Ethics Hero: Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger was a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and he was and is the founder and president of Environmental Progress. Now he has a  best-selling  book, Apocalypse Never, published at the end of last month. I haven’t read it, and I wouldn’t have the expertise to know whether it was right or wrong. It could be that he is violently rejecting the official climate change hysterics line to fill a profitable contrarian niche, though that would be out of character based on his reputation. It may just be that he is telling the truth, and exposing what was, or should have been, pretty evident for a long time. As he puts it his article,

On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years. Climate change is happening, it’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem. I have been a climate activist for 20 years and an environmentalist for 30, so I may seem like a strange person to be saying this.

But as an energy expert asked by the US Congress to provide objective expert testimony and invited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to serve as an Expert Reviewer of its next Assessment Report, I feel an obligation to apologize for how badly we environmentalists have misled the public.

Well, we knew that, didn’t we? The usual people denied it, but was so, so obvious that from Al Gore on, this was science weaponized for political and partisan purposes, by scientists seeking grants and peer approval. One doomsday prediction after another came and went, one model after another failed, and yet the refrain persisted. Climate scientists who were tempted to break ranks were intmidated: as galileo demonstarted, it is not a field often distinguished by courage and sacrifice. Shellenberger writes,

“[U]ntil last year, I mostly avoided speaking out against the climate scare. Partly because I was embarrassed. After all, I am as guilty of alarmism as any other environmentalist. For years, I referred to climate change as an ‘existential’ threat to human civilization and called it a ‘crisis.’ But mostly, I was scared. I remained quiet about the climate disinformation campaign because I was afraid of losing friends and funding. The few times I summoned the courage to defend climate science from those who misrepresent it I suffered harsh consequences. And so I mostly stood by and did next to nothing as my fellow environmentalists terrified the public.”

The cancel culture is after Shellenberger even as I write this, for he’s perceived as a traitor.  Forbes, which initially published his mea culpa, pulled it down after being bombarded with social media protests, then gave no substantive explanation for why. Well, they really didn’t have to, I suppose.

Shellenberger lists “some facts few people know,” such as,

  • Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction’
  • The Amazon is not ‘the lungs of the world’
  • Climate change is not definitively making natural disasters worse
  • Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003
  • The amount of land we use for meat — humankind’s biggest use of land — has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska
  • Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have declined in Britain, Germany, and France from the mid-1970s
  • Netherlands is becoming richer, not poorer while adapting to life below sea level
  • We produce 25 per cent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter

…and more, then later lists some of the conclusions from his book, among them:

  • Factories and modern farming are key to human liberation and environmental progress
  • The most important thing for saving the environment is producing more food, particularly meat, on less land
  • The most important thing for reducing air pollution and carbon emissions is moving from wood to coal to petroleum to natural gas to uranium
  • 100 per cent renewables would require increasing the land used for energy from today’s 0.5 pc to 50 pc
  • ‘Free-range’ beef would require 20 times more land and produce 300 pc more emissions

…and he asks, “Why were we so misled?”

We know the answer to that, too.

16 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Michael Shellenberger

  1. I wish Bill Gates were more vocal about nuclear power as the way to reduce fossil fuel energy production. If people are serious about climate stuff, they can not be anti-nuclear power as well.

    • So long as most of the global warming crowd is so anti-nuclear, I won’t be taking them seriously. Since the numbers are so big when it comes to the total world consumption of energy, I forgive the layperson at not grasping the huge differences in the capability of renewable and nuclear. But a scientist we’re supposed to be able to trust? They easily can grasp the orders of magnitude difference between the capability of nuclear and renewable power. The fact that they ignore it means to me that they really are not serious about global warming being a real threat.

      • They are anti-nuclear because they really aren’t environmentalists (yes sure there are some) but for the most part they are just anti-capitalists packaging their real objectives in a nice exterior. Much like BLM.

  2. I’ve been following this story; I read the original Forbes article before they chickened out and pulled it down.

    Although I agreed with a lot of what he wrote, the second half of the article started veering into territory that I personally thought went far heavier into promotion for the book than discussing the issue and his arguments. In other words, it read to me as though it was half article/half press release.

    Leaving the other merits of his piece aside – that, to me, weakened his argument. I don’t know if that’s part of the rationale Forbes used, but I would consider it a valid one. OTOH, Forbes could have used a bit of editorial control over the piece and made it less blatantly self-promotional. And I say that as a flack.

  3. If his book is right, ag needs a huge PR campaign because the “woke” have found an easy payday with ag.
    Chemical lawsuits and settlements, suits over animal ag and protests and sabotage campaigns from the non profits such a as PETA and HSUS, and others is attacking modern ag.

    Just like with all the other causes, the goal line moves and it’s never enough.

    https://coloradosun.com/2020/07/01/colorado-cage-free-egg-law/

    Individual chemicals are going through the 9th district Supreme Court. Atrazine lost. We will see what happens with the next one. No doubt the lawsuits will continue.

  4. What this is? Is scary.
    Not just for climate science but for EVERY SINGLE THING that has been promoted or supported by the left in the name of Science. And the willingness to punish, and silence people who disagree because “How dare you reject science?”…
    The problem is mostly in the narrative. What is left out? what is emphasized? What is implied? For example “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah: which claims to be an objective evolutionary history of humankind (it leaves out many facts and is full of many assumptions) reads totally as socialist cant with sufficient human bashing that presents human existence as the worst thing that has ever happened to the earth. Now a person who reads that book as their introduction to human biological history would accept its postulations as facts, become indoctrinated and would have their view of humankind changed drastically for the worse.
    This kind of indoctrination is the reality in many fields of human endeavour and it’s sad to see people form such emotional attachments to ideas that makes rational discourse almost impossible

    One thing I’ve learnt to do is always ask myself the question “What if you are Wrong?”. I always ask myself that question on EVERYTHING. And it informs my attitude to contrary and differing opinions…

    • Lumiére, if you’ve posted here previously, I didn’t notice. But welcome anyway! Great post.

      Yes. This kind of thing is far too common. A lot of science has been co-opted by politics – and alarmingly, by deep-pocketed NGOs funded by legacy fortunes (Pew, Ford and other foundations tracing to 19th and early-20th century “robber baron” fortunes) that have undergone serious mission creep.

      My personal skepticism regarding climate change comes from previous work that allowed me access to – and friendship with – a LOT of meteorologists. With one exception, they were all deeply skeptical of the climate change hype.

      My knowledge of the unholy alliance between activists groups and wealthy foundations – and the media connections they enjoy – came from client work in a comparatively obscure industry (fisheries) wherein my clients were targeted by foundation-backed NGOs who selected specific fisheries as targets for fundraising and political action. The activist groups and foundations would fund non-peer-reviewed “research” by hand-picked and favored “scientists” and then sell a credulous news media (including the New York Times) fairy tales about how commercial fishing was destroying the ocean.

      These groups became so powerful that one of their favored bought scientists became the head of NOAA – which oversees fisheries – during the Obama administration. That individual’s pride and joy was a training program that focused on teaching researchers how to spin their work to get press coverage.

      It’s a massive PR game aimed at persuading the ignorant and gullible to fork over their donations. And the cycle continues…

      • Thanks Mr Arthur. I’ve posted a couple of times here. But I’m mostly here to read and learn. How to argue and analyse logically. The commented are mostly very intelligent so there’s usually a lot to learn.

        The big issue is How are individuals not asking the right questions? How are they not doing their own research? What is it about the current clime that makes the misinformation and misrepresentations by the media and these corporations so brazen and easy to see and yet so effective?
        If the PR game is aimed at persuading the ignorant and gullible to… Is it not really ominous that so many people could be so ignorant and gullible.

        • Lumiére queries:
          The big issue is How are individuals not asking the right questions? How are they not doing their own research? What is it about the current clime that makes the misinformation and misrepresentations by the media and these corporations so brazen and easy to see and yet so effective?

          Ah – now THERE’S a question! A huge, complex question – and there is no simple answer.

          We have no smoking gun that would pinpoint a fundamental starting point. I can only offer a hypothesis based on observation and anecdotal evidence. I might be completely out to lunch here – but in the absence of more definitive proof, I think this hypothesis holds at least some water. To over simplify, I think it comes down to four things:

          1) declining educational standards;
          2) a deterioration of ethics across many sectors – including but not limited to industry, media and science
          3) laziness on the part of citizens;
          4) an information environment so jaw-droppingly noisy that people throw up their hands.

          A few brief thoughts on each.We’ve not placed any emphasis at the secondary school level to teach civics and create fundamental understanding of how the system was designed to work. This goes back two or more generations. I graduated from one of the best public high schools in the country in 1972. We weren’t taught this stuff; all of my understanding of the Constitution and a real understanding of American history came later, when I became interested in it. Given that community and its emphasis on its school system, I can only imagine what’s been going on elsewhere.

          At least there WAS an emphasis on developing critical thinking skills there – and I found that too in college. But It’s pretty well established that we no long encourage that. Kids are taught WHAT to think, not HOW to think. They a trained to believe that the dictats of their teachers are gospel, and not to be questioned. Whether this was intentional or would benefit from a cut from Hanlon’s razor (I suspect the former) is largely immaterial here at present – though it would behoove the nation to know.

          As for the deterioration of ethics: pick your sector. This blog, among its many virtues, regularly points out how ethics have disappeared in much of the mainstream media. I’ve pointed out in other responses that the news media is first and foremost a business, and that the profit motive is really the driver for much of what goes on. It’s why Fox News is a conservative site and MSNBC a progressive one. But what explains CNN, which used to be something of a centrist outlet and now regularly tries to out-progressive MSNBC? The answer, from my perspective, can only lie in a complete abandonment of anything close to a professional approach to their field. CNN’s ratings invariably suck when compared to Fox and MSNBC, so they’re really not in it for the money. If they were, they’d tack back towards the center, where a market exists. So no, it’s corrupted ethics driven by hatred and arrogance.

          Many fields of scientific investigation are also corrupted. I gave several examples above – climate science and fisheries. Let me speak in a bit more detail regarding the second.

          Much of the money driving the ‘science’ was actually foundation money (as mentioned above). They had their own agendas. They promoted those agendas with clever position papers and press campaigns. The alarming thing is that these campaigns often received glowing coverage in prestigious news outlets like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

          I was working for a group of owners of a small sector that focused on catching large volumes of low-value fish (chiefly used as lobster bait). Meantime, the foundation-funded NGOs were co-opting struggling commercial fishermen in other sectors and recreational fishermen (there’s a lot more of them than there are commercial guys) and finding ways to get their new buddies on the regional fisheries management boards. They became extremely powerful when it came to assuming control of at least some segments of the industry.

          There were two things about this I found particularly galling. First, their white papers and reports were incredibly slipshod with their citations. Every time a new one came out, I would instantly read it carefully and then start chasing down the footnotes, cataloguing them as I went. Almost invariably, I would discover one of two things. Either the research cited was funded by the foundation (or another in league with it), by a scientist who’d received previous grants from that cabal. These studies were almost invariably NOT peer reviewed. This is why I sometimes chuckle over complaints by the climate change activists that research funded by groups like the Heartland Institute were “industry funded” and therefor untrustworthy.

          If the citation came from a peer-reviewed study, I’d read those carefully. 90+ percent of the time, I discovered that the citation(s) excerpted quotes in the study wildly out of context; on numerous occasions, I found these citations were actually at total odds with the the study conclusion.

          And that’s not the worst of it. It takes time to sift through stuff like this. The news media, corrupt, RARELY checks footnotes. They assume that the mere presence of footnotes means the premise cited is legit. This is complicated by the fact that these players had carefully cultivated relationships with environmental writers. And let me tell you something about them: environmental journalists are hardcore environmentalists BEFORE going to J-school. They become journalists so they can proselytize their passions. They don’t have the skills for or interest in the study of the science that would actually allow them to contribute to the field. It’s a little like sports reporters: most of them are simply sports nuts who weren’t good enough to play at the pro level.

          This is already Aliza-like in length, so I’ll briefly combine the last two: laziness and the information environment. Again, these are merely my personal hypotheses. As to the laziness: I think that goes back to the first point – the lack of critical thinking – and without that, we tend to lose the sense of skepticism that would lead to further investigation. We become comfortable in our own little information bubbles, be that a certain group on social media, a reliance on a cable network, or our local paper. We don’t question them. It never occurs to us that they might be wrong, because they reinforce themselves to us every day. And that brings us to the final issue: there’s so damned many of them. We’re constantly bombarded by messaging. It’s a cacophony out there. Drawing the shutters, it could be argued, is a form of self-preservation.

          There may be other factors I’ve overlooked. But I think these are at least contributory.

  5. Fairly early on, they told us that it was too late to significantly change the coming climate disaster, and that anything we did now would only result in tiny, negligible effects. Strangely (Ha!), we never saw a shift from attempts at massive new regulations, or from heaving tons of money at the “problem”, rather than shifting the focus on how to adjust and deal with it.

    I always wondered why that was. Seeing the whole thing as one of the left’s new religions (“You must believe; you cannot question!”) explains it handily. These sorts of things (“Believe all women”, Black lives matter”, etc.) are their substitutes for traditional organized religion, and must be enforced with the fervor their totalitarian mindset demands, Welcome to the new Inquisition.

  6. My “old friend” Dr Burt Richter, Nobel laureate in Physics, died 2 years ago next week. Everyone misses him, whether they know it or not. He wrote a book predating Schellenberger’s by several years entitled “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Changes and Energy in the 21st Century”. An editor told him the first draft was too erudite for the general public, so he asked me to make suggestions to dumb it down. (Pretty sure what that says about me). That was in (I think) 2012, while I was still working in France. If you appreciate Schellenberger’s arguments, please read Richter’s book. The arguments are cogent and persuasive without Schellenberger’s self-adulation. A final comment: the inconvenient truth about Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is that a large part of the presentation is based on the anti-CO2 “wedges” of Socolow et al (Princeton). He “conveniently” left out the largest wedge, nuclear generation — and won the Nobel Prize for misleading people.

  7. The yardstick I’ve always used to discern Science from Politics is whenever they would trot out the word consensus. At that point, it is instantly and irrevocably no longer in the realm of Science but now in the world of Politics.

    That’s what Politics is: get as many people as you can to agree with you, and when enough of them do (whatever that means for the situation at hand), implement your policy. That’s consensus.

    Science is about the opposite of that: Evidence. Science says it doesn’t matter if you believe me or not, here’s the experiment we did and you are welcome to do that same experiment for yourself. Science also doesn’t care if everyone in the whole world agrees that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it only takes one person to show how it CAN be done to disprove them all. Einstein was right, the world was wrong, “consensus” be damned.

    Consensus is not a part of Science, never was, and never will be.

    –Dwayne

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