Breakthrough Institute

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The Breakthrough Institute is a special interest group that has described itself as "a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors", established by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. On its website it states that it is "committed to creating a new progressive politics, one that is large, aspirational, and asset-based."[1] "committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century.”[2]

However, that description ocludes its major agenda of promoting nuclear energy, despite the severe risks of that technology as demonstrated by the catastrophic meltdowns of nuclear plants in Fukushima, Japan, and the Chenobyl plant in the Kyiv Oblast in Ukraine, in addition to the Three Mile Island radiation disaster near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

In practice, this has translated to advocating for nuclear energy as a "green energy" while opposing any policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through putting a price on carbon (a.k.a. pricing the externality).


Founded in 2003 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Breakthrough Institute has had policy programs it has described as covering the following issues: Energy and Climate, Economic Growth and Innovation, and Conservation and Development. It has also published a journal, held an annual conference, and funded a fellowship program for recent college graduates and grad students. [3]

The Breakthrough Institute has been skilled at securing positive PR and press coverage for its leaders and their claims, with references in the New York Times,[4] National Public Radio[5], the Wall Street Journal,[6] and C-SPAN.[7] Philosophically, the Breakthrough Institute is associated with the ecological modernist movement.[8][9]

Self-described "ecomodernists," they have asserted that technology, such as more nuclear plants (with no actual plan to dispose of nuclear waste in ways to do not risk substantial future harm), will mitigate climate change, while attacking measures to expand renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and divesting from the carbon industry. They have repeatedly claimed that expanding nuclear plants is necessary to address climate change and have also asserted that the climate disaster predicted by most scientists will likely not be as fast or as disastrous as predicted.[10]


Breakthrough’s president is Michael Shellenberger and the chairman is Ted Nordhaus.[11]

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Breakthrough Institute's website states that the Energy and Climate program is “focused on making clean energy cheap through technology innovation to deal with both global warming and energy poverty.”[12] The Conservation Program “seeks to offer pragmatic new frameworks and tools for navigating these challenges.”[13] And the Economic Growth and Innovation Program asserts that its goal is “to understand how economic growth and innovation happen in the real world and to consider the implications for policy makers.[14]


In 2004, Breakthrough founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger coauthored the essay, “Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.”[15] The paper argues that traditional environmentalism must die so that a new kind of politics can be born. The essay sparked a large debate in the environmental community,[16] which was covered by the New York Times[17] and Salon.[18] In 2007 Nordhaus and Shellenberger published their book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which was called "prescient" by Time[19]. It was also subject to a hyperbolic claim that it was "the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" by Wired Magazine.[20] Breakthrough has also argued that climate policy should be focused on making clean energy cheap through technological innovation and has been critical of climate policies like cap and trade that have attempted to create market incentives for reducing carbon pollution. [21] [22] Breakthrough has also pursued "third way" style triangulation to push nuclear plant investments. For example, in 2010, the Breakthrough Institute, along with the centrist Brookings Institution and rightwing American Enterprise Institute, published the report Post-Partisan Power, which calls for increased federal investment in "innovation" in order to make clean energy cheap.[23] [24] The report was widely praised and endorsed. [25] [26]

Breakthrough has engaged in extensive work showing that the federal government played a crucial role in the development of major technological innovations from the iPhone to the transcontinental railroad to fracking,[27]

In 2011, Breakthrough published findings showing that government had subsidized the controversial fracking industry.[28] [29] Its findings about fracking were cited by the Associated Press[30] In 2012, Breakthrough partnered with Brookings Institute and the World Resources Institute on the report Beyond Boom and Bust to "reform" energy policy in order to make clean energy technologies "subsidy independent."[31]

Breakthrough has also authored pieces pushing cheaper nuclear power,[32] and energy efficiency.[33]

Breakthrough Journal

In 2011, Breakthrough published the first issue of the Breakthrough Journal, which aims to “modernize political thought for the 21st century.”[34] The rightwing National Review called it “the most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time.”[35]


"The Breakthrough people and their allies, among whom one must include Lomborg and Roger Pielke, Jr. Pielke Jr. at this point..., are not asking for the technologically impossible. They are asking merely for the technologically possible at an economically impossible cheap price."[36] The other predominant criticism of the Breakthrough Institute is for it being pro-nuclear,[37] and for touting the fracking and burning of methane gas, one of the most destructive, long-term greenhouse gases.[38] "The Breakthrough people and their allies, among whom one must include Lomborg and Pielke Jr. at this point..., are not asking for the technologically impossible. They are asking merely for the technologically possible at an economically impossible cheap price."[2] "This disinformation campaign is almost entirely driven by fossil fuel companies and conservative media, politicians and think tanks. It is also advanced by the Breakthrough Institute and its president, Michael Shellenberger. His central myth -- a science fiction fantasy, really -- is that it would be possible to sharply reduce emissions without raising the cost of carbon pollution."[3]


Senior Fellows

2011 Fred Block Chris Foreman Peter Kareiva Steve Rayner Harry Saunders

2010 Ulrich Beck Chris Green Bruno Latour Gregory Nemet Daniel Sarewitz Bill Weihl

2009 David Douglas Frank Laird Siddhartha Shome

2008 Bill Chaloupka Dalton Conley Barbara Hill Marty Hoffert Frank Laird Cara Pike Roger Pielke Cara Pike Jim Proctor

Advisory Board

2011 Jane Bennett Christopher Foreman Natalie Jeremijenko Felix Kramer Celinda Lake Neesha Mirchandani Lawrence Wallack Adam Werbach Previously James Bernard Ginna Green Tommy McDonald Chuck Sabel Robin Templeton Elizabeth Wilcox


It has previously described its funding thus: "Virtually all of our funding comes from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, trustees of the ...Sara Lee pound cake fortune, and the Lotus Foundation, funded by members of the Pritzker family."[6]

Contact details

The Breakthrough Institute
  436 14th Street, Suite 820
  Oakland, CA 94612
  Phone: 510 550 8800


  1. "Our Mission", The Breakthrough Institute website, accessed May 2009.
  2. Mission. Breakthrough Institute.
  3. Breakthrough Institute.
  4. "The End of Clean Energy Subsidies?" (May 5, 2012). 
  5. Joyce, Christopher (March 11, 2012). "Nuclear Woes Push Japan Into A New Energy Future". 
  6. White, Joseph (January 27, 2011). "Obama’s Energy Shift: It’s Not About Climate". 
  7. "Role of Government in Energy Innovation" (May 22, 2012). 
  8. Pearce, Fred (July, 15 2013). "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope". 
  9. Kloor, Keith (December 12, 2012). "The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement". 
  10. Pearce, Fred (July, 15 2013). "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope". 
  11. People. Breakthrough Institute.
  12. Energy and Climate. Breakthrough Institute.
  13. Conservation and Development. Breakthrough Institute.
  14. Economic Growth and Innovation. Breakthrough Institute.
  15. Michael Shellenberger; Ted Nordhaus (2004). Death of Environmentalism. Breakthrough Institute.
  16. "A special series on the alleged “Death of Environmentalism”" (January 14, 2005). 
  17. Barringer, Felicity (February 6, 2005). "Paper Sets Off a Debate on Environmentalism's Future". 
  18. Mieszkowski, Katharine (January 14, 2005). "Dead movement walking?". 
  19. Walsh, Bryan (September 24, 2008). "Heroes of the Environment 2008". 
  20. Horowitz, Mark (September 25, 2007). "Two Environmentalists Anger Their Brethren". 
  21. Nordhaus, Ted (November 29, 2010). "How to Change the Global Energy Conversation". 
  22. Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Jeff Navin, Teryn Norris & Aden Van Noppen. Fast, Clean, and Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot. Breakthrough Institute.
  23. Steven Hayward, Mark Muro, Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger (October 12, 2010). Post-Partisan Power. Breakthrough Institute.
  24. Leonhardt, David (October 12, 2010). "A Climate Proposal Beyond Cap and Trade". 
  25. Levi, Michael. Digging into the "Post-Partisan Power" Study. Council on Foreign Relations.
  26. "Renewed Energy" (November 13, 2010). 
  27. Jesse Jenkins, Devon Swezey, Yael Borofsky. Where Good Technologies Come From. Breakthrough Institute.
  28. Shellenberger, Michael (December 16, 2011). "A Boom in Shale Gas? Credit the Feds.". 
  29. Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath, and Jesse Jenkins (May 23, 2012). Where the Shale Gas Revolution Came From. Breakthrough Institute.
  30. Begos, Kevin (September 23, 2012). "Fracking Developed With Decades of Government Investment". 
  31. Jenkins, Jesse; Mark Muro, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Letha Tawney, Alex Trembath (April 17, 2012). Beyond Boom and Bust. Breakthrough Institute.
  32. Ted Nordhaus; Jessica Lovering & Michael Shellenberger (July 7, 2013). How to Make Nuclear Cheap. Breakthrough Institute.
  33. Jesse Jenkins; Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger (February 17, 2011). Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena. Breakthrough Institute.
  34. About. Breakthrough Journal.
  35. Hayward, Steven (July 18, 2011). "An Environmental Reformation". 
  36. {{cite web publisher=Only In It For The Gold title=The Breakthrough Idea url= accessdate=2011-03-27 author=Michael Tobis date=2010-09-13 quote="We already have the technology. All the Breakthrough people are trying to do is negotiate with Nature over price. But Nature doesn't haggle.... Breakthrough thinking basically amounts to an idea that if we delay action on climate forcing, the price will go down. [but] It's clear that at some point, if we delay too long, the price will start to go up. The argument is only whether we have passed that point. }}
  37. Letzing, John (March 4, 2011). "Notebook: Environmentalists spar over nuclear power". 
  38. Carey, John (June 10, 2013). "Gas Pains".