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Shellenberger’s op-ad

Filed under: — group @ 9 July 2020

Guest commentary by Michael Tobis

This is a deep dive into the form and substance of Michael Shellenberger’s promotion for his new book “Apocalypse Never”. Shorter version? It should be read as a sales pitch to a certain demographic rather than a genuine apology.

Michael Shellenberger appears to have a talent for self-promotion. His book, provocatively entitled “Apocalypse Never” appears to be garnering considerable attention. What does he mean by that title? Does it mean we should do whatever we can to avoid an apocalypse? Does it mean that no apocalypse is possible in the foreseeable future? For those of us who haven’t yet read the book (now available on Kindle), Shellenberger provides an unusual article (at first posted on Forbes, then at Quillette and the front page of the Australian) which appears less a summary than a sales pitch, an “op-ad” as one Twitter wag put it.

It’s called “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. In short, Shellenberger lands clearly on the naysayer soil. Not much to see, everyone. Cheer up, carry on, these are not the droids you’re looking for.

FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT THE MOON IS MADE OF CHEESE

In support of this insouciance, Shellenberger offers twelve “facts few people know”. Most of the points are defensible to some extent, and most of them raise interesting topics. A main purpose of this article is to provide references to the relevant discussions. But in going through it, it’s worth keeping an eye on the rhetorical purposes of the items, which appear a bit scattershot, and to the rhetorical purpose of the list, which might appear rather obscure.

Clearly labeling the list “facts that few people know” implies that all these points unambiguously refute common beliefs that are widely. And the “apology for the climate scare” indicates further that these beliefs are widely held by a supposedly misguided community of “climate scared”. A defender of the list, Blair King suggests that “[Shellenberger] identified false talking points used repeatedly by alarmists to misinform the public and move debate away from one that is evidence-based to one driven by fear and misinformation”. That does seem to be a fair reading of the stated intent of the list, but it just doesn’t ring true as a whole.

Speaking as a verteran “climate scared” person, the items don’t seem especially familiar. It’s hard to imagine a conversation like this:“Gosh, climate change is an even bigger threat to species than habitat loss.”“I know, and the land area used for producing meat is increasing!”As Gerardo Ceballos said:

This is not a scientific paper. It is intended, I guess, to be an article for the general public. Unfortunately, it is neither. It does not have a logical structure that allows the reader to understand what he would like to address, aside from a very general and misleading idea that environmentalists and climate scientists have been alarmist in relation to climate change. He lists a series of eclectic environmental problems like the Sixth Mass Extinction, green energy, and climate disruption. And without any data nor any proof, he discredits the idea that those are human-caused, severe environmental problems. He just mentions loose ideas about why he is right and the rest of the scientists, environmentalists, and general public are wrong.

What causes the strange incoherence of these “facts few people know”? At the end of this review I’ll propose an answer. Meanwhile, I will consider several questions regarding each item:

  • VALIDITY Is the claim unambiguously true? Unambiguously false? Disputed?
  • RELEVANCE TO CLIMATE Is the claim directly relevant to climate concern/”climate scare” or is it more of interest to tangentially related environmental issues?
  • SALIENCE Is the contrary of the claim widely believed by environmental activists? Does widespread belief in the claim contribute materially to an excess of climate concern?
  • IMPLICATION What is the rhetorical purpose of the question?
  • REALITY To what extent is the rhetorical purpose justified?

THE TWELVE POINTS

1) Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

In a literal sense this claim has its defenders. See “Earth is Not In the Middle of a Sixth Mass Extinction”. The article quotes Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin, who wrote to me in an email:.

Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were.

It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons…

I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon

I leave it to the reader as to whether “not in a mass extinction yet” is reassuring. While there are several possible understandings of “mass extinction”, it’s generally agreed that we are indeed losing species at a rapid rate. Erwin is pointing out that the vast majority of life isn’t collapsing, that we aren’t collapsing into a nearly lifeless planet “Yet.” Will people reading Shellenberger’s quote get the message “we’re not in a mass extinction yet, … we actually have time to avoid Armageddon”? I venture that if they read about it in a book called “Apocalypse Never” they won’t. Is this related to something we might call “The Climate Scare”? Not yet. Climate is only a secondary feature of species loss so far, although there are plenty of signs of a climate impact in what’s left of natural ecosystems.

  • VALIDITY – Valid only provisionally and somewhat of a semantic quibble.
  • RELEVANCE TO CLIMATE – Speculative; if we don’t get a handle on climate change, climate change will make it worse.
  • SALIENCE – This one is genuinely scary, so it’s okay to be scared about it.
  • IMPLICATION – You are presumably meant to read this claim as “This talk about a sixth extinction is typical climate alarmist scaremongering”
  • REALITY – We are not literally in a mass extinction event yet but we are on the brink of one. It’s not really a “climate scare” topic but it’s related, and enormous. It seems utterly bizarre for someone claiming to speak “on behalf of environmentalists” to minimise it.

2) The Amazon is not “the lungs of the world”

It’s fair to say that “the Amazon is the lungs of the world” is an environmentalist talking point. It’s fair, I think, to say that some members of the public are afraid of killing enough trees that we run out of oxygen (never mind that lungs consume oxygen rather than producing it!). It turns out that what maintains the oxygen fraction in the atmosphere is a rather interesting question, but that there is no immediate risk of the oxygen going away. Here’s a paper (w/thanks to Chris Colose).

We have built up an enormous stockpile of the stuff. If we live long enough that the oxygen concentration changes appreciably, we will have survived the current century and many centuries to come. Is it a reason to NOT preserve the Amazon? Hardly. The Amazon is the repository for much of the land surface biodiversity. A better analogy would be that it’s more like our planetary gut than our planetary lungs. It would be stupid beyond belief to injure it, yet injure it we do. Does the fear of disappearing oxygen feed excessive “environmentalist” panic? Arguably so among the more excitable members of the general public sharing half-baked ideas on social media. But is it part of “The Climate Scare”? It’s a bit of a stretch. One could point out, though, that totally clearing the Amazon would have direct impacts on climate, according to several modeling studies, for instance.

  • VALIDITY – The claim is meaningless, so the counterclaim is meaningless
  • RELEVANCE – It’s a pretty muddled belief, but it could conceivably be seen as climate related.
  • SALIENCE – In fact there is baseless alarm about the Amazon’s ability to provide oxygen
  • IMPLICATION – “Don’t lose sleep about the Amazon; it’s not important.”
  • REALITY – The Amazon is the repository of an enormous amount of biodiversity that is at risk. Truly destroying it entirely would have climate impacts. Saving it is an important issue. But not because of oxygen!

3) Climate change is not making natural disasters worse

Roger Pielke Jr. enters the fray. This claim is obviously based on his position which Roger helpfully summarizes in a recent Twitter thread

This is a very specific definition of “disaster” which Roger defends vigourously. One suspects that he does so precisely because the signal is buried in the noise in his definition. It’s a definition that could hardly have been better designed to avoid statistical significance!

I wrote more about that here. Take note: Pielke only claims “there is no statistical evidence that disasters are getting worse” while Shellenberger states “disasters are not getting worse”. A classic conflation of “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence”. In addition, Pielke’s claim only stands because the rising costs of disasters have been normalized by the rise in GDP. It is entirely unclear why this is the relevant metric. Shellenberger’s claim, despite Pielke’s defense of it, is not defensible by reference to Pielke.

  • VALIDITY: Shellenberger’s claim goes too far even based on Pielke’s significance-averse approach.
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change impact
  • SALIENCE: Yes, people do worry about it a lot. Perhaps a bit too soon, but it’s not an unrealistic concern.
  • IMPLICATION: “No sign of a problem!”
  • REALITY: There are many signs that several types of severe events (notably heatwaves, drought impacts, and intense precipitation) are becoming more common and more severe.

4) Fires have declined 25 percent around the world since 2003

After the nitpicking of points 1 and 3, it’s very interesting to see the fuzziness here. It is true that total annual area burned worldwide has declined. But this is because grass fires have declined, because of increasing human appropriation of grasslands for agriculture. Forest fires, which are more ecologically damaging than grass fires, have increased.

While NASA’s new video does show regional upticks in certain parts of the world, scientists made clear that the total number of square kilometers burned globally each year has dropped roughly 25 percent since 2003. This has largely been due to population growth and development in grasslands and savannas, as well as to an increase in the use of machines to clear farmland. “There are really two separate trends,” said James Randerson, a scientist at the University of California, Irvine who worked on the new wildfire video. “Even as the global burned area number has declined because of what is happening in savannas, we are seeing a significant increase in the intensity and reach of fires in the western United States because of climate change.”

So, areas and intensity of forest fires have increased, and this claim is simply misdirection by mixing two phenomena, increasing forest fires and increasing human footprint on grasslands. The concern about increases in forest fires is valid.

  • VALIDITY: Misleading. Conflates two anthropogenic phenomena into one.
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change impact
  • SALIENCE: Yes, people do worry about it a lot. Justifiably.
  • IMPLICATION: “See? Climate activists are deluded about wildfires.”
  • REALITY: Forest fires do appear to be increasing in frequency and severity. This is unsurprising as forests are exposed to warmer conditions that the ones for which they evolved, so are more prone to drying out.

5) The amount of land we use for meat—humankind’s biggest use of land—has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska

This turns out to be a defensible claim. But it’s not such a happy result. “this contraction is mostly in arid regions where scrubland was used for extensive low impact grazing. Some of the declines in these regions have been offset by expansions of grazing in tropical regions where the environmental destruction is immense e.g. in the Amazon. This “livestock revolution” has come with consequences associated with the spreading of fertilizers, and the draining of ecologically sensitive wetlands.” Regardless, as a careful examination of the vertical axis on the graph shows, on a percentage basis it’s small.

Finally, from personal experience I would point out that. at least in central Texas, much pasture land has been abandoned because it was ruined by overgrazing. I expect it’s similar elsewhere. Returning denuded limestone to “nature” is not that great of a gift.

  • VALIDITY: Marginal. Made out as an important trend when it’s really not.
  • RELEVANCE: No obvious relevance to climate.
  • SALIENCE: I don’t think this is a prominent concern among environmentalists at large.
  • IMPLICATION: ??? (It’s unclear what purported “alarmist idea” this counters.)
  • REALITY: The impacts of meat production are elsewhere.

6) The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California

It’s undisputed that fire suppression has built up fuel in many places, and that people have built housing in dangerously fire-prone locations. It’s also undisputed that the recent fires in Australia, as well as spectacular events in Russia in 2010 and Texas in 2011, occurred in conditions of literally unprecedented heat and drought. Of course, fires happen in hot dry years. But we’re seeing an obvious trend in such outliers. Things can have more than one cause.

  • VALIDITY: As stated, literally false. Things can have more than one contributing factor.
  • RELEVANCE: climate impact relevant
  • SALIENCE: People worry about this, and they should
  • IMPLICATION: “Hot weather doesn’t make forests burn because fire suppression makes forest burn, so don’t worry about climate change!”
  • REALITY: Unsurprisingly, forests are more likely to dry out and burn when it’s hotter.

7) Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have been declining in Britain, Germany, and France since the mid-1970s

This is true. In some countries it is quite substantial. It has two primary causes: 1) Recent declines in coal consumption, mostly replaced by natural gas. Since climate stability is only achieved at net zero emissions, investment in gas infrastructure is a mixed blessing. 2) Much industrial activity moving to Asia, especially China. This is just moving the problem, not solving it. It’s “global warming”, not “national warming”. If you look at the global trajectory rather than that of individual countries, emissions continue to burgeon. Even the recent pandemic related events appear so far to have been very temporary. If you compare what is happening now to the path required to limit warming to any particular target, especially 2ºC or better, it’s very hard to take this little bit of good news with too much jubilation.

Annual CO2 emissions by region

Sam Bliss points out that no rich country is reducing emissions fast enough to keep global warming under 2ºC — or even planning to.

  • VALIDITY: True, but something of a cherry pick
  • RELEVANCE: climate relevant, but the narrow claim is nowhere near as important as is implied
  • SALIENCE: I don’t know that people are worried about small declines in emissions records of particular countries. People are certainly worried about global totals, though.
  • IMPLICATION: “We’re already fixing the problem! Relax!”
  • REALITY: We are still very far from fixing the problem, and the hard-won but modest progress in a few wealthy countries is not reassuring.

8) “The Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level”

First, we should probably neglect point 8 altogether, since it is commonly known that the Dutch have done well over the centuries, and that they have won back a fair piece of land from their continental shelf. So it doesn’t qualify as something “few people know”. It’s sloppy to include it on the list.

Clearly the implication that “alarmists say the Dutch are not wealthy!” is just nonsense. What about “alarmists say the Dutch are drowning”? I’ve not heard that one either. So logically speaking we can ignore this point. Is this merely silly? Can Shellenberger be claiming that bad news is good news? That we should embrace climate change because it will build character? Is this the quality of argument that we’re facing?

Homeowners in Ocean County, NJ are early recipients of the stimulus to creativity and economic activity of sea level rise, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. USGS

Let’s bend over backwards to consider the matter. It appears that the point is that at least one society has adapted to life below sea level; so we all can do that. But does that really mean that the Dutch are prepared to adapt to sea level rise of meters? There are two approaches to thinking about the Dutch situation in the future. Some are bravely advocating a “make lemonade” approach, inclining toward the insouciant “disasters are business opportunities” framing that Shellenberger implies. But others which look in deeper detail are more sobering:

Of course, dikes are being raised, and rivers given some room to overflow occasionally, but will that be enough? And more importantly: how long will it last? Sea levels have only just started to rise, and it may be going faster than we had initially thought. The big question is: will the Netherlands as we know it survive what’s coming?

In order to keep the seawater at bay, the dikes will need to be raised. As a result, the polders behind them will become relatively deeper, making them more vulnerable and more expensive to maintain. These higher dikes are also a problem in themselves: they prevent natural silting, which means our delta is unable to grow along with the advancing sea.

The experts share one concern: the Netherlands has no Plan B for a scenario in which sea levels rise faster than are accounted for in the Delta Programme. At the same time, there is no proper public debate about this issue, despite the urgent need for one. Not sometime in the future, but right now – because we need to make some important choices today. Especially if you consider how long it takes to develop and implement plans.

Reducing CO<sub>2</sub> emissions and reinforcing dikes is only half the story. The other stark reality is that even these measures combined may prove insufficient in the long term to preserve the lower-lying parts of our country. The polder model – in its literal rather than political sense – has its limits, some physical and some more subjective. The physical limits are based on hard science: how quickly will sea levels rise – and how much can we actually handle? The subjective limits are a question of taste: what kind of country do we want to live in (while we still have time to decide)?

Can we adapt to sea level rise? The implication of this point is that we can adapt like the Dutch. But can the Dutch, who are the world’s experts on managing land below sea level adapt? Only, it appears, within limits.

  • VALIDITY: Undisputed. Indeed, hard to imagine why this qualifies as a “fact few people know”!
  • RELEVANCE: relates indirectly to climate impacts
  • SALIENCE: People do worry about sea level rise, and they should
  • IMPLICATION: “Sea level rise is harmless since humans can rise to the occasion of great challenges.”
  • REALITY: Even the Dutch, wealthy and experienced in managing coastal flooding, are very worried.

9) We produce 25 percent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter

This is a bit controversial, but I think Shelleberger is correct. Large scale agriculture can adapt to changing conditions. Crop failures in one place or another may become more frequent as climate becomes less predictable and in some ways more severe, but global production will probably remain adequate for a long time, provided the current economic and trade regime remains healthy. A survey article is here. The impacts of climate change on food supply, except on the poorest, is expected to be relatively modest, compared to other scenario variables:

Finally, all quantitative assessments we reviewed show that the first decades of the 21st century are expected to see low impacts of climate change, but also lower overall incomes and still a higher dependence on agriculture. During these first decades, the biophysical changes as such will be less pronounced but climate change will affect those particularly adversely that are still more dependent on agriculture and have lower overall incomes to cope with the impacts of climate change. By contrast, the second half of the century is expected to bring more severe biophysical impacts but also a greater ability to cope with them. The underlying assumption is that the general transition in the income formation away from agriculture toward nonagriculture will be successful.

How strong the impacts of climate change will be felt over all decades will crucially depend on the future policy environment for the poor. Freer trade can help to improve access to international supplies; investments in transportation and communication infrastructure will help provide secure and timely local deliveries; irrigation, a promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, and continued technological progress can play a crucial role in providing steady local and international supplies under climate change.

This said, climate change will have an enormous impact on traditional food-gathering and subsistence agriculture. Traditional methods will fail. Greenland is a harbinger. If traditional cultures and folkways are valuable, their food gathering and subsistence methods are central. These are being lost.

  • VALIDITY: Plausible
  • RELEVANCE: relevant to climate change
  • SALIENCE: I think there is a strong case that there’s too much public alarm on the climate- food security axis.
  • IMPLICATION: “Food is not a big climate issue!”
  • REALITY: If the international economic order holds together, enough nutrients to feed everyone will be produced in the foreseeable future. But climate change impacts on traditional cultures are already severe and will likely eventually be overwhelming. Distributional issues may leave people hungry even as enough food is produced in aggregate.

10) Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change

It’s not clear how to formally evaluate this claim. It is surely true of some species and not of others. Coral reef species, for example, are under direct threat from ocean acidification and local warming events. Habitat loss can certainly be exacerbated by climate change. Here, the recent example of Australian fires is instructive. These phenomena can’t be directly separated. Climate change causes habitat loss.

The main way in which climate stress affects natural species is through habitat loss via climate niche moves and disappearance. It isn’t at all clear that the comparison between habitat loss and climate stress, even if it were possible, would be very informative. You can’t really protect wildlife without protecting or creating stable habitat. Under rapid climate change that becomes impossible.

  • VALIDITY: The assertion is overly broad and probably untestable.
  • RELEVANCE: climate relevant
  • SALIENCE: People do worry about habitat and people do worry about climate; sometimes they get them confused, and sometimes they are related. It’s not clear concerns are excessive
  • IMPLICATION: “Climate change is not a problem for wildlife!”
  • REALITY: Climate change is a major driver of habitat loss, so if you care about habitat, you should care about climate policy.

11) Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels

This conflates several issues.

  1. Wood-burning ovens and grills in wealthy countries are a carbon neutral luxury of no great biogeochemical importance. There is no controversy on this matter that I know of.
  2. Biofuels are carbon neutral. Although it is a relatively minor source of energy, extracting energy from burning wood waste is better than simply letting the waste decay, producing the same CO2 without capturing the energy. However, mis-designed carbon credit systems in Europe have been encouraging growing trees specifically for the purpose of burning them. While carbon-neutral in the long run, this use produces carbon in the short run and consumes it on a longer time scale, front-loading emissions. It is a carbon-overshoot strategy, and there’s a strong case to be made that given our present trajectory toward exceeding global warming targets, it’s a bad idea. However, on this matter, one would tend to see the most “climate alarmed” as aligned with Shellenberger, not opposed, so it doesn’t support his case.
  3. Wood-burning for home cooking in less developed countries is a real health issue. This is certainly true, but no important group is advocating household wood fuel as a mainstay for large populations that I know about. It’s possible to imagine an innumerate anti-technology Luddite advocating returning to wood-burning stoves, but it’s difficult to imagine that gaining much purchase, insofar as forests are greatly valued, if not even overvalued, by climate activists. So on these points, Shellenberger is probably better aligned with “climate activists” than against them.
  • VALIDITY: The claim is true, especially insofar as low-technology wood-burning is concerned.
  • RELEVANCE: Not first order climate relevant. Nobody is proposing replacing fossil fuels with wood burning on a global scale.
  • SALIENCE: The biofuel issue is a real controversy and second order relevant to the climate problem, but modern biofuel plants not a major health concern, certainly compared to coal plants. The use of wood-burning in households is a real health issue, but not climate relevant. Shellenberger is probably better aligned here with “climate activists” than against them.
  • IMPLICATION: Hard to know. Maybe “the environmental crazies want to take away your furnace and put a nasty sooty wood-burning hearth in your kitchen.”
  • REALITY: Poor wood burning practice in households is indeed unhealthy, but carbon neutral. The issue of biomass burning is complex; some uses are better than others. Growing wood specifically for fuel has deleterious impacts on the carbon trajectory, and is probably not a great idea, even though the strategy is basically long-term carbon neutral.

12) Preventing future pandemics requires more not less “industrial” agriculture

There seems to be a case being made that CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are less dangerous than pastures on this account. My initial investigations on the subject turned up a lot of evidence against Shellenberger’s claim.

I finally turned up what must be Shellenberger’s source. This piece is attributed to the young Alex Smith – Alex joined Breakthrough as a research analyst in the food and agriculture program in 2019 after completing a dual MA/MSc in International and World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his masters, Alex studied and wrote about American foreign policy, French colonialism, and environmental history.  In short, Mr Smith doesn’t seem to have much formal knowledge about pandemics or agriculture. He concludes:

With our global population set to increase by close to 3 billion by 2050, we must strive to construct a world that can provide food, shelter, and livelihoods to all 10 billion people, while reducing risk of pandemics akin to what we see today. Simply, the only way forward is forward. We must continue to develop agricultural innovations that can allow for increased intensification, and we must give these innovations global reach. It does not work to just intensify agricultural production in developed countries, given the dual role of land-use change and food insecurity. To combat the main drivers of zoonotic diseases, we must sustainably intensify our food system, not pine for a romanticized and inefficient production system that brings people and wild animals in closer contact.

Frankly, this reminds me of the Monty Python sketch that teaches you how to play the flute. Smith dismisses the obvious solution in his second paragraph:

But these claims offer no explicit argument for how a different form of agriculture — outside of calls to completely eliminate meat consumption — would reduce risk, and they often conflate intensive animal agriculture with intensive agriculture writ large.

I myself have indeed given up on animal products almost altogether (I do have a weakness for butter-based desserts at cafés that I occasionally indulge) so I can’t resist noting this dodge. I don’t see any reason meat can’t go back to being an occasional luxury as it was through most of human history. But this is hardly the place for that discussion. To the point, Shellenberger seems to be putting up basically a blog post by a young man with a history degree against the entire field of epidemiology, and declaring “a fact” on that basis. I’d call that a stretch.

  • VALIDITY: The claim is very weakly supported and probably wrong.
  • RELEVANCE: No obvious climate relevance
  • SALIENCE: I think people do, sensibly, worry about the way meat is produced
  • IMPLICATION: “Coop up animals in meat factories! It’s good for you and they don’t mind much.”
  • REALITY: Er, no.

CONCLUSION

It’s very hard to imagine a significant community of people adamantly holding to the contrary of Shellenberger’s points. They really aren’t core to any particular group.So what is he up to, if it’s more than just selling a book?

I think David hits the nail on the head. It’s a pitch to denialism, not to moderation. But why is is so strangely constructed, so uncompelling to some of us, and yet apparently convincing to others? There’s a provocatively titled article at The Forward that has an answer:

The fuel for this fire comes from something that anthropologists call the myth of outgroup homogeneity. We tend to believe everyone in our tribe is nuanced and diverse, while all the members of that tribe over there are uniform and zombie-like. This is how New York thinks of New Jersey, Lakers fans think of Clippers fans, Mac users think of PC users, and MSNBC viewers think of Fox News viewers. The outgroup homogeneity effect makes it easier to blame a whole side for their crazy fringe while barely acknowledging your own. You can march under a big dumb banner, saying you’re from the smart, nuanced part of your coalition, while believing everyone on the other side has no more profound beliefs than their big, dumb banner.

Shellenberger’s weird list makes no sense at all. It certainly doesn’t bear up well under close inspection. But it makes some sense to his readers, only because they perceive the world of the climate concerned as “uniform and zombie-like”. Every single point of contention he raises is viewed through that lens first.

Is Shellenberger really even a “former environmentalist”? Has he ever actually advocated a “climate scare”? Does he have anything to apologise for? The evidence for his (oddly un-contrite) apostasy is thin. His list, baffling to those of us it is meant to accuse, holds together as an example of “outgroup homogeneity”. Shellenberger’s capacity to frame a list this way depends on a capacity to grossly oversimplify his “climate scare” opposition. His baffling caricature of his opposition would indicate that he never really was part of a “climate scare” in the first place!
The article, remember, is entitled “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. I suggest Shellenberger in innocent on that score. He may however owe us a different apology.

151 Responses to “Shellenberger’s op-ad”

  1. 1
    Susan Anderson says:

    So infuriating. Since most people don’t read much beyond the headline, this is catnip for the disinformation industry. And by industry, I mean industry!

    The people who are skeptical are the vast majority of scientists and experts, and if anything they have been too conservative. Not the phony skeptics, too many of whom have alliances with big fossil, with some of the remainder nursing a lifetime of resentment. Elites, pfah!!!

    I read MT’s essay in Medium and am very glad to see it (with some changes and enlargement) on this much broader platform where it will reach more of us who need qualified commentary.. Thank you!

  2. 2
    Andrew Sipocz says:

    Regarding the Dutch and their dikes. Dikes are a much less workable solution on coastlines with a microtidal climate. Low tides necessary to allow rainfall and river flow to drain into the sea are sporadic, wind driven events in such climates. Think New Orleans (less than 1′ daily tidal cycle) where all rainfall must be pumped over the dike and where the river must be walled off from developed lands.

  3. 3
    Greg Guy says:

    The depressing thing about all this is that Shellenberger doesn’t even care about any of these issues. He just wants to sell his book and understands that drumming up controversy, especially on such a partisan subject, is going to guarantee him a lot of free advertising.

  4. 4
    Michael Tobis says:

    Nice to hear from you after a long hiatus, Susan!

    ==

    The piece Susan refers to, I think, is this: https://medium.com/@mtobis/the-consensus-the-crisis-the-scare-73520459fb64

    It’s mostly just stuff cut out of this already altogether too long article. Partly it’s some of the most opinionated stuff too. Although to be fair, being my own opinions, they are very good ones. :-)

    On the other hand, it does contain my effort to define a climate consensus.

  5. 5
    Dan says:

    re: 1. “Since most people don’t read much beyond the headline, this is catnip for the disinformation industry.”
    Yes. We won’t have to look far because the resident anti-science deniers here on realclimate (KIA, etc.) will be foaming at the mouth again with this trash, as they once again ignore the peer-review cornerstone of science. Watch and see.

  6. 6
    Jonathan Cole says:

    The only statement I would take exception to here is in relation to point 11 on wood burning. You state that “The use of wood-burning in households is a real health issue, but not climate relevant.” According to a 2011 UNEP/WMO study, residential & commercial biomass combustion is responsible for about half of the global emissions of black carbon, a significant warming agent. Wood burning is both a health and a climate problem, and is particularly acute in south Asia and Africa.

    Ultimately though, this just reinforces your point that few (if any) environmental advocates would support wood burning over fossil fuels, and Shellenberger is employing a straw-man argument.

  7. 7
    Russell says:

    Dan, though the wages of semantic aagression are often paid in catnip, I suspect the Breakthrough Institute prefers cash.

    We can expect a video, and a sequel as soon as they sort out the highest bidder

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/07/schellenberger-sequel-will-connect-dots.html

  8. 8
    NSAlito says:

    The Dutch have had the advantage of many centuries of exploiting resources around the globe to fund their adaptation to gradual SLR. Most modern coastal communities will find it increasingly expensive to defend property while their property tax bases shrink due to losses in flood-prone areas.

  9. 9
    Robert Tulip says:

    The claim at #7 that “climate stability is only achieved at net zero emissions” implies that maintaining the current or higher CO2 level could deliver climate stability. That is highly disputable. If stability is seen in terms of maintaining Holocene norms, then large net negative emissions are required to deliver it.

  10. 10

    I think this is a very good deconstruction of the article–in fact, much better than the article actually merits.

    IMHO the article/argument is really not about anything except selling books–as Greg already said above. It’s pitched to emotion, not rationality, by design, and for commercially compelling reasons.

  11. 11
    Ken Fabian says:

    Myself, I encounter arguments that because Australia has always had bushfires that the potential for more or more intense bushfires will not be a problem (“but we’ve always had bushfires”) quite bizarre; the thought of fires with an extra 3 or 4 or 5 C degrees is properly terrifying. I would expect people in The Netherlands would, in similar fashion, be more, not less concerned about sea level rise; they surely understand the high costs and vigilance needed, even without rising sea levels adding to them.

    I note that one of the consequences of warming with respect to fires is less opportunities in large areas of Australia to safely and cost effectively engage in fuel reduction burning during cooler weather (that won’t be as cool). We experienced that – of exceptionally warm and dry winters making large scale burning off too difficult to contain and therefore too dangerous to attempt. The uncontrolled fire that burnt around us last year began around the end of Winter – and that time of year was unprecedented. FYI started by lightning strike.

    Shellenberger was never a hero of Environmentalism but he is on his way to being a hero to opponents of climate action – and no wonder; he appears to advocate no constraints on fossil fuels so everyone gets too rich to worry about global warming, which he thinks he knows is not serious, and then everyone can adopt nuclear power.

    There is no special desire to fix the climate problem with nuclear in his target audience – they don’t care – but they lap up the climate science denial, unconstrained fossil fuel use and the anti-environmentalist rhetoric.

    If fixing the real and very serious climate problem with nuclear were his real intent he would not be so determined to downplay it’s seriousness or endorse and reinforce the climate science denial of opponents of climate responsibility and emissions accountability. You won’t get nuclear for fixing climate by claiming there is no climate problem.

  12. 12
    Michael Tobis says:

    Jonathan Cole, thank you for the correction.

    It was a daunting ambition, writing this piece, as presumably nobody is expert on all these matters; certainly I am not. I would be surprised if I didn’t make other mistakes.

    However, I hope that I have supported the proposition that Shellenberger isn’t an expert on all these matters either.

    I look forward to further refinements and corrections!

  13. 13
    Tom Dayton says:

    The image for point 5 is missing, at least when I look with Firefox.

    [Response: Try now? – gavin]

  14. 14
    Piotr says:

    Michael Tobis: “Is Shellenberger really even a “former environmentalist”? ”

    What??? You don’t know your “Hero of the Environment”, “Leading Environmentalist”
    and “Famed Environmentalist”, who apologized in your name???

    – Todayville.com (from Alberta, Canadian province basing its economy on tar sands): “Leading environmentalist apologizes for “The Climate Scare …”

    – environmentalists from Oilprices.com: “Prominent Climate Activist Apologizes”

    – environmentalists from right-of-centre Toronto Sun: “A leading voice apologizes”

    Are you Michael, by any chance” “cancel culture”?

    – WasteWatcher: “Cancel Culture Goes After Famed Environmentalist”

    – National Post: “Forbes falls to cancel culture as it erases environmentalist’s mea culpa”
    ====

    Despite the risk of becoming a culturecancellist myself, my 2 favourites in the
    opus magnum of our Famed Environmentalist are:

    i) in discussion on meat he is quoted as claiming: “Vegetarianism reduces one’s emissions by less than 4%”

    It’s a bold lie – see for example Kim et al. 2019 Global Environmental Change:
    “Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises
    https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0959378018306101?token=29B78A9621E5A19A7B44509224EDBF7DA5FAC4CFA3A6A9232DA793D92953CB803126788D6A5B5CC69C181021EC1960B6
    Fig.7, for the Shellenberg’ country, USA:
    – giving up only the red meat – reduces the emissions by ca. 60%
    – veganism – reduces by close to 90%.

    So much for our “Hero of the Environment”‘s “less than 4%”.

    ii) Our “Famed Environmentalist” dismisses also the renewables: “As for renewables, no amount of innovation can make them viable. [Solar and wind] are unreliable, thus requiring 100 percent backup”

    It seems our Hero never heard about
    a) energy storage,
    b) renewables, habiong diffrent temporal and spatial characteristics providing back-up for each other:
    – surplus of wind in A for deficit of wind in B,
    – surplus solar for deficit in wind or vice versa,
    – or if there is night and no wind in entire America AND the demand for electricity did not drop at night – run water over hydrodams (water you accumulated when there was enough wind and solar comparing to the demand) –
    this way you have in effect the energy-hydrostorage WITHOUT the losses of pumping water up, which of course you could do if you wanted to increase the available storage – for now there was no need, since we are using only small portion of N. America hydro generation for back-up – and most of it, at least in Canada, for base-load.

    c) in addition you may absorb some of the supply fluctuations by a smart grid that would switch on or off the high-energy application depending on the power supply

    And even if we ignored all other measures and built 100% back-up – the suggestion is that if it needs a 100% then it does nothing to reduce emissions (see our own David B. Benson – in recent threads). The fallacy here is that the 100% refers to the installed back-up potential (say 1000 MW renewables requiring 1000 MW fast ramp-up gas-backup), but it DOES NOT MEAN 100% replacement in GENERATION – if I used my 1000MW backup half of the time – with renewables generating it the other half of the time – then I reduced my emissions by 50% compared to running the same gas turbines without renewables, i.e. 100% of the time.
    So much for:
    “As for renewables, no amount of innovation can make them viable. [Solar and wind] are unreliable, thus requiring 100 percent backup”

  15. 15
    Cedric Knight says:

    MT’s rebuttal is a useful framework for analysing red herring arguments in future, and contains several ‘facts few people know’; at least I didn’t sufficiently appreciate the nuances about forest fires. It seems the points in Shellenburger’s ‘op-ad’ don’t strictly add up to much that’s relevant to climate threats or biodiversity loss; but perhaps the overall impression, that complacent dismissal is acceptable because ‘scaremongering’ exists, is meant to be more than the sum of the parts (few readers will remember many of Shellenberger’s 12 points). Therefore we could also think about the overall salience, implication and reality. The combined attacks weren’t a neutral attempt to explain things (which would then cover more common myths that underplay threats), but to be fair could be a list of those journalistic idioms like ‘lungs of the world’ that irritate Shellenburger and just happen to be popular to oppose among the audience and proprietor of the Australian.

    On the detailed points, my non-expert opinion is that a generalisation ‘food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter’ could be opposed more strongly. As well as the loss of local production and associated cultures MT mentions, the time scale of the statement is important. There’s a meta-analysis figure of overall food supply in AR5 SYR, suggesting possible halving of supplies after 2090 under high emissions; and food threats at higher temperatures appear ‘very high risks’ in SRCCL SPM. Of course it’s possible that by 2090 humans will all be living off nuclear-poered vertical farms, but it’s possible they won’t.

    On a tangent to pandemics and agriculture, I note George Monbiot favours intensive agriculture, since extensive agriculture is the main obstacle to reforestation and rewilding. I’ve not checked, but it would seem to make sense that in factory farming, only pathogens that directly affect the animals would be treated, and so potential zoonoses might spread more easily. What’s perhaps most important as seen in H5N1 is not animal-animal proximity, but animal-human proximity.

    I might disagree that as far as sub-Saharan Africa goes, ‘few (if any) environmental advocates would support wood burning over fossil fuels’. Those I know working to improve rural health think biomass is likely to be the main source of fuel for the foreseeable future, and the important thing is to make sure that it is sustainable and burned cleanly, reducing both the lethal PM25 and black carbon. Electricity seems much more cheaply provided by decentralised solar than a grid and thermal power stations (CarbonBrief had an article on this.)

    Andrew S makes a good point that polderisation cannot be generalised to other areas or coastal cities. I’d presume that this is true because of topography as well as tides – it’s almost impossible to farm and defend some deltas against sea-level rise. On comment 9 by Robert Tulip, I agree Negative Emissions Technologies are looking necessary, but strictly speaking is it correct to say that net zero cannot ‘deliver climate stability’? As IPCC SR15 fig 1.5 shows, net zero CO₂ emissions means declining concentrations and therefore climate stability (with complications from methane, F-gases and aerosols).

    I read a couple of minor typos in this rebuttal: ‘vigourously’ is not UK spelling, and there’s a sentence that ends ‘widely’ that maybe is meant to be ‘widely shared’.

  16. 16
    Joshua says:

    Great post. Thanks. The quote at the end from The Forward is perfect!

  17. 17
    Sir Charles says:

    “Through a discourse analysis of key texts produced by the primary actors of post-environmentalism, namely the Oakland, California-based Breakthrough Institute and its cofounders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, we show how the theory behind post-environmentalism mixes a deconstructionist trope familiar to political ecologists with a modernization core from liberal economics. We discuss the contradictions of post-environmentalist discourse and argue that despite its flaws, post-environmentalism can hold considerable sway because its politics align with powerful interests who benefit from arguing that accelerating capitalist modernization will save the environment.”
    https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/JPE/article/view/23238

  18. 18
    Susan Anderson says:

    What Kevin McKinney said. (currently #10) – thanks MT, lotta water under the dam!

    Slightly off topic, I’ve been reading Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, and highly recommend it, though its textbook style is less readable than …

    For an easier, shorter, and truly stellar read with a novel and skilled approach (she’s one of a kind, a geobiologist who provides skilled and page-turning history on all our stuff), Hope Jahren’s The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here.

    Chapter 1 begins with this quote!

    The sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
    Thomas Edison to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, 1931

    It includes a well organized and useful Appendix: The Story of Less

    A smart teenager would enjoy it! Good for adults too.

  19. 19
    Hugo Márquez says:

    Those who have known Shellenberger for 20 years will remember his previous life as apologist for Hugo Chávez brutal regime. Chávez contracted Shellenberger through one of his previous organizations, Lumina Strategies, to whitewash the despot’s image to the outside world at a time when the routine persecution, torture and murder of dissidents was beginning to leak out, raising concerns about Chávez’s rule. Shellenberger obliged the dictator, signing a contract as chief propagandist for the regime in the USA. It is clear that, through a series of institutional vehicles, Shellenberger’s monetary greed, self-obssession and casual regard for the truth remain today his principal characters. This new book mixes the same trademark disinformation and disingenuity to a remarkable degree, sufficient to fool those who lack the knowledge or critical faculties to see it for what it is. Meanwhile, the author rubs together his hands with glee as he hourly monitors the Amazon best-seller list.

  20. 20
    Peter Shepherd says:

    Strange that the book’s own editor mentions (in the Forward article) anthropologists’ insight into the “myth of out-group homogeneity”, and sides without nuance, yet judges his own success by corporate fame and fortune alone.

  21. 21
    Tom Dayton says:

    Re: comment 13: Yep, image is visible now, thanks Gavin.

  22. 22
    Brian Dodge says:

    is Pielke fooling himself by normalizing one increasing value (weather losses) by another increasing value(GDP), or is he trying to fool us?

  23. 23

    Here’s a point not related to any kind of apocalypse, but arguable nonetheless:

    (1) Climate variability on the scale of El Ninos is not well understood and can’t be predicted.

  24. 24
    nigelj says:

    Piotr @14

    “in discussion on meat he is quoted as claiming: “Vegetarianism reduces one’s emissions by less than 4%”…..It’s a bold lie – see for example Kim et al. 2019 Global Environmental Change: Fig.7, for the Shellenberg’ country, USA: – giving up only the red meat – reduces the emissions by ca. 60% – veganism – reduces by close to 90%.”

    You are assuming like most people would that he meant…in comparison to a meat eating diet. Schellenbuger might have meant vegetarianism reduces a persons TOTAL emissions ( food, plus transport plus home heating etc) by 4% which might be about correct, to make vegetarianism look unimportant. So its a kind of calculated deception.

    But yes, your source is credible, veganism reduces emissions dramatically compared to a traditional diet.

    The op-ad article is very good analysis. Thanks.

  25. 25
    nigelj says:

    Cedric Knight @15

    “Andrew S makes a good point that polderisation cannot be generalised to other areas or coastal cities.”

    Yes. Posted this previously: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-17/the-dutch-approach-to-rising-seas-is-not-a-universal-fix

  26. 26
    J4Zonian says:

    Most of the points are either untrue, or true but out of round* as they say in the bicycle world. IOW, truth is distorted in some way: straw people, cherry picking, etc.
    https://www.skepticalscience.com/history-FLICC-5-techniques-science-denial.html

    #8 is typical: Doesn’t meet the author’s own criteria, yes, so why include it? To say something without saying it. It’s meant to imply sea level rise is no big deal. Obviously it is a big deal; besides the enormous cost, reducing our ability to meet our multiple crises, in many places with porous land (Florida) dikes will be useless and the land will have to be abandoned within a few decades if not sooner. Places that can’t afford the cost will also have to be abandoned, adding to the flood of refugees.

    #1 is simply untrue. The statement is not that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction, which might be debatable depending on definition, (although yes, clearly we are.) Even more obviously we ARE causing one, and its though it’s only starting, it IS starting and will get worse.

    Anyone used to dealing with denying delayalist trolls has heard arguments like these thousands of times; many are simply outright lies, but the tiny bit of truth in some is meant to disguise the much bigger and more essential lie(s). Many of them are dealt with here: http://www.skepticalscience.com
    Some here, like Moore and Gibbs’, are just specific iterations or variations on already-common ones; the others will just have to be added to the long list.

    * Spin a wheel while looking at it from above. If it wobbles back and forth it’s out of true and the spokes have to be screwed in or out to true it. Look at it from the side and spin it; if the circle has flat or pointy spots it’s out of round. Out of round is worse and harder to fix than out of true.

  27. 27

    Nigel, #24–

    Shillinburger–er, sorry, Shellenberger–perpetrated a “calculated deception?”

    Say it ain’t so, Joe!*

    *OT, but cultural references explained here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Say_it_ain%27t_so,_Joe_(disambiguation)

  28. 28
    J4Zonian says:

    #9 We do produce more food than we need, yet growing millions are hungry. (And have inadequate access to clean water.) That’s a serious indictment of capitalism, and its cousin, racist neo-colonialism, which besides nook boosterism is the raison d’être of the breakthrough boys. Equitable distribution is possible, but only if we ignore Shellenberger et al. If we continue as we are, with ever-greater concentration of wealth and increasing oppression to protect it, hunger will get worse and it’s likely hundreds of millions or billions will die. More capitalist trade agreements will add to the problem; we need to get rid of the ones we have or radically renegotiate them for a completely different purpose. I think our ability to maintain a coherent society in the face of ecological collapse without fascism (which in the end would doom us) is being overestimated.

    #11 Shellenberger tells a huge, crucial lie-by-omission by failing to mention that the solution to excess wood burning is exactly the same as the solutions to climate catastrophe—efficiency, wiser lives, clean safe renewable energy. Especially, priority to helping to provide cheap solar cookers to poor households. Further, while wood burning is carbon neutral, that’s well below what we have to achieve now, which is massive net sequestration through forestry and permaculture. The short term is what will determine our survival.

    #12 is related. Chemical industrial ag is destroying biodiversity and worsening climate cataclysm, through NOx, soil degradation, biocides, and bio-simplification.

  29. 29
    Barry Finch says:

    Paul Pukite @ 23 Yes, I read or heard a climate scientist indicate the models didn’t capture the large boost to Pacific Ocean easterlies that warming tropical Atlantic Ocean surface gave. That started 1995. I don’t know whether it dropped back with the 2015/16 El Nino but it was +30% (+1.0 m/s) at 2012, last I ever found. That ENSO’s a big deal for Earth.

  30. 30
    Russell says:

    19

    Hugo , there are ,alas, two sides to K Street.

    In parallel to Schellinberger’s pre- Climate Wars career as an apologist for Chavez Equatorial Guinea’s even worse dictator ,Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, hired the authors of Masters Of Disaster to handle his PR.

    They did such a good job that they went on to serve as John Podesta’s ghostwriters for The White House Climate Playbook!

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2019/04/the-good-old-days-of-bipartisan.html

  31. 31
    Piotr says:

    Nigel (24) “You are assuming like most people would that he meant…in comparison to a meat eating diet. Schellenbuger might have meant vegetarianism reduces a persons TOTAL emissions ( food, plus transport plus home heating etc) by 4% which might be about correct, to make vegetarianism look unimportant. So its a kind of calculated deception.

    Piotr: For the US – 2.06t/capita for normal diet, and overall emissions of 16.1t – food makes 12.8% of the US total emissions thus
    -giving up only red meat – reduces total emissions by 60%*12.8%= 7.7%
    – going vegan: 90%*12.8% = 11.5%

    Neither 7.7% nor 11.5% approximates as “4%”. And that’s for the US. For many other countries, meat-related emissions are much larger part of the their total GHG emissions.

    Furthermore, of all ways to reduce our env. footprint – this is the one that is easiest to do, and can be done now – i.e. no need to wait for new and/or expensive technological “fixes”.

    Also, it takes many litres of water and kgs of plant material to produce 1kg of beef – which implies less Amazon converted to pasture (with Brazil the largest exporter of beef in the world) – and less need for the industrialized agriculture that Shellenberger pushes for, with its carbon footprint, extraction and pollution of ground and surface waters, and the degradation of soil. That’s why he had to doctor the numbers to make reducing meat consumption appear environmentally inconsequential.

    But I guess with Shellenberger history of being a paid apologist for Hugo Chavez:

    “On May 20, 2004 Lumina Strategies filled a short-form registration on behalf of the Venezuela Information Office for Mr Michael Shellenberger. The budget for his work will be $60,000 not including out of pocket expenses.”
    http://www.vcrisis.com/index.php?content=letters/200406221843

    manipulating facts to suit those with money is nothing new to our “Hero of the Environment”.

  32. 32
    zebra says:

    Michael Tobis,

    Completely agree with the praise for the technical substance… a nicely constructed deconstruction.

    But as someone who sometimes invokes or defends social science concepts, I think this

    “But why is is so strangely constructed, so uncompelling to some of us, and yet apparently convincing to others?”

    is in itself an example of “outgroup homogeneity” thinking.

  33. 33
    Cedric Knight says:

    Hope it’s OK for a further thought, not on climate impacts but on the anthropology MT invokes around the marketing of Shellenberger’s book.

    The language of ‘facts few people know’ appeals, perhaps not consciously, to climate contrarians who see themselves as the heterogeneous free-thinkers described in MT’s conclusion. I think that the framing of subversive esoterica resonates strongly with the names of contrarian blogs: ‘Not a Lot of People Know That’. ‘No Tricks Zone’, WUWT, ‘Real Climate Science’ and others that claim to cover ‘real science’ that ‘alarmists’ don’t want you to know. Why are these particular blogs so successful in attracting viewers?

    While Shellenberger may be pedantically motivated to highlight unfortunate journalistic overstatements as part of defending his idea of economic progress and techno-optimism, the publications and their audience seize on his comments as an exposé for different purposes (the same purposes that colour their interpretation of ‘Planet of the Humans’). For the contrarian individual to which Shellenberger appeals, having arguments against the ‘uniform and zombie-like’ views of ‘climate concerned’ or ‘climate scared’ is a shortcut to holding a defensible and interesting opinion that is politically acceptable without requiring what David Appell describes as ‘thought-out rational discourse’. Why bother to understand and question the big scientific picture that has been superficially associated with contentious figures like Al Gore and the ‘MSM’ ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’, when this arcana gives a convenient direct line to overturn what are assumed to be the main arguments of activists who may be promoting inconvenient or damaging lifestyle changes?

    This process immediately assigns the individualistic reader into a superior and privileged minority who understand ‘facts few people know’, and so they can rise above the ‘hysteria’ and ‘alarmism’ both of mainstream climate coverage and of the experts who are proposing potentially even more disturbing information. And having assimilated one or more of the points, they can then boost their ego and status in their in-group by educating others, which might explain the vociferousness of the 10% who are climate ‘dismissives’. I admit my conjecture may be hard to verify: in engaging with contrarians, they are usually unwilling to open up about why they hold their views, although they are keen to talk conspiracies and politics and implied injustice. Sadly, without direct connection, this division that distracts from curiosity, objectivity and concern may be hard to heal.

  34. 34
    Mal Adapted says:

    Another excellent analysis, Michael. You have a very clear mind. I don’t need to read Apocalypse Never to conclude it’s written for greenie-bashers and lukewarmers. As cited, all of Shellenberger’s twelve points are misleading, but I’ll start with the first:

    1) Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

    IMO as a once-wannabe-professional and lifelong obsessed-amateur evolutionary biologist, Shellenberger’s confidence in that assertion is unjustified, indeed it’s largely rhetorical. As you imply, numerous peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals (e.g. Nature, Science Advances, PNAS) present rigorous quantitative evidence for an elevated rate of species extinction, compared to “background” rates prior to the spread of Homo sapiens around the globe. Appending “yet” to the quoted assertion is rather like saying “everything’s fine so far” whilst falling from a great height. And while it may be true that we haven’t collapsed into a nearly lifeless planet yet, Armageddon has already come for many species, from Pleistocene megafauna down to bugs and slugs. Leaving aside the precautionary principle, the significance of an anthropogenically elevated extinction rate is partly subjective, because countless non-charismatic species could disappear without the vast majority of humans knowing or caring. Those who are paying attention, however, are in mourning (“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” –A. Leopold).

    Shellenberger’s presumptuous apology for conservationist “alarmism” resembles a lukewarmer’s mockery of “CAGW”: no acknowledgement of how it feels to the victims of disaster. He makes the connection clear with

    3) Climate change is not making natural disasters worse

    The climate change signal may not be detectable in aggregate losses over time: as you say, it’s buried in the noise of confounding factors. But in addition to the obvious costs of adapting to accelerating sea-level rise, there’s strong evidence that some extreme weather is more extreme due to climate change. Shouldn’t the people left homeless by Hurricane Harvey, for example, know how much worse climate change made it? How much net tragedy must climate change cause compared to what there would be without it, for Shellenberger or RPJr to notice?

  35. 35
    Piotr says:

    Re: Michael Tobbis: “[Shellenberger’s] 8) The Netherlands became rich, not poor while adapting to life below sea level”

    1. As somebody pointed out – if the Dutch didn’t spend so much money on the dikes they … would have been much richer today.

    2. Their success has not been that complete:
    http://www.dwa.de/portale/ewa/ewa.nsf/C125723B0047EC38/8428F628AB57BECFC125766C003024B6/$FILE/Historical%20Dike%20Failures.pdf
    lists “1735 dike failures in the Netherlands between 1134 and 2006”. Some of them
    with large loss of life, or the need for massive evacuations (in 1993 – 250,000 people being evacuated)

    3. It has been achieved when dealing with stable sea-level. As you have pointed out – it is not clear whether they can keep it during a fast sea-level increase.

    4. Dikes are good for flooding, but not so much for sea water infiltration, which contaminates ground water and degrades agriculture and infrastructure in coastal locations [e.g. see https://www.climatechangepost.com/netherlands/salt-intrusion/%5D

    5. Last and most important – we are talking about GLOBAL problem – and at the global scale Netherlands is an exception, not the rule.
    So if anything, the lesson from Netherlands is a depressing one:
    if it took the wealth of a colonial empire and centuries of hard work of the Dutch to build a system which ability to hold off waters under sea-level increase still remains uncertain – than what the chance stand Island nations of Pacific or countries like Bangladesh, with a fraction of Dutch GDP/capita, with a bigger chance of being flooded from the land (massive Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, particularly during the wet monsoons), and with higher storm surges (stronger winds of tropical cyclones)?

    Nah, let’s hold up the Netherlands as an argument for the take home message of Shullenberger’s book: all is for the best in that best of the possible worlds, so let’s keep doing what we have been doing, it’s not as bad as those Climate Scared would have us believe.

    Professor Pangloss would have been proud.

  36. 36
    b fagan says:

    Seems along with rising seas there’s a surge in rising propaganda – Michael Moore’s buddy’s grudge flick where he mumbles angrily over the fact that people are building out renewables and then trying to earn back their envestment — then Shellenberger’s latest attempt to slow renewables.

    Don’t look now but Amazon’s dropping a new load from Lomborg. You’ll love the title: “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet”.

    I’m sure it will be interesting to see how Bjorn explains how ending diesel emissions, power plant emissions and reducing overall combustion will hurt the poor who suffer disproportionately from respiratory distress and air-quality issues. Needless to say, it already has glowing reviews from Matt Ridley, Niall Ferguson, and Canadian psychologist and “masculine spirit” promoter Jordon Peterson.

    When it rains, it pours.

  37. 37
    nigelj says:

    Piotr @31, I dont doubt your numbers and the value of vegetarianism, but surely Shellenburgers not so stupid as to just make up a number at random? So I think I’m probably still right in principle that Shellenburgers number is a proportion of total emissions, as he has calculated them, (probably badly which would explain the discrepancy with your numbers). This is deceptive, but it would give him plausible deniability if hes accused of just making things up.

    I’m not defending him: His op-ad is misleading nonsense at best. Im just intrigued by his motives. Cant find anything much, but he sounds like a gullible person who’s been sucked in by the climate denialists arguments, and seduced by money.

  38. 38

    Barry Finch says

    Paul Pukite @ 23 Yes, I read or heard a climate scientist indicate the models didn’t capture the large boost to Pacific Ocean easterlies that warming tropical Atlantic Ocean surface gave. That started 1995. I don’t know whether it dropped back with the 2015/16 El Nino but it was +30% (+1.0 m/s) at 2012, last I ever found. That ENSO’s a big deal for Earth.

    I guess that is related to the premise of Shellenberger’s book. He is essentially pointing out what he thinks are areas that climate scientists and earth scientists are overconfident in their predictions & warnings. Not having a good handle on what causes massive disruptions to the global climate every few years falls into this category.

    I have my own area of concern in that I don’t think climate scientists are fundamentally analyzing the natural variations in climate a la El Nino correctly. Specifically, they are not considering the role of tidal forces as they are unable to solve Laplace’s Tidal Equations along the equator in a canonical form. I have a model peer-reviewed and published that considers these factors and effectively matches the pattern of El Nino and other climate indices.

    It’s obvious that Shellenberger has gotten under the skin of lots of people, and only wish that at least some effort could be extended to verify more sincere technical climate analyses. Prof Pierrehumbert gave an online talk on exoplanets a few days ago and I was able to ask him a question as to why ideas by outsiders were accepted in astrophysics and astronomy circles but not so in climate science. He responded at the end of the talk that most climate science ideas offered up were “sloppy and attached to political agendas”, which kind of explains why new ideas would be automatically tainted in climate science but not in astronomy. C’est la vie. We need to separate politics from science.

  39. 39
    Old planning engineer says:

    Piotr (#14, #31)
    The devil is in the details as meat versus veganism debate depends on where you live in terms of CO2 and overall environmental impact. I agree that beef raised on concrete, fed corn and whose waste goes into a river is not a wise way to grow food. Where I live meat animals are humanely farmed on land that is not suited to cropping due to terrain and soils. Animal manure goes mostly back into the soil, (we are getting better at this but still not perfect) The animal is stunned prior to being killed, processed meat travels a few hundred km at most and the farms support a widespread community of unskilled, semi skilled and skilled labour. The more enlightened farmers use some of the profits to protect waterways, swamps etc. If you closed down the farms (the result of stopping consumption of meat) the rural communities would close and the land would revert not to some bucolic paradise but to a weed infested nightmare of choked streams and eroding hills covered in wilding pines.

    Its always tempting to take data out of context, especially on such fraught issues as determining what a person should eat.

  40. 40
    MA Rodger says:

    Cedric Knight @33,
    Just a point that you may have missed when listing those exemplar contrarian blogs you say were named to chime with the “subversive esoterica” that promotes denialism.
    You include in the list the blog site RealClimateScience which is the work of the dumbass Tony Heller aka Steve Goddard. The dumbass does indeed promote himself as, not only “a lifelong envirnmentalist”, but also as a purveyor of inside information. He uses as the strapline for his blogs “Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.” — ‘Richard Feynman’ and introduces himself saying “I am a whistle blower. I am an independent thinker who is considered a heretic by the orthodoxy on both sides of the climate debate.” (This is a pre-2016 version before Toto moved or, perhaps more likely as today there is no sign of Dorothy, before Toto was kidnapped.)
    But while all this fits with the “subversive esoterica” idea, as perhaps does the original name of his blog “Real Science”, the adoption of the present name of his blog Real Climate Science was intended to snatch search ratings away from this website here, Real Climate. Of course, the purpose here at Real Climate is to provide a channel for a “commentary on climate science by working climate scientists” which “provide[s] the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary.” Thus Real Climate does provide “esoterica” but not of the “subversive” kind.

  41. 41
    Hugo Márquez says:

    > 30. I believe few people know of what Shellenberger did for the Chávez regime. I do believe that sooner rather than later as more former loyalists defect from the dictatorship the facts about this terrible chapter in our history will gain prominence and propagandists like Shellenberger and Golinger will face very serious questions surrounding their role in providing the crucial international smoke screen for the atrocities, which functioned for several years. Their work undermining human rights workers, journalists and activists for democracy will be fully examined and responsibilities determined. Shellenberger provided misinformation and propaganda services to the Chávez regime and so is no surprise in the present provides a similar service against the science community. This is the way our world functions now.

  42. 42
    Michael Tobis says:

    On a mailing list, Kerry Emanuel points out that there is an important distinction between these claims.

    1. Natural disasters are not getting worse

    2. Climate change is not making natural disasters worse (which is what Shellenberger claims)

    Whatever the merits of Pielke’s disaster metric, it has little bearing on whether the events contributing to it weren’t worse than they otherwise would have been absent climate change!

  43. 43
    Paul Donahue says:

    #19 – What is this comment doing here? It is totally off-topic and irrelevant to a climate science discussion. It is also completely fabricated misinformation regarding the multiply democratically-elected Bolivarian Movement/PSUV government of Venezuela under the late President Chavez and its human rights record, especially compared to its neighbor Colombia.

  44. 44
    Piotr says:

    Piotr @31, “I dont doubt your numbers and the value of vegetarianism, but surely Shellenburgers not so stupid as to just make up a number at random?”

    I won’t be rewarding him by buying his book, but rorm the difference between his number (4%) and 2-3 times higher calculated based onKim et al. 2019 –
    the most likely answer is that, as good climate change denier and former paid propagandist for Chavez, he cherry-picked the historic data and used tendentious assumptions to make changing diet look worthless the effort, and decided to ignore the contradicting data from Kim et al. 2019.

    And that 2-3 times under-estimation that’s for the US – but since we are talking about global problem – the correct % should be to global effects: in most of the world
    -the numerator is not likely to be much smaller – you have to eat (then again in the more vulnerable places Brasil it is in fact about twice BIGGER than in the US), while
    – the denominator would be several times SMALLER – since most of the people on the planet have lower per capita GHG emissions than the US.

    As a result the effect of giving up on red meat or veganism for an average human would be bigger than the 7.7-11.5% I calculated for the US, and certainly bigger than the Shellenberger’s 4%.

    Piotr

  45. 45
    Piotr says:

    Re: Old planning engineer (39)
    “The devil is in the details as meat versus veganism debate depends on where you live in terms of CO2 and overall environmental impact.”

    yes and no. “Yes”, there will be differences between countries hence I gave the link to the country-specific effects of the various diets:

    https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S0959378018306101?token=29B78A9621E5A19A7B44509224EDBF7DA5FAC4CFA3A6A9232DA793D92953CB803126788D6A5B5CC69C181021EC1960B6

    “No”, the devil in the detail saying suggest that under some details the outcome may be OPPOSITE to the expected a priori. Little chance of that here -regardless of the details (animal husbandry practices, vulnerability of the environment) – in Brazil cows have the same physiology like in the US – both burp and fart methane, which is close to 30 times more effective, unit per unit, in heating the climate over 100 yrs than CO2. Plus it takes many litres of water and kgs of plant feed to raise 1 kg of beef.

    So yes – cattle raised on burned out Amazon rain forest (Brazil is the biggest exporter of beef) will have larger emission footprint that the cattle raised in the US (see the Brazil figure in the Kim’s et al paper; Fig. 7), but in both places, red-meat in diet would SIGNIFICANTLY increase your GHG food-emission compared to the diet without red-meat, or even more compared to going vegan.

  46. 46
    Michael Tobis says:

    I think it is possible to produce meat and dairy and eggs humanely.

    Whether it is possible for them to be healthy for consumption in anything like accustomed quantities is another question. I myself am convinced by the arguments of Dr. Michael Greger that it is not.

    But neither of those questions is, in my opinion, suitable for this site, and I’d rather steer the debate away from that, perhaps toward another venue.

    Whether it is possible to produce those animal products sustainably is, on the other hand, a suitable question for this discussion.

    The answer to that is necessarily quantitative. Can meat, dairy, and egg production meet the level of demand that one would anticipate from ten billion people adopting the levels of consumption associated a standard western diet if produced in traditional settings and in sustainable ways?

    If we don’t avoid high animal product consumption, and we want to feed ten billion people, aren’t we stuck with CAFOs?

  47. 47
    Susan Anderson says:

    b fagan, currently 36:

    “Moore’s buddy’s grudge flick” is wonderfully succinct. Thanks for the warning on Lomborg’s latest. Unfortunately, NYTimes Bret Stephens is a fan. Birds of a feather deny together. Let’s all get rich and some genius will fix it later, while the less fortunate suffer disproportionately. “All” being a selective description of those who have food, shelter, hot and cold clean running water, access to health care, good schools and transport, and good internet, at a minimum.

    Sadly, Tony Heller, aka Steven Goddard, is skilled in the art of deception and without conscience.
    https://www.desmogblog.com/steven-goddard

  48. 48

    #42 regarding Kerry Emanuel

    Professor Emanuel has a recent article called “The Relevance of Theory for Contemporary Research in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate” in the inaugural issue of AGU Advances. It raises some interesting points about what it takes to be curious in climate science “First and foremost, we must resist the wholesale migration of atmospheric, oceanic, and climate science away from a traditional curiosity‐driven scientific endeavor to the more strictly applied venture of predicting weather and climate.”

    My take on the article is on this twitter thread:
    https://twitter.com/whut/status/1279434134876835841

  49. 49
    nigelj says:

    Piotr @44, he might have cherry picked the USA which is most favourable to his argument. Again plausible deniability. But you are probably right in your view that he just cherry picked historical data etcetera. Its a simpler explanation.

    Would love to know what the hell goes on in his head. Why an environmentalist and peace activist and Mennonite went over to the dark side of the force.

  50. 50
    Al Bundy says:

    Piotr on meat,
    Thanks. And meat has vastly divergent carbon and water ‘content’. Scrub land v lush pasture. Birds v moo v oink. And can’t forget fish. Hmm, three-eyed tilapia flourishing in winter in a nuke’s cooling pond. Yummy!
    (I eat skin-on (for fats) wild salmon and lean bird.

    But, this post has saved me the time to bother reading anything by Shellenberger. Heck, I started scrolling for gems. Sooo much effort you expended!

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