Michael Shellenberger is many things: nuclear energy advocate, author, and contrarian. But as he argues in his contentious new book, Apocalypse Never, he’s also an apostate to an environmental movement that has become increasingly religious in its approach.
“The trouble with the new environmental religion,” he writes, “is that it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating.” That’s why, he says, he’s “formally apologizing” on behalf of “environmentalists everywhere.”
Now, this is a bit like Donald Trump apologizing on behalf of all Christians for the behaviour of the Catholic church.
Shellenberger may have been an environmental activist as a teenager, and he has been willing in the past to acknowledge the threat posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions, but he’s been an advocate and lobbyist for the nuclear industry for the better part of two decades.
Rather than focusing on clean power regulations or carbon pricing, Shellenberger believes we ought to be betting on technology — and nuclear technology in particular. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the conflict of interest at work here.
In 2007, he co-wrote a book (along with Ted Nordhaus, the nephew of Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus) called Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which embraced a pro-growth, pro-technology vision for the future and took aim at the environmental movement’s willingness to trade prosperity for protection.
But Shellenberger's new book takes that vision a step or two further, and focuses far more on the alleged dangers posed by those fighting climate change than climate change itself. “Climate change is happening,” he writes. “It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem.”
His book, though, very much is a problem for the environmental movement he pretends to apologize for. It represents a strategic retrenchment for the industries and individuals who have long resisted any efforts to take climate change seriously, away from the forward ramparts of rank denialism and towards the higher ground of gradualism.
That ground will be far more difficult to attack, and attempts to overwhelm it more likely to get bogged down in technical minutiae and policy wonkery. His story will create a permission structure for those who don’t want to take climate change seriously, and force those who do to wade through his argument.
That isn’t going to be pleasant work, either. As Peter Gleick, a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the 2018 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, noted in a recent review for Yale Climate Connections, “the book suffers from logical fallacies, arguments based on emotion and ideology, the setting up and knocking down of strawman arguments, and the selective cherry-picking and misuse of facts, all interspersed with simple mistakes and misrepresentations of science.”
In a world where science has become increasingly politicized, especially in the United States, those mistakes and misrepresentations could do meaningful damage to the public conversation around climate policy.
"For those looking for a reason not to take climate change seriously, Michael Shellenberger's argument is a compelling invitation to indifference."
Shellenberger isn’t the first prominent environmentalist to have an apparent conversion on the road to Damascus.
Patrick Moore, an activist who was involved with Greenpeace in its earliest days (and who likes to describe himself as a “founder” even though Greenpeace has denied that many times), has dined out for years on his decision to turn his back on the organization in 1986. In the decades that followed, and particularly the decade that just passed, Moore transformed into a familiar critic of climate policy and even the reality of climate change itself. His explanation for the shift — that the environmental movement “abandoned science and logic in favour of emotion and sensationalism” — is eerily familiar to Shellenberger’s.
But if Moore invented the repentant-environmentalist shtick, Shellenberger has perfected it. His story is far more compelling than Moore’s, and he will almost certainly sell many thousands of books because of it. After all, it’s clear that he believes sincerely in the environmental virtues of nuclear power, and the role it can play in decarbonizing the global economy.
It’s also equally clear that he’s willing to overstate its potential benefits and undersell those of renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, in ways and with facts that the average person may not understand or appreciate. For those looking for a reason not to take climate change seriously, his argument is a compelling invitation to indifference.
The good news for climate activists is that Shellenberger is swimming against an increasingly strong tide.
Global financial institutions are not as easily swayed by rhetoric, and they are not about to discount the environmental and financial risks associated with climate change. Morgan Stanley recently announced that it would start reporting on how its loan book and other investments contribute to climate change, and it’s hard to imagine that other American banks won’t follow in its footsteps. It also is joining the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, whose membership includes 66 financial companies that collectively manage $5.3 trillion US of assets.
And while Shellenberger may not believe in the economic and environmental benefits of wind and solar energy, others aren’t nearly as skeptical. Texas, of all places, recently joined the growing list of places that produces more energy from wind and solar than coal, and that list will only grow as the cost of wind and solar continues to drop. The European Union recently announced that 30 per cent of its nearly two trillion euro economic recovery plan will go to climate-oriented investments, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged $2 trillion worth of spending on things like renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Polemicists like Shellenberger may be able to slow this progress, provided politicians are willing to listen to them, but they cannot stop it. His work will be welcomed by those who seek out reasons not to take climate change seriously, but their numbers seem to shrink with each passing day.
They’re now fighting a rearguard battle, whether they realize it or not. And while Shellenberger’s message will have its audience, it may not age as well as he hopes. In time, he may even find himself apologizing for his apology.