The Breakthrough Institute's Inconvenient History with Al Gore

by Paul D. Thacker

While sometimes functioning as shadow universities, think tanks have been exposed as quasi lobbying organizations, with little funding transparency. Recent research has also pointed out that think tanks suffer from a lack of intellectual rigor. A case in point is the Breakthrough Institute run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, which describes itself as a "progressive think tank."

If you’ve been following recent news on climate change, then you must have witnessed the recent meltdown happening over at the Breakthrough Institute. In a March 19 post at Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight journalism site, Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow Roger Pielke wrote a piece titled “Disasters Cost More than Ever—But Not Because of Climate Change.” The article was highly criticized for cherry picking information on climate change impacts, with Slate labeling it an “Unnatural Disaster” and an embarrassment to Silver’s new venture.

Responding to the outcry, Silver commissioned a counter piece written by Kerry Emanuel “MIT Climate Scientist Responds on Disaster Costs And Climate Change,” an article that essentially debunked Pielke’s original storyline on hurricanes and climate change. Since that catastrophe, the Breakthrough Institute has ramped up their PR, doing everything they can to protect their Senior Fellow through twitter and claims that he is highly cited in the scientific literature.

The Breakthrough Institute has a clear history as a contrarian outlet for information on climate change and regularly criticizes environmental groups. One writer describes them as a “program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune.” So it was not shocking to see their column last Wednesday in the New York Times criticizing a new documentary on climate change that was put together by award-winning journalists. In their article, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger state that the documentary will raise public skepticism about climate change because it uses scare tactics.

To buttress their claims, the duo cite Al Gore, and his 2006 documentary on climate change “An Inconvenient Truth.” According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger, Gore’s documentary “contributed to public backlash and division” on climate change. When this op-ed was refuted by one of the documentary’s expert advisors, the duo doubled down on the claim, citing multiple lines of research, including studies by professors Aaron McCright of Michigan State University and Robert Brulle of Drexel.

“Shellenberger and Nordhaus are definitely missing what I argue in my paper,” Brulle wrote in an email. “As far as I can see, there is ZERO empirical evidence that supports [their] hypothesis.” Apparently, he says, the New York Times does not fact check op-eds.

Professor McCright was also dismissive of Nordhaus and Shellenberger. No reputable researcher would make the claim that Al Gore contributed to partisanship on climate change, he says. “We simply have insufficient data,” he adds. Instead, he points to disinformation put out by organized climate denialists as a more likely explanation.

For Nordhaus and Shellenberger, Gore and his documentary are a favorite talking point and topic for bashing. In fact, it’s hard to find anything they haven’t written that doesn’t contain some reference to this documentary and the former Vice President. This personal obsession has sent the two running in circles, and tying themselves in contradictory knots—at times claiming Gore has increased partisan divisions on climate change, at other times claiming that his documentary was irrelevant.

For instance, the two again charged Gore with inciting partisan divisiveness back in February 2011, on the Breakthrough’s website:

Gore famously claimed, "the truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives." Those apparent calls for sacrifice by Gore and other green leaders drove rising partisan polarization. [emphasis added]

However, Nordhaus and Shellenberger had a decidedly different take on Gore’s effect on Americans in 2009. Writing for Yale’s Environment 360, the two then wrote that Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” had been a pointless exercise and had no effect at changing public opinion:

Three years after it seemed that “An Inconvenient Truth” had changed everything, it turns out that it didn’t. The current Pew survey is the latest in a series of studies suggesting that Al Gore probably had a good deal more effect upon elite opinion than public opinion.

Public opinion about global warming, it turns out, has been remarkably stable for the better part of two decades, despite the recent decline in expressed public confidence in climate science. [emphasis added]

Yet a few months prior, while writing for the New Republic, the Breakthrough team was singing a different tune about Gore:

Recall that the inconvenient truth for which Gore named his movie was “that we have to change the way we live our lives”—and nobody could have the impression, after watching the movie, that it would be for the better. No new technology could save us—we would have to live differently. The public got the message. Of the 67 percent of voters who told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in 2006 that it is possible to reduce the effects of global warming, nearly twice as many said it would require major sacrifices than said it could be done with technology. [emphasis added]

But while writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2008, the two were stuck recounting that the movie had no impact:

Democrats and greens ended up in this predicament because they believed their own press clippings—or, perhaps more accurately, Al Gore's. After the release of the documentary film and book "An Inconvenient Truth," greens convinced themselves that U.S. public opinion on climate change had shifted dramatically, despite having no empirical evidence that was the case. In fact, public concern about global warming was about the same before the movie—65% told a Gallup poll in 2007 that global warming was a somewhat or very important concern in comparison to 63% in 1989. Global warming remains a low-priority issue, hovering near the bottom of the Pew Center for People and the Press' top 20 priorities[emphasis added]

It’s hard to understand exactly what Nordhaus and Shellenberger are trying to say about Al Gore and the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Apparently, it increased “public backlash and division” and “drove rising partisan polarization” during a time that the public opinion on climate change “has been remarkably stable for the better part of two decades” except that “the public got the message” but “greens convinced themselves that U.S. public opinion on climate change had shifted dramatically, despite having no empirical evidence that was the case.”

Got that?

A recent working paper by two Harvard Law students finds that Al Gore and his documentary remain a favorite target of climate skeptics, and that the matter is one of many themes that comprise the “contrarian corpus” of climate skepticism. But why a think tank that seeks to advance solutions to climate change engages in such shoddy scholarship and a campaign of disinformation remains unclear.