The United Nations calls climate change “the defining crisis of our time,” adding that “no corner of the globe is immune from [its] devastating consequences,” and that its “infinite cost” is reaching “irreversible highs.” American environmentalist Michael Shellenberger agrees that global warming is real. But in his new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (Harper Collins, June 2020), he contends that it’s neither a crisis nor the end of the world.
In December 2017 National Geographic posted what it called a “heart-wrenching” video of an emaciated, starving polar bear. The video, which originally claimed that “this is what climate change looks like,” went viral and reached up to 2.5 billion viewers. Micheal Shellenberger says polar bear famine is a myth (253). The latest numbers from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group show no discernable trend: of 19 subpopulations of polar bears, two have increased, four have decreased, five are stable, and the data for the other eight are insufficient to draw a conclusion. Fittingly, the cover of Shellenberger’s book depicts a healthy-looking polar bear sow nuzzling her cub. The message is clear: apocalyptic environmentalists are engaging in manipulative hyperbole (for the record, in June 2018 National Geographic issued a correction, admitting that it had gone “too far in suggesting that climate change was responsible“ for the polar bear’s condition).
Science or shibboleth
Shellenberger cites study after study to disprove numerous other supposed environmental “facts” (links are provided to the studies available online). The Amazon rain forest is the lungs of the planet and thus crucial to the earth’s supply of oxygen, right? No, the Amazon’s net oxygen contribution is “effectively zero” (30). Climate change is responsible for the increase in the number and severity of forest fires in California and Australia, isn’t it? No, although temperature is a factor, it’s likely insignificant compared with the sharp rise in the number of people living near forests (5). Global warming is making extreme weather more deadly and damaging? No, death rates and economic loss from natural hazards “dropped by 80 to 90 percent” from 1980 to 2016 (4). Warmer temperatures will lead to food shortages? No, global food production can continue to increase even if temperatures rise 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (12). Shellenberger has similarly anti-apocalyptic news about everything from the decomposition of polystyrene (which may just take a few decades, not centuries) to global land use for meat production (which has shrunk substantially since 2000).
What about Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that 2030 is a crucial tipping point for the human race’s survival? It rests on a misreading of the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Shellenberger clarifies that the report actually says that “in order to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times, carbon emissions need to decline 45 percent by 2030. The IPCC did not say the world would end, nor that civilization would collapse, if temperatures rose above 1.5 degrees Celsius” (4).
Ending environmental colonialism
Shellenberger aims to do more, however, than debunk environmental alarmism. He wants to increase prosperity and opportunity in developing countries, while reducing environmental and climate impacts worldwide. His prescription? Help poor countries develop manufacturing industries and modernize their agriculture: “Increased wealth from manufacturing is what allows nations to build the roads, power plants, electricity grids, flood control, sanitation, and waste management systems that distinguish poor nations … from rich nations” (90). Modern farming methods would enable developing countries to increase crop yields fivefold, improve soil qulity, and reduce their use of land, water, and fertilizer (90-91).
As for energy, Shellenberger believes the best way to cut carbon emissions is to move from wood to coal to petroleum to natural gas and, particularly, to hydroelectricity and nuclear power. Any step in this progression – a poor country converting from wood to coal, a rich one from coal to natural gas – reduces emissions and is thus climate-friendly. What about wind and solar? Their land requirements, Shellenberger says, render them at best a partial solution. The United States, for example, currently meets all its energy needs using just 0.5 percent of its land mass; converting entirely to renewables would raise this to 25 percent to 50 percent (191).
For Shellenberger, the elimination of wood fuel – which billions of people still use daily for cooking – is particularly urgent, since indoor emissions from this type of cooking kill nearly 4 million people prematurely each year. He points out, however, that “the World Bank is diverting funding from cheap and reliable energy sources like hydroelectricity, fossil fuels, and nuclear, to expensive and unreliable ones like solar and wind,” while the European Investment Bank will phase out funding for fossil-fuel projects in developing countries by 2021 (225). He considers these to be regrettable examples of environmental colonialism – “rich nations … depriv[ing] poor ones of the technologies responsible for our prosperity” (228).
Let the arguments begin
Is Shellenberger right? The Wall Street Journal says yes, the Guardian no. Climate scientist Peter Gleick published a long refutation of the book, Shellenberger an equally long refutation of Gleick’s refutation. For his part, renowned American science journalist John Horgan called the book “a useful and even necessary counterpoint to the alarmism being peddled by some activists and journalists, including me,“ adding “let the arguments begin!” They can begin below in the comments section.