Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never” Lessons for VA

HarperCollins, 2020

“Climate change is real but it’s not the end of the world.  It is not even our most serious environmental problem.”

By Steve Haner

That statement opens the dust jacket summary for “Apocalypse Never:  Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All” by Michael Shellenberger, once named “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine. It remains the number one best-seller in Amazon’s Climate or Environmental Policy category, competing with alarmist sermons such as “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells and “How To Avoid A Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates. Anybody interested in the topic should seek it out.

The themes of the book also align well with views previously featured from a 2019 newspaper column by retired University of Richmond biology professor, R. Dean Decker. Both are totally at odds with the wild predictions of Climate Armageddon that drive the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the upcoming Virginia debate over the Transportation and Climate Initiative carbon tax, and just about every Democratic political campaign in the Virginia and the U.S.

Shellenberger’s book is particularly important for the debate over carbon taxes such as the TCI compact, and the VCEA’s energy cost inflation, because with his worldwide experience and perspective he has seen the interrelationship of income poverty, energy poverty and damaging environmental exploitation. Saving the Earth and its flora and fauna require energy sufficiency – from more than just renewables – and energy-intensive modern agriculture.  It requires wealth and economic growth. 

Poor people cannot afford not to do what they must to survive, which too often means burning wood as their primary fuel, seeking more and more land for their low-yield agriculture, and supplementing their diet by hunting even endangered species.

Probably the most powerful section on that topic is Chapter 11: The Denial of Power. He dismisses the claims the impoverished nations can leapfrog past traditional electricity sources using fossil fuels or nuclear directly to wind and solar, pointing to the example of an Indian village that

“made worldwide headlines after it rebelled against the solar panel and battery ‘micro-grid’ Greenpeace had created as a supposed model…’ We want real electricity’ chanted villagers at a state politician, ‘not fake electricity’… By ‘real electricity’ they meant reliable grid electricity, which is mostly produced from coal.” (p.248)

Shellenberger’s book is readable, heavily sourced and indexed, and with his movement credentials it has drawn less opposition than others that challenge the Established Orthodoxy. His 2019 YouTube recording of a TEDxTalk on “How renewables can’t save the planet” doesn’t have the usual obnoxious disclaimer that the outlet often attaches to messages it deems heretical.

He reports he will be among the reviewers of the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and goes into depth about that process. The less dramatic and more balanced climate predictions were usually included in the past IPCC reports, along with the end of the world scenarios, but not highlighted in the executive summaries or news coverage.

It was surprising to come across this:

“Environmentalism today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper middle-class elite in most developed and many developing nations… It designates good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. And it does so in the language of science, which provides it with legitimacy.” (Chapter 12: False Gods for Lost Souls: p.263)

But I found Shellenberger’s discussion of the Malthusian roots to modern environmentalism more enlightening:

“(Thomas) Malthus professed concern for the poor while advocating policies that would keep them poor…. Malthus came of age in what historians call the ‘advanced organic economy,’ which, due to its reliance on renewables, namely wood fuel and waterwheels, ‘condemned the majority of the population to poverty’ for inherently physical reasons.” (Chapter 11: The Denial of Power: p. 231)

He traces the intellectual history up to modern Paul Ehrlich, quoted as worrying that “…giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point would be the moral equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (P. 239) The modern Malthusians favor energy scarcity, even poverty, such as we are setting about with a will to create here in Virginia (my statement, not Shellenberger’s).

Shellenberger is now a strong advocate for nuclear as the ultimate carbon-free energy source, and also devotes space in the book to addressing the economic motivations behind the anti-nuclear movement. (Chapter 10: All About the Green). Again, this will matter in Virginia because it may take a battle to extend the operating licenses of Dominion Energy Virginia’s four reactors at North Anna and Surrey.

In other states, the oil and natural gas interests, often with liberal investors (such as California’s two Governors Brown, p. 209-217), have teamed with the environmentalists in killing nuclear plants. Will the advocates of carbon-free power lead the charge to shut down Virginia’s most successful carbon-free generators in a few years?

Next on the reading list, Bjorn Lomborg’s “False Alarm:  How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix The Planet.” If anybody has read this, but not yet Shellenberger’s book, it would be interesting to compare notes. The dissenting voices with strong credentials are out there, despite the best efforts to cancel them. You can get the gist of Lomborg’s arguments on YouTube as well, but in his case often with that disclaimer against climate dissent.

Shellenberger’s dust jacket statement should be the standard response. As a thought experiment, imagine it attached as a disclaimer to the climate Jeremiads that fill the media or flow into our inboxes from Virginia’s Democrats:

“Climate change is real but it’s not the end of the world.  It is not even our most serious environmental problem.”