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Michael Shellenberger: Anti-Energy Nihilism Behind Economic Crisis: ‘Is it a coincidence that the people who said Western civilization was unsustainable are making it so?’

Progressives say that, by restricting fossil energy production, they are defending civilization from climate change, which they say is causing heatwaves, droughts, and flooding. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refuse to significantly expand natural gas production to aid energy-hungry allies in Europe. The European Commission rejected a plan to help poor nations build fertilizer factories to overcome food shortages. And last week, California banned the sale of gasoline-powered cars and trucks in the state by 2035.

And yet each of those policies risks undermining civilization far more than climate change. European steel, glass, and fertilizer manufacturers are shutting down production due to high natural gas prices resulting from shortages. Lack of food and energy is pushing both rich and poor nations closer to the kind of social unrest that brought down the government of Sri Lanka in July. And last week, just days after California banned gas vehicles, the state’s electrical grid operator urged residents to not charge their electrical vehicles due to the high risk of blackouts.

Climate change is real, and something we should limit as much as possible, but there is no increasing trend in U.S. heat wave frequency or magnitude, flooding in Pakistan declined from 1981 to 2016, and droughts are not increasing in severity or frequency in Europe. Far scarier are the charts of skyrocketing fertilizer and electricity prices due to Russia’s restriction and now halting of natural gas flows into Europe.

It’s not all bad news. European nations have successfully stored a significant amount of natural gas and should be able to keep most of their citizens warm through the winter. And California’s legislature last week voted to keep our last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, on-line, after previously trying to shut it down.

But Europe cannot fully replace the natural gas it is losing from Russia, nations are still failing to produce sufficient fertilizer to avert hundreds of millions of additional hunger-related deaths, and California is producing too little reliable electricity to charge the fewer than 2% of its vehicles that are electric today, and has no plan to significantly expand reliable power to charge a 100% all-electric fleet in the future.

Worse, politicians, activists, and journalists in the West are doubling down on the same failed policies, even though they are undermining their own stated objectives. Greta Thunberg last month denounced nuclear power, even though the closure of nuclear plants in her native Sweden is resulting in the burning of oil for electricity. Greenpeace Germany last week came out in support of burning more coal, rather than keeping the nation’s nuclear plants on-line. And Germany and Belgium both still intend to shut down their nuclear plants.

As for California, while it took a good step forward in keeping Diablo Canyon on-line, it only did so after three years of blackouts in a row, and record-high levels of electricity consumption. Meanwhile, lawmakers have yet to confront the fact that the state will need the equivalent of 10 full-size nuclear plants the size of Diablo Canyon if it is to provide power for 30 million cars and trucks.

Why is that? Why are the people who say they want to save civilization actively undermining it?

The main reason policymakers are pursuing pro-scarcity policies is because they, along with most of the public, believe the environment is getting worse, not better. The share of Americans who say the state of the environment is fair or poor rose from 49% to 61% between 2015 and 2022. Movies and television reinforce this perception. In David Cronenberg’s new film, “Crimes of the Future,” industrial waste, such as from microplastics, has become so prevalent that people’s bodies start evolving so they can eat it.

But almost every major environmental trend is improving. Lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide pollutants declined 99%, 91%, and 61% between 1980 and 2018, according to the U.S. EPA. It’s true carbon emissions are rising again. But that’s because natural gas shortages are forcing nations to burn more coal, which is twice as polluting. Carbon emissions globally were flat over the last decade and declined 22% in the U.S. from 2005 and 2020. And there is little evidence that microplastics actually harm human health, something Cronenberg himself acknowledged.

Why, then, do people think things are getting worse?