Book review: Michael Shellenberger's reheated critique of climate 'alarmism' | RenewEconomy

Book review: Michael Shellenberger’s reheated critique of climate ‘alarmism’

Michael Shellenberger has been downplaying climate risks since 2010 if not earlier – his luke-warmism is reheated.

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Image source: AAP photos

California-based Michael Shellenberger first courted controversy in 2004 with his ‘death of environmentalism’ critique of the environment movement and has continued to attract controversy by promoting nuclear power, demonising renewable energy (“renewables are worse for the environment than fossil fuels”) and demonising the environment movement that he claims to be part of.

Shellenberger’s is now into ‘luke-warmism’ — downplaying the risks associated with climate change and attacking environmentalists for climate and environmental ‘alarmism’.

That’s the focus of his new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. In fact, Shellenberger has been downplaying climate risks since 2010 if not earlier — his luke-warmism is reheated.

A number of factual rebuttals of Shellenberger’s claims about environmental alarmism have been written, and more will follow (1,2,3,4,5). Climate Feedback asked six scientists to review Shellenberger’s lengthy opinion piece which promotes his book.

They found its overall scientific credibility to be ‘low’ and most found it indulged in cherry-picking and misleading statements.

Shellenberger’s claim that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse” is inaccurate and contradicts numerous scientific studies linking climate change to temperature extremes, drought, precipitation patterns, and wildfires.

His claims about species extinction are wrong, his claims about fires and their connection to climate change are misleading and contradict scientific studies, his claim that 100% renewables would require increasing the land used for energy from today’s 0.5% to 50% is wildly inaccurate, and so on.

Daniel Swain from UCLA and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research said Shellenberger’s article “presents a mix of out-of-context facts and outright falsehoods to reach conclusions that are, collectively, fundamentally misleading”.

Jennifer Francis from the Woods Hole Research Center said that “many statements are half-truths or based on cherry-picked information” and “some are outright false.”

Shellenberger’s luke-warmism reads like a PR campaign clumsily constructed by a fossil fuel company.

In response to sea level rise ‘alarmism’, he reassures us that “Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level”.

Right-wing, anti-environment supporters

Predictably, the right-wing, anti-environment media are amplifying Shellenberger’s messages. The Murdoch News Corp press has been especially excited — Shellenberger is “News Corps latest golden ”environmentalist’ … pushing the Murdoch line against renewables” according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Ketan Joshi joined the dots:

“Shellenberger appeared three times on Sky News Australia, a News Corp outlet that relies heavily on major advertising dollars from several key fossil fuel companies and lobby groups; eg Hancock Prospecting and the federal and NSW Minerals Council. He wrote or featured in ten articles in The Australian, which regularly places full page advertisements from the coal lobby.”

Climate science-denying organisations, including those with links to fossil fuel industries, are also falling over themselves to promote Shellenberger and his new book.

His interview with the far-right, fossil fuel-funded Heartland Institute — one of many such interviews — is mutual admiration from start to finish.

“Climate needs to have its importance diminished”, Shellenberger told the Heartland Institute. “The main function of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] appears to be to terrify people. I don’t know what else it does. … I’m not sure the organisation needs to exist any more,” he said.

Pro-nuclear frenemies

Shellenberger’s latest claims have attracted criticism even from some nuclear power advocates. Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel said he was “very concerned” about Shellenberger’s opinion piece and is reconsidering his position as an adviser to Shellenberger’s lobby group Environmental Progress.

Emanuel said Shellenberger is “embracing disinformation” and that there is “plenty of evidence” that climate change is making natural disasters worse despite Shellenberger’s claim to the contrary.

Climate scientist Tom Wigley said “some damage will be done” as Shellenberger’s words “may be misrepresented by people who don’t believe in human-caused global warming”.

Zeke Hausfather from the Breakthrough Institute (which Shellenberger co-founded in 2007) said that Shellenberger’s opinion piece includes a mix of “accurate, misleading, and patently false statements” and that “inaccurately downplaying real climate risks is deeply problematic and counterproductive”.

Hausfather said the Breakthrough Institute and Shellenberger are “not on friendly terms” and Shellenberger “in no way reflects our views”, partly because of disagreements “about the role of nuclear as a climate silver bullet vs. part of a broader portfolio of decarbonization technologies”.

Nuclear engineer Katie Mummah said: “Michael Shellenberger is not the only pro-nuclear environmentalist and many of us do not share his views on 1. whether or not climate change is a crisis 2. the value of renewables 3. how to communicate about nuclear energy 4. nuclear weapons.”

Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin writes:

“Michael Shellenberger’s “apology essay” is the last gasp of “ecomodernism”. Although ecomodernists make a lot of claims, the only one that is distinctive is that nuclear power is the zero-carbon “baseload” energy source needed to replace coal, and that mainstream environmentalists have wrongly opposed it.

“Historically, there is something to this. It would have been better to keep on building nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s than to switch from oil to coal, and it was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal.

“But none of that is relevant anymore, at least in the developed world. Solar PV and wind, backed up storage are far cheaper than either nuclear or coal. As a result, there have been very few new coal or nuclear plants constructed in developed countries in recent years. …

“At this point, Shellenberger is faced with the choice between admitting that the mainstream environmentalists were right or explicitly going over to the other side. He has chosen the latter.”

Technically accurate nuclear snapshot

Strangely, Shellenberger provides a good snapshot of the current state of nuclear power in Apocalypse Never, followed by this caveat: “While all of the above is technically accurate, I carefully excluded key facts in order to be misleading …”

Here’s a sample of his technically accurate snapshot:

“Every effort to make nuclear plants safer makes them more expensive, according to experts, and higher subsidies from governments are required to make them cost-effective.

Those soaring subsidies, combined with the financial cost of accidents like Fukushima, estimated to be between 35 trillion yen and 81 trillion yen ($315 billion to $728 billion) by one private Japanese think tank, make nuclear one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity.

“Meanwhile, from Finland and France to Britain and the United States, nuclear plants are way behind schedule and far over budget. Two new nuclear reactors at Britain’s Hinkley Point C were estimated to cost $26 billion but will now cost as much as $29 billion.

Expansion of a nuclear plant near Augusta, Georgia, which was supposed to take four years and cost $14 billion for two new reactors, is now expected to take ten years and cost as much as $27.5 billion. All of this makes nuclear too slow and expensive to address climate change, many experts say.

“Nuclear has what energy experts call a “negative learning curve,” meaning we get worse at building it the more we do it. Most technologies have a positive learning curve. Take solar panels and wind turbines, for instance. Their costs declined 75 percent and 25 percent, respectively, since 2011. The more we make of them, the better we get at it and the cheaper they become. …

“Today, the developed world is abandoning nuclear. Germany is almost done phasing it out.

France has reduced nuclear from 80 percent to 71 percent of its electricity and is committed to reduce it to 50 percent. In the United States, nuclear could decline from 20 percent to 10 percent of its electricity by 2030. Belgium, Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan are all phasing out their nuclear plants.”

That’s a good summary of the sickly state of nuclear power and it isn’t much changed by the “key facts” that Shellenberger “carefully excluded” – fringe claims about radiation and health, wishful thinking about nuclear economics, promoting nuclear weapons proliferation and celebrating the connections between nuclear power and weapons, etc.

Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter

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