My views on climate change—and, more generally, on humanity’s future—have never been stable. Depending on what I’m reading, and perhaps shifts in my neural weather, I ricochet between optimism and dread.
Last spring I was feeling pretty glum about, well, everything when iconoclastic environmental activist Michael Shellenberger sent me a prepublication copy of his book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.
Before I weigh in on the book, some background. Shellenberger is a controversial figure. For years, he has urged his fellow greens to adopt a more optimistic outlook, which he insists is more conducive to activism than fear. His influential 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, co-written with his fellow activist Ted Nordhaus, accused environmentalists of being hostile to science, technology and economic progress.
We need economic and technological development to overcome climate change and other environmental threats, Shellenberger and Nordhaus insisted. People are unlikely to care about polar bears, they pointed out, when they’re worried about feeding their children. Shellenberger and Nordhaus also faulted the environmental movement for being reluctant to acknowledge its successes, as if doing so will foster complacency.
The book annoyed some greens, but I liked its can-do spirit, and I thought my students would too. So, in 2008 I invited Shellenberger and Nordhaus to speak at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, and I gave them a $5,000 prize that I created, the Green Book Award. (I also gave the award to biologist Edward Wilson, oceanographer Sylvia Earle and climatologist James Hansen before my funding ran out.)
I chatted with Shellenberger on Bloggingheads.tv in 2008 and interviewed him and Nordhaus here at Scientific American in 2011. Later I attended conferences organized by their think tank, the Breakthrough Institute (see my reports here and here). These gatherings challenged conventional green thinking in ways that I found stimulating and healthy.
Some speakers critiqued the positions of Shellenberger and Nordhaus—for example, their support for nuclear energy. At a 2014 meeting, energy analyst Arnulf Grubler contended that nuclear power has a hard time competing with other energy sources, because, following a kind of reverse learning curve, its costs tend to rise over time. (Grubler lays out his arguments in this paper.)
Back to Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never. He asserts that human-induced climate change, while quite real, is less of a threat than many journalists and activists claim. He presents evidence that the risks of extreme weather events, wildfires and species extinction have been overblown, and that humanity is adapting to higher sea levels and temperatures.
In an online excerpt from his book, Shellenberger notes that according to a 2019 study death rates and economic damage from extreme weather events have “dropped by 80 to 90 percent during the last four decades.” He noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, estimates that by the end of this century “the global economy would be three to six times larger than it is today, and that the costs of adapting to a high (4 degrees Celsius) temperature rise would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) just 4.5 percent.” Shellenberger asked: “Does any of that really sound like the end of the world?”
Apocalypse Never cheered me up at a moment when I badly needed it. It serves as a counterweight to, for example, the claims of journalist David Wallace-Wells, a self-described alarmist. In his recent bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth Wallace-Wells contends, all too persuasively, that climate change is “worse, much worse, than you think” (see my review here).
Shellenberger asked if I’d write a blurb for his book, and I came up with this: “Apocalypse Never will make some green progressives mad. But I see it as a useful and even necessary counterpoint to the alarmism being peddled by some activists and journalists, including me. Let the arguments begin!” Shellenberger also got blurbs from heavyweights such as psychologists Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt and climate scientists Tom Wigley and Kerry Emanuel.
Apocalypse Never has indeed angered green progressives, as I predicted, and a mock “apology” with which Shellenberger promoted it unsettled some of his blurbers. The book has been criticized even by members of the Breakthrough Institute, which Shellenberger recently left. “While it is useful to push back against claims that climate change will lead to the end of the world or human extinction,” writes Zeke Hausfather, the institute’s director of climate and energy , “to do so by inaccurately downplaying real climate risks is deeply problematic and counterproductive.”
Conversely, the book has been praised in conservative media, such as the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal. In the latter, journalist John Tierney writes: “Mr. Shellenberger makes a persuasive case, lucidly blending research data and policy analysis with a history of the green movement and vignettes of people in poor countries suffering the consequences of ‘environmental colonialism.’”
The polarized reactions to Shellenberger remind me of those to John Ioannidis, the Stanford epidemiologist who has warned that our reaction to COVID-19 might be overblown. People judge the claims of Shellenberger and Ioannidis based less on their actual merits than on their perceived political implications. Optimism, whether toward the pandemic or global warming, is viewed as a conservative, pro-Trump position. Now more than ever, political polarization makes it hard to have a rational argument about scientific issues.
Although I stand by my blurb for Apocalypse Never, parts of the book made me wince. Shellenberger argues so aggressively for nuclear power that a former colleague, Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute, accuses him of “nuclear fetishism.” Shellenberger is so pro-nuclear that he even defends nuclear weapons. Dismissing the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons, he suggests that they can serve as a memento mori, a reminder of death that makes us cherish our fleeting lives.
Shellenberger’s positions on nuclear energy and arms strike me as discordant with his optimism and faith in human ingenuity. If a nuclear-energy revival doesn’t happen in this country—and it probably won’t, not because of green opposition but because its up-front costs are too high—surely we will be smart enough to adapt, to fulfill our needs with other technologies. And surely we can find a way to get rid of nuclear weapons as part of a global movement toward demilitarization. In short, my main gripe with Shellenberger isn’t that he’s too optimistic; it’s that he’s not optimistic enough.
He and I recently talked on Bloggingheads.tv about climate change, nuclear energy, war, the Green New Deal and other issues, and he defended his positions energetically and eloquently. I urge readers to watch the video and check out his book and other writings. Please try to set aside your political biases before you jump to any conclusions.