A review of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,” by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 432 pages, $29.99)
The book should be required reading for politicians. It should also be required reading for Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and the handful of other online communications titans who exercise almost total control over what facts and opinions make their way into public discourse. This book also belongs in the hands of climate activist journalists, for whom a 16-year-old truant is an oracle with unassailable credibility, while contrarian scientists and economists are only targets for smear campaigns.
Needless to say, Shellenberger’s book has attracted furious rebuttals—this one in the Yale Climate Review is typical—but it is unlikely many of these critics read the book all the way through or approached it with an open mind. One of Shellenberger’s primary points is that while climate change is occurring, it is not the biggest global environmental threat and that policies to “fight climate change” are causing some of the most harm to the environment. So-called “renewable energy” is a prime example of this.
Renewable Energy Renews the Power of Special Interests
To debunk the supposed environmental benefits of renewable energy, Shellenberger makes frequent reference to the concept of power density. In this analysis, nuclear energy comes out on top, generating the most power while consuming the least amount of space. Power density takes into account the footprint of the generating plant, as well as the area required for extraction of construction material and fuel, the distribution grid, and the subsequent waste storage. Following nuclear is hydroelectricity, then fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources bring up the distant rear. In order, they are solar, wind, and biofuel/biomass.
The extreme amount of land consumed by renewables is only part of the problem. Because renewables supply intermittent power, backup has to be provided either in the form of grid-scale batteries or natural gas power plants. Shellenberger exposes the links between fossil fuel interests and the pro-renewable-but-anti-nuclear lobby and makes a convincing case that there is a synergy between the two. By blocking nuclear power, which offers a continuous supply of electricity, expansion of quick-start natural gas power plants become necessary to fill in when the sun is down and the wind falters.
In a section that constitutes a goldmine for political foes of California’s aristocratic families headed by the Brown, Getty, Newsom, and Pelosi clans, Shellenberger spells out exactly how this clique used its influence to protect their oil and gas interests at the same time as they have steadily worked to eliminate nuclear power. This is a scandal ripe for further investigation.
Renewables don’t just consume land and cause increased use of fossil fuel to provide the necessary backup power, they’re killing wildlife. Lots of wildlife. Defenders of wind power make the stunningly deceptive claim that “house cats kill more birds than windmills.” This knowingly ignores the fact that cats don’t kill endangered raptors, they kill common sparrows. Windmills, on the other hand, are slaughtering raptors at alarming rates, along with bats and insects. In all three cases, this is no joke. Any competent ecologist will explain the threat of extinction posed by windmills to these species, as well as how essential their survival is to ecosystem health.
Land Use Impact and “Sustainable Agriculture”
To dwell exclusively on Shellenberger’s takedown of renewables would not do justice to the rest of his book. One of his primary themes is the land use impact of various policy choices, not only in the context of renewables but also with respect to agriculture and livestock. He explains that adopting modern agricultural practices is a more significant variable, by an order of magnitude, than climate change in affecting crop yields. He explains the potential of indoor agriculture, aquaculture, and mechanized agriculture to dramatically reduce the land required for global food production. He even cites studies that find “industrial beef” requires “fourteen to nineteen times less land than pasture beef.”
This point, that “renewable” energy and “sustainable” agriculture are causing far more harm than benefit to the environment, is lost on the climate activist lobby. Shellenberger devotes a chapter in his book to explaining how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has become politicized, and that the “Summary for Policymakers” they periodically release often misrepresents the source reports to highlight worst-case scenarios. These hyped summaries are then selectively quoted by activist journalists and agenda-driven politicians to exaggerate the IPCC findings even more. Pursuant to this message, no price is too great. If climate change is going to destroy the planet any day now, it doesn’t matter if the forests burn to fuel cooking fires, or windmills and solar farms destroy habitats and species.
For those of us who already are convinced that climate change is not an existential threat, but a manageable one that may take its place among a host of other serious challenges, no further discussion is required. Politicians are corrupt, business investors are opportunistic, scientists are politicized, socialists exploit the climate agenda, and ordinary people find meaning in the climate crusade that previous generations found in religion and patriotism. Enough said.
The Case for Big Infrastructure
Something else Shellenberger highlights, however, bears special emphasis. He makes a case for big infrastructure. Not only nuclear power plants but also hydropower and power grids. He describes the plight of Africans for whom reliable supplies of water and energy would completely transform their lives. Big infrastructure in Africa would enable prosperity, political stability, and space-efficient agriculture. It would eliminate the need to forage for wood or hunt game. It would take pressure off nature preserves. It would allow African nations to acquire the development and demographic trajectory already achieved or well underway in the rest of the world; a stabilizing population, female emancipation, lower infant mortality, higher life expectancy, increased literacy, better public health, urbanization. Instead, Shellenberger writes, “sustainable” development aid rarely funds infrastructure in Africa.
An example of a project that attracts almost universal condemnation from the global environmentalist is the Grand Inga Dam complex on the Congo River. If completed, these hydroelectric dams would generate far more power than the Three Gorges Dam in China; possibly exceeding 40 gigawatts of continuous electricity. Overall, Africa’s hydroelectric potential has barely been tapped. Africa also lacks a reliable electricity grid, or a natural gas pipeline network. With the exception of South Africa, there are no nuclear power plants in Africa.
The economic and environmental benefits of big infrastructure in Africa not only would accrue to Africans, greatly improving their standard of living and quality of life. It is also an opportunity that American investors and civil engineering firms ought to seize, with the full support of the U.S. government. This not only would extend American influence in Africa and offer remunerative opportunities to American businesses, but it would also be a way to revive America’s nuclear power and civil engineering industries. Moreover, it would preclude other nations, most notably China and Russia, from stepping in to fill the vacuum.
Shellenberger’s Credentials Defy Cancellation
America’s response to the “climate crisis,” is set to go into overdrive if Biden becomes president next year. If it does it will make all of life’s essentials less affordable, especially for low-income Americans, and diminish America’s ability to do good in the rest of the world.
Virtually all climate skeptics attempt to stress this moral foundation, from the irrepressible Marc Morano to more nuanced “lukewarmist” experts such as economist Bjorn Lomborg or scientist Judith Curry, but they face an overwhelming political and cultural momentum that marginalizes their voices.
The consensus enforcers may have a tough time shoving Shellenberger into that box.
Shellenberger, who acknowledges climate change is a problem, just not an existential crisis, has impeccable credentials as an environmentalist. He has spent his entire life fighting for environmental causes and was one of the pioneering “ecomodernists,” a school of thought that sought ways to decouple economic growth from environmental destruction, and promoted practical and optimistic solutions. Shellenberger’s earlier book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, co-written with fellow environmentalist Ted Norhaus, earned him the distinction of becoming one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment 2008.”
To answer the deep need for meaning that apocalyptic environmentalism offers, Shellenberger concludes his book with a discussion of environmental humanism. As he puts it, “we need to go beyond rationalism and re-embrace humanism, which affirms humankind’s specialness, against Malthusian and apocalyptic environmentalists who condemn human civilization and humanity itself . . . we must ground ourselves first in our commitment to the transcendent moral purpose of universal human flourishing and environmental progress, and then in rationality.”
This environmental humanist agenda that prioritizes love for humanity is a direct challenge to climate alarmists, who must now answer the question, as Shellenberger writes “are they motivated by love for humanity or something closer to its opposite?” To emphasize his point, Shellenberger notes that saving the African gorillas, or, for that matter, the California condor, was not something we did because we needed the gorillas, or the condors, for our survival. We saved them because we love them. Surely we can find a way, in the beliefs and crusades that animate us, to do the same for our fellow humans.