When it comes to radical activism, there are few who can hold an ethically-sourced candle to Michael Shellenberger.
At 16, he threw his first fundraising party for a rainforest conservation group. At 17, he lived in Nicaragua to show ‘solidarity’ with the Sandinista socialist revolution.
By his early 20s, he was raising money for Guatemalan women’s co-operatives and small farmers to fight off corporations trying to take their land in the Amazon. In 2008, Time magazine named him its ‘Hero of the Environment’. His ideas to promote renewable energy led to the Obama administration pumping $150 billion into the now trendy sector.
But far from being a ‘hero’ of the Green movement, he’s now become a heretic they’d happily burn at the stake — if that didn’t increase the global carbon footprint, of course. For the American environmentalist has changed his mind. Rather drastically.
Distilling the contents of his new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, he recently wrote an online opinion article for the business magazine Forbes entitled ‘On Behalf of Environmentalists, I Apologise For The Climate Scare’. He continued: ‘Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem.’
A few days later, Forbes took the story down without explanation, eventually claiming it had removed the article because it violated its editorial guidelines ‘around self-promotion’. (Shellenberger was plugging his book).
Shellenberger, 49, claimed — understandably — that he had been censored after his article sent the Green lobby into a frenzy. But if this was censorship, it backfired spectacularly as his offending article was republished all over the internet and the uproar propelled his book into most bestseller lists (rising to seventh in Amazon’s non-fiction list).
His essential message is not one his old comrades would want you to hear. His thesis is that rabid Green alarmism is creating a raft of dangerous myths about climate change and blinding the public to real solutions that could address far more pressing global problems. Having once campaigned for them, Shellenberger now believes that most forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind power are simply impractical for large scale use in much of the world. They’re also damaging because they require huge amounts of land and harm wildlife.
Meanwhile, hysterical Green doom-mongers — he singles out Britain’s Extinction Rebellion group and 17-year-old Swedish eco-warrior Greta Thunberg — must stop saying the world is about to end due to climate change. It isn’t even close, he says.
The humdinger of a row sparked by his extraordinary volte face comes just two months after Michael Moore, documentary-making darling of the Left, created a similar stink with Planet Of The Humans, a new film that also claimed that Green energy cannot possibly solve the world’s energy needs and isn’t nearly as ‘renewable’ as is claimed.
If the Greens felt annoyed by Moore — usually so reliable on liberal causes such as gun control and the awfulness of Republicans — they are incandescent at Shellenberger. After all, he’s meant to be one of them, a veteran of the cause who’s spent 30 years as an environmentalist.
In his new book, he takes aim at a cornucopia of the Green movement’s treasured beliefs. Man-made climate change is not causing a new ‘mass extinction’ of species as only 0.001 percent of the planet’s species go extinct annually; the Amazon is not the ‘lungs of the world’ and carbon emissions are not soaring but declining in most rich countries, including Britain.
Contrary to what we are often led to believe, climate change is not making natural disasters worse, he says: the greater use of wood fuel and the growing number of houses near forests are the real reasons why there are more severe fires in Australia and California.
Some of the statistics he brandishes are shocking to anyone remotely acquainted with the environmental movement, especially its claims that we need to become vegan and stop consuming meat to save the planet.
According to Shellenberger, the co-founder of a think tank called Environmental Progress, becoming a vegetarian actually reduces one’s emissions by less than four per cent while ‘free range’ beef — usually claimed to be more eco-friendly than the intensively farmed variety — requires 20 times more land and produces 300 per cent more carbon emissions.
As for starvation fears, we produce 25 per cent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter. Meanwhile, switching to 100 per cent renewable energy is unfeasible — the U.S. would need to devote between 25 and 50 per cent of its total land to energy generation, compared with the 0.5 per cent it takes up now.
He also attacks the ‘myth’ that plastics linger for thousands of years in the ocean, saying they’re broken down by sunlight and other forces. As for the whales, they were saved not by Greenpeace as many believe, but by industry switching from whale oil to petroleum and palm oil, he says. Again and again, says Shellenberger, the Greens have actually made things worse rather than better with their misguided views.
He maintains the world’s most pressing environmental problem is not climate change but the continued burning of wood as fuel by up to two billion people — a consequence, he says, of poverty.
‘Environmentalists got it exactly wrong’, Shellenberger told me this week. Motivated by left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-growth ideas, they have pushed for a low energy, low consumption world — essentially ‘a return to Elizabethan England’, he says — when what is needed is the opposite. Industrialisation in the Third World (where carbon emissions are rising the fastest) may cause a short-term rise in carbon emissions, he argues, but in the long term it benefits the environment as it pushes people out of the countryside and into cities. Farmland can revert to nature and people get richer, allowing them to switch to cleaner forms of energy.
A critical way of saving the environment, says Shellenberger, is to produce more food, particularly meat, on less land. He also argues Western banks and governments should stop forcing renewable energy technology such as batteries and solar panels on developing countries and let them build hydroelectric dams and efficient fossil fuel power stations. Rich nations are trying to make poverty ‘sustainable’ rather than ‘history’ in the Third World, he says damningly.
He says his argument is particularly relevant in a world crippled by coronavirus, as it has laid bare how, in order to prevent pandemics (a far greater threat than climate change, he notes), we need to reduce our exposure to wild animals. That means creating more chicken, pork and beef in modern, safer facilities.
The news on climate change has actually been getting better, he says. Every rich country’s carbon emissions are already down and in the UK, France and Germany, those emissions peaked in the 1970s.
It’s not hard to see why his old allies are so riled. Shellenberger is putting a big red pen through pretty much everything the modern Green movement holds dear. He takes particular aim at the UK’s Extinction Rebellion, whose celebrity supporters range from Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Colman to Ellie Goulding and Bob Geldof.
During the two weeks of chaos caused by the group’s protests in October last year, spokesmen made a raft of alarming claims — billions of people were going to perish from climate change, the Earth was dying and government was doing nothing. Their apocalyptic predictions were echoed by Greta Thunberg. ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful’ about climate change, she said, ‘I want you to panic.’
Pointing out that the group’s popularity plunged after the protests, (and in fact its spokesman, British activist Zion Lights, actually defected to his group, Environmental Progress), Shellenberger says climate alarmism is self-defeating. Not only is it unnecessarily scaring the wits out of people — he cites a poll showing one in five British children report having nightmares about climate change (not surprising given Extinction Rebellion banners claimed ‘Climate Change Kills Children) —but it turns off working people who feel environmentalists don’t actually care about them. ‘And they’re right, they don’t,’ he adds. ‘[Climate alarmism] also destroys the credibility of science and, right now, trust is everything.’
He says he wrote Apocalypse Never ‘because the conversation about climate change and the environment has, in the past few years, spiralled out of control. ‘Much of what people are being told about the environment, including climate, is wrong, and we desperately need to get it right.’
He’s ‘fed up’, he adds. ‘with the exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism that are the enemy of a positive, humanistic and rational environmentalism’. The people ‘most apocalyptic about environmental problems tend to oppose the best and most obvious solutions to solving them’.
He isn’t, however, calling for complacency and rejects accusations — fuelled by the fact that he’s now being lionised by some conservative groups — that he’s a shill for global warming deniers. ‘It’s true that climate change is real and it does present some potential risks,’ he told me. ‘But it’s nothing like this Hollywood, Mad Max, End of the World, Crazy Town scenario that was painted by Extinction Rebellion and Greta last year.’
We need to get our priorities right, he says. Just think how much more useful it would have been if all those climate change protesters had marched instead for pandemic preparedness, he points out. What message does he want the public to take from his book in altering their behaviour? ‘I want them to know what matters,’ he replies. They should feel happy buying cheap ‘fast fashion’ because it not only ‘liberates’ the women who make the clothes in Third World factories by giving them jobs, but as it moves them from countryside to urban areas, it returns the land to nature as less is used for food production.
In fact, Shellenberger says climate change is intrinsically linked with poverty, and that if people in the Third World have more money, they can invest in cleaner energy, using gas and electricity, for example, rather than burning wood.
People should also eat farmed fish (which are much more ethically produced now than they used to be, he says) rather than wild ones because overfishing is a huge threat to the oceans. Naturally the Green movement hasn’t taken all this lying down, challenging some of his claims as inaccurate. In particular, they take issue with his assertions that global warming isn’t threatening a lot of species and that it hasn’t made natural disasters more frequent.
On the latter, Shellenberger counters that they’re conflating ‘extreme weather events’ — which include heatwaves, wild fires and hurricanes — with actual disasters which involve major damage and loss of life. While he concedes that first category has become more severe and common, he says the opposite’s true of natural disasters. Other scientists and academics, however, have praised his book for finally calling time on climate change alarmism.
Shellenberger isn’t surprised he’s drawn flak although the personal attacks — being threatened with castration on Twitter — have been a ‘deeply unpleasant experience’.
The vehemence may be understandable given his belief that this ‘apocalyptic’ view of climate change is an ‘evangelical, fundamentalist religion’ that doesn’t respond to rational arguments.
It satisfies a basic need for something to believe in, he says, and its followers can convince themselves they are serving a higher purpose [saving the planet].
‘These people are in the grip of a religion,’ says Shellenberger, ‘and they don’t know it.’