This article from the Spring 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Adjunct Fellow, Matthew Lesh.
Environmental catchcries of the early 21st century are apocalyptic: “Billions of people are going to die,” “life on Earth is dying,” and “Governments aren’t addressing it”. Religious undertones are abundant. It is good and evil. The end is nigh. Human sin is to blame. There is no room for repentance. The new bible is “the science”. The prophets are those foretelling catastrophe.
There’s just one problem, as Michael Shellenberger explains in Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. This is total nonsense. Shellenberger says public discussions about climate change and the environment have “spiralled out of control”—an extraordinary admission from someone who has spent 30 years researching and communicating about environmental challenges and hails from the left of politics. Worse than that, much of the environmental movement is actively harmful to conservation and human progress. Unlike many in the field, who want to scare rather than inform, Shellenberger has an interest in getting the facts and the science right.
Nuclear energy is extremely safe and reliable.
Billions are not about to die. We are not running out of resources. In fact, by applying existing technologies more broadly we can feed and shelter billions more people with little environmental impact. The Amazon is not the lungs of the earth and it is not dying. The global rate of reforestation is catching up to the slowing rate of deforestation. There has been a bigger increase in biodiversity over the last 100 million years than species lost in past mass extinctions. Conventional air pollution peaked 50 years ago in developed nations and carbon emissions have peaked or will soon. Land use for meat is declining, and genetically modified foods would allow us to produce more with less. Fracking is safe and explains how the United States has cut carbon emissions. Nuclear energy is extremely safe and reliable. Solar and wind are extremely expensive and are too unreliable to replace conventional energy sources. The burning of biofuels and biomass for energy is worse than useless at tackling climate change. Petroleum, and then vegetable oil, saved the whales—not Greenpeace. Plastic replaced ivory, saving elephants, and there is only a tiny amount of plastic waste on the sea surface (0.1 per cent). Most plastic waste comes from poor countries that simply need waste management systems, not from plastic straws or bags discarded from rich countries. Sweatshops save the planet by creating income for the poor, enabling development and environmental protection. Conservation is not always enlightened; on the contrary, conservation in poor countries is often a form of neo-colonialism seriously undermining much-needed development.
Shellenberger references each of these claims, and many more, in 94 pages of detailed footnotes. This is interwoven with narrative stories from the developing world that demonstrate the deeper challenges facing humanity. We meet Mamy Bernadette Semutaga, a 25-year-old in the Congo, who tells of baboons eating her sweet potatoes. Bernadette is potentially vulnerable to climate change, but she faces plenty more immediate concerns. Bernadette must farm on a small plot to survive and spends hours every day chopping firewood for cooking fuel. Her town’s lack of paved roads, gutters, canals and culverts mean homes flood regularly. She lacks basic medical care, and her children often go hungry and get sick. Then there are the armed militias that rob, rape, kidnap and murder people in the countryside. Nine out of 10 people in the Congo rely on wood and charcoal for cooking (causing dirty in-house pollution that reduces lives by decades) and just one in five has access to electricity. The lack of clean drinking water leads to some of the world’s highest rates of cholera, malaria and yellow fever.
Celebrities arriving by private jet to international climate conferences often invoke people like Bernadette when discussing the risk of climate change. For these people living is a struggle today, while climate change is a manageable problem for the future. And it becomes more manageable if Bernadette can lift herself out of extreme poverty. Shellenberger then tells of Suparti, an Indonesian woman who left the countryside to work in a factory. What some would call a “sweatshop” provides Suparti with financial independence and marks the broader stepping up the ladder of development that ultimately protects the environment. As we get richer, environmental protection grows and our environmental footprint lessens. Suparti has the income to purchase waste management, flood control, sanitation, and electricity, allowing her to lessen her own personal impact on the environment while simultaneously bettering her life.
These stories emphasise Shellenberger’s humanist message. Just as important as protecting the environment is ensuring a rising quality of life, that in turn provides economic prosperity to protect the environment. For example, deforestation that destroys habitats is often caused by the world’s extremely poor chopping down wood for cooking. If they had affordable coal-fired electricity, habitats and forests would be protected.
Prosperity has made us less at the mercy of the climate.
Young people have been led to believe they have no future because of climate change, which can be blamed on deliberate, malevolent actions. This is creating anger, depression, and despair. It could be fuelling a mental health crisis among young people. The reality is that carbon emissions are not evil. They are a by-product of energy consumption which lifts people out of poverty and helps us achieve human dignity. We do need to address the side effects of economic development—such as air pollution and climate change—but preventing development in the first place is unethical. “Urbanisation, industrialisation and energy consumption have been overwhelmingly positive for human beings as a whole,” Shellenberger writes.
Prosperity has made us less at mercy to the climate. Deaths from natural disasters have declined by more than 90 per cent since 1920, despite human population quadrupling. The same logic applies to the implications of climate change, such as rising sea levels. Rich countries can easily adapt to higher sea levels by building flood infrastructure (think, for example, of the Netherlands).
Poor countries cannot adapt to such threats, particularly if they are prevented from developing with the natural resources which are within their grasp. Specifically, Shellenberger wants developed nations to lift restrictions on development aid for energy production in developing nations, as discouraging them from developing to the point we have with hydro, gas and coal is deeply harmful. You could also make the geostrategic point that it risks leaving providing loans for building this infrastructure to less friendly actors. Power-dense energy is key to development and the environment. Coal is good when it replaces wood, natural gas is good when it replaces coal, and nuclear is best of all at reducing humankind’s environmental footprint.
Shellenberger scolds environmental activists for following 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, who wrongly predicted that a growing population and limited resources would shortly lead to mass starvation. Today, environmentalists claim if we keep consuming there will be a ‘tipping point’ leading to ‘multi-system failure’. Shellenberger says this follows a “very dark view of human beings” that blames us for destroying our precious planet. Menacingly, this world view scoffs at the idea of humans having practically limitless energy—provided by nuclear—because it would just enable the real enemy: more consumption.
Shellenberger’s day job is leading Environmental Progress, who advocate for nuclear power. Nuclear is the only way to provide abundant, reliable, and inexpensive energy without carbon emissions or air pollution. It’s also extremely safe: nuclear’s known death toll is just over one hundred, compared to millions whose lives are cut short because of air pollution from coal alone. Nuclear has saved an estimated two million lives to date by preventing deadly air pollution. When nuclear plants are decommissioned it inevitably leads to more coal, that increases air pollution and deaths. A study found Germany’s nuclear plant decommissioning already has led to 1,100 excess deaths from air pollution around coal-fired power plants operating in place of nuclear. Not that this is doing much for climate change. Germany has a higher carbon intensity than France, which is 71 per cent dependent on nuclear, and 45 per cent higher energy costs than the European average.
Renewable energy is not the solution. “Solar and wind make electricity expensive for two reasons: they are unreliable, thus requiring 100 per cent backup, and energy-dilute, requiring extensive land, transmission, and mining,” Shellenberger writes. Despite all the hype and billions worth of investment, solar and wind provided just 3 percent of energy in 2018. They also come with their own environmental costs. Solar panels create toxic waste at the end of their life cycle. Wind turbines take up lots of space, require a lot of steel to produce, and kill trillions of insects.
Despite the claims of Tesla lobbyists, solar combined with batteries is currently too expensive and does not provide sufficient energy. While we should welcome any great technological leaps, there’s a lack of realism from subsidy-seeking renewable lobbyists. Cost decline in batteries is happening too slowly. Even Tesla’s huge battery array in South Australia with 129 megawatt-hour lithium storage, can only store enough for 7,500 homes for four hours. There are nine million homes in Australia.
Shellenberger is perhaps at his most fascinating tracing the history of anti-nuclear power activism. Anti-nuclear activists come from those against building in certain physical spaces, like on coastlines, and anti-nuclear weapons groups misplacing anger onto nuclear power. This became a popular cause including well-funded activists, lawyers, Hollywood celebrities, films and television shows. Extraordinarily, key American environmental groups such as 350.org and Sierra Club have been extensively funded by the coal, natural gas and renewable energy industries to campaign for the closure of nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has advocated for more stringent nuclear regulation to “render its economics less attractive”—so wrote the organisation’s executive director in a 1976 memo.
In the end, anti-nuclear campaigners stopped half of all proposed nuclear plants from being built, even when they knew these would be replaced by coal-fired plants. There is also the scandal of huge environmental stimulus payments under President Obama to Democratic donors.
At least 10 members of Obama’s finance committee and more than 12 of his fundraising bundlers, who raised a minimum of $100,000 for Obama, benefitted from $16.4 billion of the $20.5 billion in stimulus loans.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic should help Shellenberger’s most provocative claim: that climate change has been taken too seriously while other threats have been downplayed. If we had put just a fraction of the trillions spent tackling climate change into pandemic preparedness—improving vaccine technology, building testing and tracing capabilities and storing personal protective equipment—many hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.
Economic development enables us to face challenges.
Worryingly, however, this crisis may be reinforcing a ‘safetyism’ that not only prevents free debate on university campuses but also contributes to excessively restrictive red tape that holds back technological progress. The idea that we must pursue the harshest form of restrictions to maximise safety, disproportionate to the threat, is precisely what holds back technologies such as genetically modified food and nuclear energy. Perhaps we need to learn a different lesson. Economic development means we can face challenges. What has been most extraordinary about this year is the lack of ‘multi-system failure’.
Our highly globalised interconnected world may have made us susceptible to a virus, though notably more deadly viruses spread rapidly around the world long before the aeroplane—see the Spanish flu. But precisely these systems have largely kept us fed, returned toilet paper and eggs to the supermarket shelves in the face of unprecedented demands, and allowed millions to stay connected and work from home during the crisis. It has allowed us to stay socially connected, while being physically distant. It is through science and technology that we can develop new diagnostic tools to limit the spread, and hopefully, a vaccine.
In the end, being prosperous and advanced is what allows us to flourish in the face of inevitable challenges. Be those environmental, or otherwise.