I just listened to Michael Shermer’s interview of Michael Shellenberger on his new book Apocalypse Never.
Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:
Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.
But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.
Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.
Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.
What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.
Key points from the interview:
- It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
- Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
- Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
- There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
- People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
- CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
- Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
- Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
- The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
- Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
- People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
- Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
- Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
- Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
- The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.
To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:
- A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
- Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
- There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.
I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:
- Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
- If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
- Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
- The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.
People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.
Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.
I’ve added Shellenberger to my list of famous polymaths in denial.
On the other hand, if you think Shellenberger is right, then I’ve got just the tune for you.