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On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare

On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years. Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem. I may seem like a strange person to be saying all of this. I have been a climate activist for 20 years and an environmentalist for 30.

But as an energy expert asked by Congress to provide objective expert testimony, and invited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to serve as expert reviewer of its next assessment report, I feel an obligation to apologize for how badly we environmentalists have misled the public.

Here are some facts few people know:

  • Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

  • The Amazon is not “the lungs of the world”

  • Climate change is not making natural disasters worse

  • Fires have declined 25 percent around the world since 2003

  • The amount of land we use for meat—humankind’s biggest use of land—has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska

  • The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California

  • Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have been declining in Britain, Germany, and France since the mid-1970s

  • The Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level

  • We produce 25 percent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter

  • Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change

  • Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels

  • Preventing future pandemics requires more not less “industrial” agriculture

I know that the above facts will sound like “climate denialism” to many people. But that just shows the power of climate alarmism.

In reality, the above facts come from the best-available scientific studies, including those conducted by or accepted by the IPCC, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other leading scientific bodies.

Some people will, when they read this, imagine that I’m some right-wing anti-environmentalist. I’m not. At 17, I lived in Nicaragua to show solidarity with the Sandinista socialist revolution. At 23 I raised money for Guatemalan women’s cooperatives. In my early 20s I lived in the semi-Amazon doing research with small farmers fighting land invasions. At 26 I helped expose poor conditions at Nike factories in Asia.

I became an environmentalist at 16 when I threw a fundraiser for Rainforest Action Network. At 27 I helped save the last unprotected ancient redwoods in California. In my 30s I advocated renewables and successfully helped persuade the Obama administration to invest $90 billion into them. Over the last few years I helped save enough nuclear plants from being replaced by fossil fuels to prevent a sharp increase in emissions.

But until last year, I mostly avoided speaking out against the climate scare. Partly that’s because I was embarrassed. After all, I am as guilty of alarmism as any other environmentalist. For years, I referred to climate change as an “existential” threat to human civilization, and called it a “crisis.”

But mostly I was scared. I remained quiet about the climate disinformation campaign because I was afraid of losing friends and funding. The few times I summoned the courage to defend climate science from those who misrepresent it I suffered harsh consequences. And so I mostly stood by and did next to nothing as my fellow environmentalists terrified the public.

I even stood by as people in the White House and many in the news media tried to destroy the reputation and career of an outstanding scientist, good man, and friend of mine, Roger Pielke, Jr., a lifelong progressive Democrat and environmentalist who testified in favor of carbon regulations. Why did they do that? Because his research proves natural disasters aren’t getting worse.

But then, last year, things spiraled out of control.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” Britain’s most high-profile environmental group claimed “Climate Change Kills Children.”

The world’s most influential green journalist, Bill McKibben, called climate change the “greatest challenge humans have ever faced” and said it would “wipe out civilizations.” Mainstream journalists reported, repeatedly, that the Amazon was “the lungs of the world,” and that deforestation was like a nuclear bomb going off.

As a result, half of the people surveyed around the world last year said they thought climate change would make humanity extinct. And in January, one out of five British children told pollsters they were having nightmares about climate change. Whether or not you have children you must see how wrong this is. I admit I may be sensitive because I have a teenage daughter. After we talked about the science she was reassured. But her friends are deeply misinformed and thus, understandably, frightened. I thus decided I had to speak out. I knew that writing a few articles wouldn’t be enough. I needed a book to properly lay out all of the evidence.

 And so my formal apology for our fear-mongering comes in the form of my new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. It is based on two decades of research and three decades of environmental activism. At 400 pages, with 100 of them endnotes, Apocalypse Never covers climate change, deforestation, plastic waste, species extinction, industrialization, meat, nuclear energy, and renewables.

Some highlights from the book:

  • Factories and modern farming are the keys to human liberation and environmental progress

  • The most important thing for saving the environment is producing more food, particularly meat, on less land

  • The most important thing for reducing air pollution and carbon emissions is moving from wood to coal to petroleum to natural gas to uranium

  • 100 percent renewables would require increasing the land used for energy from today’s 0.5 percent to 50 percent

  • We should want cities, farms, and power plants to have higher, not lower, power densities

  • Vegetarianism reduces one’s emissions by less than 4 percent

  • Greenpeace didn’t save the whales, switching from whale oil to petroleum and palm oil did

  • “Free-range” beef would require 20 times more land and produce 300 percent more emissions

  • Greenpeace dogmatism worsened forest fragmentation of the Amazon

  • The colonialist approach to gorilla conservation in the Congo produced a backlash that may have resulted in the killing of 250 elephants

Why were we all so misled?

In the final three chapters of Apocalypse Never I expose the financial, political, and ideological motivations. Environmental groups have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests. Groups motivated by anti-humanist beliefs forced the World Bank to stop trying to end poverty and instead make poverty “sustainable.” And status anxiety, depression, and hostility to modern civilization are behind much of the alarmism.

Once you realize just how badly misinformed we have been, often by people with plainly unsavory or unhealthy motivations, it is hard not to feel duped. Will Apocalypse Never make any difference? There are certainly reasons to doubt it.

The news media have been making apocalyptic pronouncements about climate change since the late 1980s, and do not seem disposed to stop. The ideology behind environmental alarmism—Malthusianism—has been repeatedly debunked for 200 years and yet is more powerful than ever.

But there are also reasons to believe that environmental alarmism will, if not come to an end, have diminishing cultural power. The coronavirus pandemic is an actual crisis that puts the climate “crisis” into perspective. Even if you think we have overreacted, COVID-19 has killed nearly 500,000 people and shattered economies around the globe.

Scientific institutions including the World Health Organisation and IPCC have undermined their credibility through the repeated politicization of science. Their future existence and relevance depends on new leadership and serious reform. Facts still matter, and social media is allowing for a wider range of new and independent voices to outcompete alarmist environmental journalists at legacy publications.

Nations are reverting openly to self-interest and away from Malthusianism and neoliberalism, which is good for nuclear and bad for renewables. The evidence is overwhelming that our high-energy civilization is better for people and nature than the low-energy civilization that climate alarmists would return us to.

The invitations from IPCC and Congress are signs of a growing openness to new thinking about climate change and the environment. Another one has been to the response to my book from climate scientists, conservationists, and environmental scholars. “Apocalypse Never is an extremely important book,” writes Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. “This may be the most important book on the environment ever written,” says one of the fathers of modern climate science Tom Wigley.

“We environmentalists condemn those with antithetical views of being ignorant of science and susceptible to confirmation bias,” wrote the former head of The Nature Conservancy, Steve McCormick. “But too often we are guilty of the same. Shellenberger offers ‘tough love:’ a challenge to entrenched orthodoxies and rigid, self-defeating mindsets. Apocalypse Never serves up occasionally stinging, but always well-crafted, evidence-based points of view that will help develop the ‘mental muscle’ we need to envision and design not only a hopeful, but an attainable, future.”

That is all I hoped for in writing it. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ll agree that it’s perhaps not as strange as it seems that a lifelong environmentalist, progressive, and climate activist felt the need to speak out against the alarmism.

I further hope that you’ll accept my apology.

 

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. He is the author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us AllFollow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.

Feature image: The author in Maranhão, Brazil in 1995.

Comments

  1. A much needed (though belated) apology, coupled with a well crafted and well executed marketing technique. I’ll buy your book just for that. I love great marketing.

  2. “The most important thing for reducing air pollution and carbon emissions is moving from wood to coal to petroleum to natural gas to uranium.” Bingo!

    The one myth Mr. Shellenberger fails to mention is that climate change and other environmental critics are not in favor of dirty, water, air or promoting habitat loss. Energy and land use efficiency are the best methods of protecting the environment and preserving habitat. Dedicating thousands of acres to bird killing windmills that only produce part time energy is a bad idea. Producing and charging environmentally unfriendly batteries is likewise a bad idea. Just like opting for more plastic bags proved to be a bad idea. The problem with the modern day environmental movement is that it is NOT FOR the environment, it is just AGAINST things; oil, nuclear, hydroelectric, fracking, GMOs, irradiation, ect… It abhors all these scientific advancements while self proclaiming to be the people of science. The people of bad science would be more apt.

    Side question for my solar friends…Why does solar energy rely upon photovoltaic cells? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a water tank to produce steam which could in turn run a generator?

  3. They did that in California didn’t they? It roasts birds mid air. I suppose you could open a wild-life restaurant near by, and call it Synergy. Airborne Bald Eagle, avec Sand, being the most featured item on the menu.

  4. “At 17, I lived in Nicaragua to show solidarity with the Sandinista socialist revolution. At 23 I raised money for Guatemalan women’s cooperatives. In my early 20s I lived in the semi-Amazon doing research with small farmers fighting land invasions. At 26 I helped expose poor conditions at Nike factories in Asia. I became an environmentalist at 16 when I threw a fundraiser for Rainforest Action Network. At 27 I helped save the last unprotected ancient redwoods in California.”

    We get it, you’re wealthy.

    Your absurd resume just made me realize how hard it must be to gain social status in wealthy communities. When I was 17 I merely had to get into college and occasionally do charity work through our church to be considered a success. I’d still choose working a soup kitchen in Detroit over pledging allegiance to Sandinistas any day.

  5. There is nothing bizarre in recent weather patterns. They are the same as they’ve been for a long time, and at other points during geographic history of the planet. What is bizarre is the media coverage of perfectly ordinary weather patterns, along with human peculiar insistence on living in the path of natural “disasters” such as right next to active volcanoes, or on flood plains.

  6. Yes, as TidyPrepster says, much of what you read or see in the media as “unprecedented” that or record this is nothing particularly unusual. The recent Aussie bush fires a case in point. The '74/'75 fire season burned seven times the area; that was at a time when we’d had over thirty years of declining temperatures and an impending ice age was the worry du jour.

    There was a heat wave in Western Europe a couple of years ago. Our main TV news ran the story; a few shots of folk cooling down in public fountains, that sort of thing, was followed by a solid four minutes of library footage of collapsing icebergs, dry cracked earth complete with desiccated skeleton, raging tempests, floods, famine and teaming hordes of refugees. All rounded off with the obligatory stranded polar bear. The not so subtle message being that we’re all going to starve, fry, drown or otherwise die a hideous death and completely wreck the planet in the process. Turns out the so called heat wave was nothing particularly unusual; the result of combined weather systems bringing hot air north from the Sahara.
    You have to dig around a bit Corinna, most of what we’re being told is complete nonsense.

  7. I was a Sandalista back in the day. (that was a thing, and it meant just what it sounds like)-- El Salvador as well. Worked for USAID in Africa on food security. Did my graduate work on agricultural ecology at Davis. I read Our Common Future in 1987 or so, and i was ‘woke’.

    I took a similar path to the author, and one crack in the lefty armor at a time (wait, GMO’s are good at getting more food per acre, and that could save African forests?) came to similar conclusions about the left wing party line on a whole host of environmental talking points.

    After my house burned in one of those raging fire storms, fueled by a generation of misguided libtard forest land mismanagement - and so abnormal fuel loads - i came to realize the US left had completely fucked up everything in the world. All Lives Matter. I cant wonder if the author’s journey pushed thru all the dark bullcrap of lefty environmental group think, and entered into the light of logic and reason and honest discourse.

    Ayauasca in Ojai, anyone? (sarcasm)

    It is lonely being a post-left environmentally concerned person in California.

  8. Given that this article is at least suggesting the possibility that folks on the AGW side could consider evidence and reason such that they “change sides”, I’m curious, K_Dershem, as someone who is convinced the science is clear and settled, what would it take for you to “switch sides?”

    Two parts to switching sides. First, the author makes it clear they still believe in anthropocentric global warming, just that it’s not the catastrophic version many are claiming. So switching sides doesn’t mean becoming a “denier”, it just means arguing about the details and degree of the catastrophic-ness of global warming.

    Second, the author gives a specific list of examples where they argue there is less than compelling evidence in favor of the catastrophic predictions or framing of AGW folks (or actual evidence against their position). One could still believe in AGW, even believe in the catastrophic-ness of it, but acknowledge in the short term, crop yields would go up, polar bears won’t all die tomorrow and we probably have more than 12 years until humans go extinct.

    Given that, are there any AGW positions you acknowledge are hyperbole or outright scare mongering? Let’s take extreme rhetoric like AOC saying the world’s gonna end in 12 years off the table, anything in the IPCC report or proposed by mainstream AGW scientists that is too extreme or factually incorrect?

    I thought it ironic that his first point was the mass extinction point. It’s such a simple, basic, logical truth, that AGW folks had to change a definition that had existed in environmental science for the last hundred years or so. Instead of mass extinction actually meaning mass extinction, now it means the rate at which species are going extinct and the projected species loss if this trend continues for the next 10,000 years give or take a few thousand :slight_smile:

    It is clear that this is a recent change and it’s pretty hard to come up with any other explanation for the change other than it allows for biologists to make a similar claim arguing that the effects of AGW are catastrophic and they are already happening.

    Can you think of a reason other than motivation for changing the definition of what a mass extinction event means? And if you start changing the what the fundamental terms of science mean so that you can exert an influence on popular/political thought, how is that not what the author is saying?

  9. Well it’s been close to 15 years since Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, and the world fell for it. The madness is nowhere near over, though even Michael Moore is questioning it (though YouTube pulled the video). Also, I wonder when people can start questioning the coronavirus, or the lockdown. Another 15 years from now?

  10. Thanks for the recommendation. Here’s the direct link in case anyone is interested: https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/29/arctic-heat-overwhelms-green-infighting-issues/

    However, I’m not sure this is an adequate rebuttal to Schellenberger. In one passage, the author writes:

    “Shellenberger, who evidently promotes industrialization as humanity’s savior, actually suggests, not facetiously, capitalist entrepreneurs saved whales by discovering cheap substitutes for whale oil, like petroleum. Ahem!”

    I’m not researched enough to know the veracity of Schellenberger’s other claims, but this one is absolutely, unequivocally true! In fact, it’s patently obvious. Nobody really liked whale oil anyway. It was death defying to capture, gruesome to process, and stank and smoked a lot. Read Richard Rhodes’ “Energy: A Human History” for more about this.

    That the author would lead with this example as a rebuttal to Schellenberger is just bizarre. Additionally, his colloquial and condescending tone was rather off-putting and didn’t lend his arguments any credence.

    Another passage:

    “Based upon Tierney’s review, Shellenberger is simply one more lifeline for the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street’s neoliberal dreamland advocacy. Although its constituency is quite narrow, the one percent plus a few lesser want-a-be millionaire/billionaire luminaries. So, who’s really left to buy the book?”

    Aha!!! Now we’re getting to it. No need to pay any attention to Shellenberger - he’s just a shill for oil companies and the wealthy. I’m just dumbfounded.

    Ok, I figured it out - the author, Robert Hunziker, is an “eco journalist” with no real scientific credentials that I can locate. Their tried and true formula for rebutting authors skeptical of climate change alarmism:

    1. Pull together a whole smattering of “evidence” of dubious quality or relevance like “…according to NASA, the Middle East’s drought cycle from 1998-2012 was the most severe in 900 years.” without offering any footnote, link, or context as to how this bit of knowledge was acquired or why it’s even useful.
    2. Tar them through guilt by association and cast aspersions on their credentials or motivations.
    3. Get published in Vox, HufPo, NYT, and 100 other outlets.

    I wouldn’t take this Hunziker guy too seriously.

  11. I think you’re underestimating QC. The article was good but not great, and a bit of a shameless plug for his book. I’m not a big fan of him dumping lists of facts, even though most to my knowledge are correct (i didn’t check all though, of course). And I’m glad he’s able to point out that there are indeed very many scientists who put no credence in the 12 year apocalypse theory, which has done more harm for rational climate science than anything.

    The real problem he exposes stays implicit, which is how activism and alarmism are out of touch with real science. You can see why, since his resume shows he spent more time in his youth being a know-it-all activist than learning anything. Reminds me of a certain Swedish girl. This is the real difference between people at a young age - those who think they should learn versus those who think they should act. A lot of the idiocy today is because we’ve forgotten to put the latter in their place.

    I have a friend in climate science (glaciology to be precise) and he has commented on how upset scientists feel about being misrepresented by both climate change activists (who make up their own more alarmist pseudoscience and want to enforce a political and economic program of dubious value) and climate change deniers. More precisely he says he thinks the activists are worst because they can do more harm. The word on the street is that a there are lot of scientists out there who really dislike St Greta of Arc for popularising wrong conclusions and claiming they are supported by science, and essentially turning a scientific issue into a religious one.

  12. I disagree. It was a theory eventually abandoned for lack of evidence. Initially the theory had an evidential basis, otherwise the line of inquiry would never have been pursued.

    However, my main point is that “speculation in an immature discipline” precisely characterizes decades long, future climate prediction. Our present day science is immensely powerful at describing the now, pretty descent at describing the past, and simply horrid at predicting the future more than a few years out at best. I mean hell, we’re all still waiting for the “paperless office”.

    I think we instinctively know this and simultaneously forget that hubris, desire for notoriety, misaligned incentives, and government pots of gold all have their thumbs on the scale. Science is human endeavor, after all.

    This quip has always made me chuckle a bit having worked in a university setting for 16 years. First of all what, exactly, is the conclusion? If we could define that very narrowly, then the statement may be true. But my observations lead me to believe that if you put two Ph.D’s in a room and ask them if it’s raining outside, you’ll walk away confused and the Ph.D’s will partner up to write a grant proposal.

    We shouldn’t lose sight of the very human elements running through climate science discourse. While none of us here are likely qualified to make dogmatic assertions about the science, we’re well within our right to hold much of it with skepticism.

  13. I would agree with this insofar as we can get a clear bearing on items that are well established and uncontroversial. I’m not exactly sure what those are and it’s very hard to determine through the activist and political hype. The term “settled science” seems to extend from “the greenhouse effect is actually a thing” all the way to “we’re all gonna die in 12 years”. (I know that’s hyperbolic but relevant) The average person might be forgiven for questioning the range of “knowledge” over which this term is applied.

    I’m not sure I see that here. What I see are folks who are fed up with the activist perversion of the science and trying to find answers. I think that is admirable.

    Another thing we all tend to forget is that not everything moves at internet time. Electronics and telecom, as a science, is settled to a point where we can make rapid and massive iterations on its efficacy and power. But this is a bounded and known science. Not so with climate science. It’s still unbounded, unknown, young, and chock full of variables.

    We live in a strange time when the bulk of our lives are, effectively, governed by magic that we trust implicitly with no question. Cars, stoves, HVAC, payment processing systems, phones…we have NO idea how any of this works. But climate science has “code smell” as software devs put it. Why is that? I think it’s because we’re asked to trust 1 step too far, and asked to sacrifice accordingly. From vaccines to climate change, we’re witnessing a growing distrust in scientific authority. I think this is an observation worth pondering beyond simple dismissal.

  14. You are in awe too much of the credentialed. There are scoundrels among them.

  15. Someone here, I don’t remember who, recently said “Science is never settled.”

    Science never sits still. I think that’s true.

    Come to think of it, most of the people who use the phrase “settled science” are not scientists.

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