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An illustration of Ted Nordhaus. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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How Ted Nordhaus brought realpolitik to climate politics

The Breakthrough Institute co-founder helped lay the intellectual foundation for a more effective approach to fighting climate change.

Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

I first met Ted Nordhaus in a Manhattan coffee shop in 2008. I was there to write about him and his then-writing partner Michael Shellenberger for Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment” issue.

It wasn’t the most natural selection. Then, as now, Nordhaus was not your average environmentalist’s idea of a hero. In 2004, he and Shellenberger co-authored the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” hitting the environmental movement with a message that was hard to hear. Despite all the money and the energy directed toward mainstream green foundations, “modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis”: climate change. Why? Because “we closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible.”

The writer Bill McKibben — who co-founded the activist group, which took a very different approach than Nordhaus — dubbed them “the bad boys of American environmentalism.” Theirs was not a popular argument, nor one that seemed likely to help the career of someone like Nordhaus, who had spent much of his time working in the green movement as a pollster.

Fast-forward nearly 15 years. Nordhaus has even less hair (though, in fairness, so do I), but his influence on environmental politics has only grown. From his perch as the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, the Oakland-based think tank he co-founded in 2007, he has overseen or written essay after essay diagnosing the failures of the environmental movement and charting a more effective way forward that would harness the politics of the possible.

Nordhaus’s insight was that an approach to climate change that centered on public investment in clean technology and leaned into the short-term economic and social benefits would be politically more successful than one that focused on regulating emissions and pursuing limits in order to stave off catastrophe in the future.

Put another way: We would not fundamentally change America to make our climate strategy approach fit; we would change the strategy to fit America.

Was Nordhaus right? Efforts in 2010 to get carbon cap-and-trade legislation passed under President Obama stalled, leading to a decade of legislative inaction as green groups tried and largely failed to build the support needed for their approach. A more direct regulatory program, the Clean Power Plan, was disrupted by a conservative-led Supreme Court this summer. These were failures that Nordhaus and his associates diagnosed, as they called for climate policy that put politics first.

Now take a look at the name of the most sweeping piece of climate-focused legislation ever passed by Congress. It’s the “Inflation Reduction Act” — a sign that the best way to sell enough US legislators and the public on climate action was to package it around a bill ostensibly designed to reduce the shorter-term pain of inflation. The bill was full of big-ticket investments in clean energy, along with some concessions on fossil fuel infrastructure needed to bring key West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) on board. There wasn’t an emissions cap in sight. This was a bill taken primarily from the Breakthrough playbook — not that of the activists.

Not that Nordhaus is shy about telling the world this fact. “At the risk of a bit of hubris,” he wrote in an essay published last month, “I think it is fair to say that on almost every one of these issues, time has proven me, my colleagues at the Breakthrough Institute, and a small group of fellow travelers correct.” After all, what’s a bad boy without a little hubris — especially when you have Nordhaus’s track record?