Name a self-promoting American who peddles falsehoods1, contradicts himself, misrepresents and attacks climate change science and scientists, and thinks that environmentalism is a dangerous, quasi-religious cult.
That's right, Michael Shellenberger, who first came to prominence with his 2004 'death of environmentalism' attack on the environment movement2, and has kept himself in the spotlight by promoting nuclear power, demonizing renewable energy ("renewables are worse for the environment than fossil fuels"3) and demonizing the environment movement that he claims to be part of.
Shellenberger's latest round of self-promotion involves 'luke-warmism' ‒ downplaying the risks associated with climate change and attacking environmentalists for climate 'alarmism'. That's the focus of his new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.4 Shellenberger has been misrepresenting and attacking climate science since 2010 if not earlier5 ‒ so his luke-warmism is reheated, and there's certainly nothing new about his demonization of environmentalists.
Shellenberger's current efforts to misrepresent and attack climate science read like a PR campaign clumsily constructed by a fossil fuel company. In response to sea level rise 'alarmism', he reassures us that "Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level".6
A number of factual rebuttals of Shellenberger's latest round of misinformation have been written, and more will follow.7-11 Climate Feedback asked six scientists to review Shellenberger's lengthy opinion piece6 which promotes his book.12 They found its overall scientific credibility to be 'low' and most found it guilty of cherry-picking and misleading statements.
For example, Shellenberger's claim that "climate change is not making natural disasters worse" is inaccurate and contradicts numerous scientific studies linking climate change to temperature extremes, drought, precipitation patterns, and wildfires. His claims about species extinction are wrong, his claims about fires and their connection to climate change are misleading and contradict scientific studies8, his claim that 100% renewables would require increasing the land used for energy from today's 0.5% to 50% is wildly inaccurate12,13, and so on.
Daniel Swain from UCLA and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research said Shellenberger's article "presents a mix of out-of-context facts and outright falsehoods to reach conclusions that are, collectively, fundamentally misleading".12 Jennifer Francis from the Woods Hole Research Center said that "many statements are half-truths or based on cherry-picked information" and "some are outright false."12
Right-wing, anti-environment supporters
Predictably, the right-wing, anti-environment media are amplifying Shellenberger's misinformation.14,15 The Murdoch News Corp. press has been especially excited15 ‒ Shellenberger is "News Corps latest golden ''environmentalist' … pushing the Murdoch line against renewables" according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.16
Ketan Joshi joined the dots:15
"Shellenberger appeared three times on Sky News Australia, a News Corp outlet that relies heavily on major advertising dollars from several key fossil fuel companies and lobby groups; eg Hancock Prospecting and the federal and NSW Minerals Council. He wrote or featured in ten articles in The Australian, which regularly places full page advertisements from the coal lobby."
Climate science-denying organizations, including those with links to fossil fuel industries, are also falling over themselves to promote Shellenberger and his new book. You might think that Shellenberger would tailor his message to his far-right, anti-environment, science-denying audience. Surely the message they need to hear is that climate science denial is irresponsible and intellectually indefensible. But Shellenberger just trots out his usual lines: climate alarmism is rife; renewables are worse than fossil fuels; the environment movement comprises power-hungry, fossil-fuel funded ideologues; and nuclear power is a "problem" for environmentalists because its potential to deliver vast amounts of energy undermines their agenda "to take control of big sectors of the economy by being alarmist about climate change".17
Shellenberger sometimes walks back absurd claims if confronted. When asked in an interview to justify his assertion that climate change "is not making natural disasters worse"6, he acknowledged that climate change is causing "more intense hurricanes, longer fire season, more heatwaves" but that adaptation has lessened their impacts.18 When interviewed by sympathizers ‒ i.e. anti-environment climate science deniers ‒ Shellenberger doesn't walk back his falsehoods, but doubles down. "Climate needs to have its importance diminished", he told the Heartland Institute.19 "The main function of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] appears to be to terrify people. I don't know what else it does. … I'm not sure the organization needs to exist any more," he told his approving interviewers.
The fossil-fuel funded Heartland Institute promotes itself as "the world's most prominent think-tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change."20 Yet Shellenberger commended his Heartland interviewers for "sounding the alarm" about environmental alarmism. "Honestly, thank you guys for having been sounding the alarm on these issues for longer than I have," he said. "I'm sorry it took me so long to basically get into a position where I could tell the truth."19
The Shellenberger / Heartland Institute interview is mutual admiration from start to finish. The Institute's Donald Kendal said: "I shouldn't be speaking on behalf of the Heartland Institute, but I am pretty sure I can confidently say that we are in this mission with you and we would be glad to help in any way possible."19
Conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and pop-psychology
Tied to his growing affection for the anti-environment far-right is Shellenberger's willingness to subject environmentalists to bizarre, inaccurate attacks. Here's an example of a thin thread of evidence being blown out into a worldwide conspiracy theory. Friends of the Earth (FOE) US might (or might not) have received a donation in 1969 from an 'oilman' who supported a number of environmental groups and initiatives. Shellenberger leaps from one questionable factoid to a conspiracy theory directed at the entire environment movement, writing in Apocalypse Never that FOE "was pioneering the environmental movement's strategy of taking money from oil and gas investors and promoting renewables as a way to greenwash the closure of nuclear plants."
So the entire environment movement is a fossil fuel-funded conspiracy to shut down the competing nuclear power industry!
Shellenberger accuses FOE and Greenpeace of accepting donations "from fossil fuel … investors" and has ignored repeated requests to correct that falsehood.1 He asserts that FOE is "fossil fuel-funded" and has ignored repeated requests to correct that falsehood. He asserts that donors and board members of FOE "are the ones who win the government contracts to build solar and wind farms, burn dirty "renewable" biomass, and import natural gas from the United States and Russia," and has ignored repeated requests to correct that falsehood. He asserts that FOE has hundreds of millions of dollars in its bank and stock accounts, and has ignored repeated requests to correct that falsehood. Shellenberger wrote in 2017 that "natural gas companies fund many of the anti-nuclear groups"21 ... yet another falsehood.
Conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and lashings of pop-psychology: FOE's "agenda has never been to protect humankind but rather to punish us for our supposed transgressions "; FOE "oppose cheap and abundant energy" because of "Malthusian anti-humanism"; and FOE aims to keep "poor countries poor".1
Shellenberger's latest round of misinformation and self-promotion has attracted criticism even from some nuclear power advocates. Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel said he was "very concerned" about Shellenberger's opinion piece6 and is reconsidering his position as an adviser to Shellenberger's lobby group Environmental Progress.22 Emanuel said Shellenberger is "embracing disinformation" and that there is "plenty of evidence" that climate change is making natural disasters worse despite Shellenberger's claim to the contrary.
Climate scientist Tom Wigley said "some damage will be done" as Shellenberger's words "may be misrepresented by people who don't believe in human-caused global warming".22
Zeke Hausfather from the Breakthrough Institute (which Shellenberger co-founded in 2007) said that Shellenberger's opinion piece includes a mix of "accurate, misleading, and patently false statements" and that "inaccurately downplaying real climate risks is deeply problematic and counterproductive".12 Hausfather said the Breakthrough Institute and Shellenberger are "not on friendly terms" and Shellenberger "in no way reflects our views", partly because of disagreements "about the role of nuclear as a climate silver bullet vs. part of a broader portfolio of decarbonization technologies".23
Nuclear engineer Katie Mummah said: "Michael Shellenberger is not the only pro-nuclear environmentalist and many of us do not share his views on 1. whether or not climate change is a crisis 2. the value of renewables 3. how to communicate about nuclear energy 4. nuclear weapons."24
James Hansen, a member of the advisory board of Environmental Progress, said: "Well-meaning souls, (including my friend Michael Shellenberger) rightfully concerned about the effect of "gloom-and-doom" talk on young people, say that everything is hunky-dory, climate change impacts are exaggerated (they often are) and climate change is not a serious threat (unfortunately, it is)."25
Shellenberger has gone full Trump. His facts are alternative. His attacks on environmentalism and renewable energy are as bizarre as Trump's. His self-promotion is Trumpian ‒ his long opinion piece promoting Apocalypse Never was removed because it violated Forbes' "editorial guidelines around self-promotion".22 His apology on behalf of the environment movement for climate alarmism betrays Trump-sized arrogance.6 His promotion of nuclear weapons proliferation26 and his downplaying of proliferation risks is "almost Trumpian in its incoherence" as one critic noted.27
The media are implicated in the conspiracy theories of both Trump and Shellenberger. "The activists and their media allies censor news articles. But eventually, the public will get to review the evidence and realize that the censors are wrong," Shellenberger wrote in an opinion piece for the Murdoch press.28
Industry funding might ‒ or might not ‒ offer a partial explanation for Shellenberger. An internal Nuclear Energy Institute report in 2017 said that the Institute had "engaged" Shellenberger "to engage with media through interviews and op-eds"29 The Institute later denied making any payments to Shellenberger but said that it had been a participant and registrant to meetings organized by Environmental Progress ‒ presumably for a fee.22 Desmog Blog notes that the largest donor to Shellenberger's failed run for California Governor in 2018 was Frank Batten Jr., who has testified on behalf of The Landmark Foundation promoting nuclear energy projects.30
In Apocalypse Never, Shellenberger says his previous "heightened anxiety" about climate change reflected "underlying anxiety and unhappiness in my own life that had little to do with climate change or the state of the natural environment." So perhaps there are psychological explanations for Shellenberger going full Trump?
A Trumpian inability to admit errors seems to be at play (leaving aside his faux apology for his previous climate 'alarmism'). Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin writes:31
"Michael Shellenberger's "apology essay" is the last gasp of "ecomodernism". Although ecomodernists make a lot of claims, the only one that is distinctive is that nuclear power is the zero-carbon "baseload" energy source needed to replace coal, and that mainstream environmentalists have wrongly opposed it.
"Historically, there is something to this. It would have been better to keep on building nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s than to switch from oil to coal, and it was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal. But none of that is relevant anymore, at least in the developed world. Solar PV and wind, backed up storage are far cheaper than either nuclear or coal. As a result, there have been very few new coal or nuclear plants constructed in developed countries in recent years. …
"At this point, Shellenberger is faced with the choice between admitting that the mainstream environmentalists were right or explicitly going over to the other side. He has chosen the latter."
Whatever the motives, Shellenberger's recent behavior has been "cynical and disingenuous" but effective in gaining media attention according to scientist Ken Rice.32 "If this wasn't such a serious topic, it might even be quite funny," Rice said.
1. 'Questions Michael Shellenberger won't answer, falsehoods he refuses to correct', https://nuclear.foe.org.au/michael-shellenbergers-pro-nuclear-lobby-grou...
4. Michael Shellenberger, 2020, 'Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All', https://www.harpercollins.com/9780063001695/apocalypse-never/
5. Tim Holmes, 20 April 2010, 'Debunking Shellenberger and Nordhaus, again', https://publicinterest.org.uk/debunking-shellenberger-and-nordhaus-again/
6. Michael Shellenberger, 29 June 2020, 'On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare', https://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2020/6/29/on-behalf-of-enviro...
7. Michael Tobis, 9 July 2020, 'Shellenberger's op-ad', http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2020/07/shellenbergers-op-ad/
8. Ketan Joshi unpacks Shellenberger's misinformation about bushfires and their connection to climate change: https://twitter.com/KetanJ0/status/1279882745980780550
10. Robert Hunziker, 1 July 2020, 'Arctic Heat Overwhelms Green Infighting Issues', https://www.pressenza.com/2020/07/arctic-heat-overwhelms-green-infightin...
12. Climate Feedback, 6 July 2020, 'Article by Michael Shellenberger mixes accurate and inaccurate claims in support of a misleading and overly simplistic argumentation about climate change', https://climatefeedback.org/evaluation/article-by-michael-shellenberger-...
13. EU Science Hub, 30 Sept 2019, 'Converting just 1% of land to renewable energy production can provide EU's electricity consumption', https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/converting-just-1-land-renewable-energy...
14. 9 July 2020, 'Fake environmentalist Mike Shellenberger spreads fake talking points to promote lie-filled book', https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/7/8/1959058/-Mike-Shellenberger-Wo...
15. Ketan Joshi, 5 July 2020, 'Why an attempt to gamergate Australian climate journalism fell flat', https://ketanjoshi.co/2020/07/05/why-an-attempt-to-gamergate-australian-...
17. Sky interview with Michael Shellenberger, https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/national/australia-must-pursue-a-fun...
18. Nick O'Malley interview with Michael Shellenberger, 7 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_2H09AUr-8
19. 5 July 2020, 'Heartland interviews Michael Shellenberger on his new book, Apocalypse Never', https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/heartland-interviews-michael..., https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=88&v=WG15on1PS9g&feature=emb...
21. Michael Shellenberger, July 2017, 'Why the World Needs South Korea's Nuclear', http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/7/24/chosun-op-ed-why-the...
22. Graham Readfearn, 4 July 2020, 'The environmentalist's apology: how Michael Shellenberger unsettled some of his prominent supporters', https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/04/the-environmentalist...
25. James Hansen, 7 July 2020, 'It's all hunky-dory, but… Regional climate change and national responsibilities', https://redgreenandblue.org/2020/07/07/dr-james-hansen-hunky-dory-region...
26. Nuclear Monitor #865, 6 Sept 2018, 'Nuclear lobbyist Michael Shellenberger learns to love the bomb, goes down a rabbit hole', https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/865/nuclear-lobbyist-m...
27. Sam Seitz, 6 Aug 2018, 'The Nonproliferation Regime Exists for a Reason, Let's Not Tear it Up', https://politicstheorypractice.com/2018/08/06/the-nonproliferation-regim...
28. Michael Shellenberger, 21 July 2020, 'Climate-change hysteria costs lives ‒ but activists want to keep panic alive', https://nypost.com/2020/07/21/climate-change-hysteria-costs-lives-but-ac...
31. John Quiggin, 6 July 2020, 'Shellenberger', https://johnquiggin.com/2020/07/06/shellenberger/comment-page-1/
32. Ken Rice, 1 July 2020, 'Apocalypse never?', https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/apocalypse-never/