll conducted for environmental backers of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act found that 70 percent of Americans support the act’s goals “despite the likelihood it may raise energy costs by more than fifteen dollars a month per household.” In the online magazine Grist, Thad Miller approvingly cites a study that “predicts household energy expenditures under the bill would increase by a modest eighty-nine dollars.”

More good news from the environmental community: not only won’t we cost you as many jobs as you think; we only want to raise your energy bill a little bit!

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried within it a critique of the current moment. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare” speech instead.

In the absence of a bold vision and a reconsideration of the problem, environmental leaders are effectively giving the “I have a nightmare” speech, not just in our press interviews but also in the way that we make our proposals. The world’s most effective leaders are not issue-identified but rather vision and value-identified. These leaders distinguish themselves by inspiring hope against fear, love against injustice, and power against powerlessness.

A positive, transformative vision doesn’t just inspire; it also creates the cognitive space for assumptions to be challenged and new ideas to surface. And it helps everyone to get out of their single-issue boxes.

Toward the end of his life, King began reaching out to labor unions and thinking about economic development. He didn’t say, “That’s not my issue,” as today’s liberal leaders do. He didn’t see his work as limited to ending Jim Crow.

Environmentalists have a great deal to learn from conservatives. When right-wing strategist Grover Norquist proposes sweeping tax cuts, his allies understand that his unspoken agenda is to cripple the federal government’s ability to pay for services such as healthcare, public education, and the enforcement of labor and environmental laws. Special interests seeking cuts to worker-safety programs are more likely to join an alliance built around a vision of less taxes than an alliance built around cutting investments in clean energy.

Because today’s conservatives understand the strategic importance of tax cuts for killing social programs, never do they say, “That’s not my issue.”

Environmentalists and other liberals have convinced themselves that, in politics, it’s the issues that matter, and that the public is with us on such issues as the environment, jobs, and healthcare. So how can we be winning on the issues and losing politically?

One explanation is that environmentalists simply can’t build strong coalitions because of turf battles. Another says that environmentalists just don’t have enough money to effectively combat polluting industries. Another says that we environmentalists are just too nice. These statements all may be true. What’s not clear, however, is whether they are all caused by something far deeper.

Issues matter only to the extent that they are linked to proposals that promote a set of core values. The role of issues and proposals is to activate, and sometimes change, people’s deeply held values. And the job of global-warming strategists should be to determine which values we need to activate to bring various constituencies into a political majority.

For social scientists, values are those core beliefs and principles that motivate behavior — from whom you vote for to which movie you go to see. These values determine political identities such as Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive, environmentalist or not. They also determine people’s opinions on everything from global warming, to the war in Iraq, to what kind of SUV to buy.

The scientists who study values understand that some values are traditional, like so-called family values. Others are modern, like “liberal” Enlightenment values. And others, such as consumer values, fit into neither category.

Conservative foundations and think tanks have spent forty years getting clear about what they want (their vision) and what they stand for (their values). Only after decades of being stitched together by conservative intellectuals and strategists were the values of smaller government, fewer taxes, a large military, “traditional” families, and more power for big business coherent enough to be listed in a “Contract with America,” as the Republican members of the House did in 1994. After they got clear about their vision and values, conservatives started crafting proposals that would activate conservative values among their base and among swing voters.

Once in power, conservatives govern on all of their issues together — no matter whether they have majority support on every one of them. Liberals tend to approach politics with an eye toward winning one issue at a time — a Sisyphean task that has contributed to today’s neoconservative hegemony.

Environmental groups have spent the last forty years defining themselves against such conservative values as cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent value system we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the Right’s values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way. Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from “the real issues” — such as global warming.

If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest, we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central motivations that guide our politics.