By Amy Westervelt
Michael Shellenberger is a longtime communications strategist. He spent the first decade or so of his career advising environmentalist nonprofits like the Sierra Club on various campaigns, and has spent the latter half critiquing green groups and their tactics.
Early in his tenure at the Breakthrough Institute, an enviro-oriented think tank he co-founded in 2003, Shellenberger settled on nuclear energy as a key, and possibly the key, solution to climate change. Shellenberger ultimately left Breakthrough to start his own organization, Environmental Progress, and focus full- time on advocating for nuclear.
A controversial figure known for lobbing grenades at “Big Green,” Shellenberger has recently stirred up quite a bit of controversy in climate circles with his new book, "Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All," and a Forbes blog post promoting the book in which he apologized on behalf of all environmentalists for the harm done by what he calls “climate alarmism.”
July 30, 2020
Although not a climate denier — Shellenberger regularly affirms that climate change is happening, that human-caused CO2 emissions are the key driver, and that we need to do something about it — his work has increasingly been embraced by climate deniers and climate skeptics, a fact that has made Shellenberger a target for criticism from climate activists, journalists, and scientists.
I finished reading "Apocalypse Never" almost two weeks ago. It’s been more than a week since I spoke with Shellenberger, who graciously spent two hours on the phone with me. Yet I've struggled to gather my thoughts on both.
Critics have painted Shellenberger as someone to ignore entirely if you think climate change is a serious threat. Yet there were aspects of his book I agreed with, thorny subjects I think the climate movement should grapple with, from the role of nuclear energy in decarbonization to the way any critiques of renewable energy are often shut down.
What I’ve realized is that this zero-sum approach is the main problem, both with Shellenberger and his book, and with a lot of the responses to them. The black-and-white, either-or arguments beginning to dominate the climate conversation strike me as profoundly unhelpful in addressing a complex problem that impacts every aspect of our lives.
There’s nothing Earth-shatteringly new in "Apocalypse Never," nor does it contain any particularly surprising arguments, especially if you are familiar with Shellenberger or the “ecomodernist” philosophy, which, in broad strokes, advocates technology- and markets-focused approaches to solving big environmental problems.
As for the growing pile of critiques: Yes, Shellenberger cherry-picked some data points. Yes, he draws evidence for any particular argument he makes from studies dating back to 2010 as well as research published in 2020, sometimes all in the same sentence. Yes, he is a consummate builder of straw man arguments, often "debunking" things no environmentalist has ever said. Yes, he sometimes treats people in developing countries as useful props for his arguments, rather than acknowledging them as three-dimensional humans. And yes, he occasionally makes breathtaking leaps in logic and leaves big gaps in the story. Yet "Apocalypse Never" is also readable and accessible.
What’s unsettling and worth thinking through, I’ve decided, is not what the book gets wrong, but what it gets right, and then ham-fistedly bashes the nuance right out of.
Much like "Planet of the Humans," the recent Michael Moore-produced documentary-style film that critiques the environmental movement, "Apocalypse Never" — meaning Shellenberger himself — is so intent on being contrarian, on the value of contrarianism just for the sake of it, that what could have been an intelligent critique of some prized environmental darlings turns into a rambling screed embraced by climate skeptics.
It’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that, again like Moore, Shellenberger has claimed to be open to criticism and debate, but tends to engage defensively with those who disagree with him. After Forbes pulled Shellenberger's blog post, entitled “On Behalf of Environmentalists, I Apologize for the Climate Scare,” he took to Twitter to shout “censorship!” As a former contributor to Forbes myself, and given that Forbes regularly posts contrarian views, I suspected the move had more to do with breaking the site’s promotional policy than censorship, a fact Forbes later confirmed. But Shellenberger has yet to acknowledge this publicly.
As press coverage of his book ramped up, Shellenberger apparently suspected two outlets were preparing hit pieces on him, and went on pre-emptive strike against journalists Graham Readfearn of The Guardian, and Nick O’Malley of the Sydney Morning Herald by demanding ethics investigations into both. When O’Malley took Shellenberger up on his offer of a recorded interview, Shellenberger took the uncommon steps of taping the interview himself as well, and posting the entire transcript to his website. It’s a clever way to keep journalists honest, I suppose, but doesn’t exactly scream, “I’m reasonable and open to criticism!”
Which is too bad, because during the course of our conversation (transcribed and posted below—edited for length, but yes, the entire transcript is available upon request), I saw glimmers of a person capable of engaging in a productive debate about environmental issues. In building a platform and a persona as a climate contrarian over the past 15 or so years, perhaps Shellenberger has lost some capacity for nuance.
Climate arguments are increasingly feeling more like high school debates, with both sides intent on winning the argument instead of solving the problem. What absolutist critiques of the environmental movement like "Apocalypse Never" run a very real risk of doing is removing some of the very arguments they’re trying to advance from the flow of intellectually honest discourse. Climate skeptics shouldn't be the only ones criticizing the environmental movement, just like far-right trolls shouldn't be the only ones criticizing the media. But approaches like Shellenberger’s tend to force opponents into equally absolutist takes, undermining productive debate.
“In our own work we’re often tempted to support the exact opposite of what the ecomodernists propose,” said Sam Bliss, a University of Vermont researcher and frequent Shellenberger critic. “And if you cherry pick your facts and only argue one side, it’s possible to make the exact opposite argument. But reality is so much more interesting and complicated!”
Since the release of "Apocalypse Never," Shellenberger has hammered the point over and over again that he based it on the best available scientific evidence. But having a list of great citations doesn’t change the fact that he chose to interpret those studies and make judgement calls about which findings to use, and has since been accusing anyone who disagrees with his judgement of either not acknowledging or not correctly understanding the science.
In other words, he engages in exactly the sort of arguments he so vehemently criticizes the climate movement for making.
“I think this actually lies in the realm of values versus evidence," said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "If you want to argue that we should focus on adaptation rather than mitigation, that’s a choice. It’s not one I’d make, but people disagree with me all the time." What she objects to as a scientist, however, "is when people feel they have to downplay the current and future impacts of climate change to justify this choice.”
After all, adaptation isn’t possible if we keep changing the climate on the human time scale of decades and years. A key critique of “Apocalypse Never" from the science community has been in response to Shellenberger’s claim that climate change is not making natural disasters worse. In the book, the claim is pegged to the work of controversial political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., a self-styled climate contrarian like Shellenberger, which shows that the cost of natural disasters in terms of dollars, lives, and property lost has decreased in recent decades. Therefore, using the United Nations definition of natural disasters as “severe alterations in the normal functioning of community or society interacting with vulnerable social conditions," Shellenberger concludes natural disasters are not getting worse. So how could climate change be making them worse?
But this turns out to be a neat linguistic trick to gotcha scientists or activists who question him, because dozens of studies over the past 15 years have measured exactly how much climate change is intensifying extreme weather events like floods and wildfires. If they are costing less in dollars, deaths, and destruction, it’s at least in part because we’re trying to adapt to these new realities, not because they don’t exist. And the idea that humans will continue to adapt quickly and effectively to increasingly extreme weather events that are happening in parallel more often seems exceedingly optimistic at best. It’s hard to believe Shellenberger, as a lifelong comms guy, doesn’t know exactly what impression the line “climate change is not making natural disasters worse” leaves with the vast majority of people, most of whom know nothing of the detailed differences between how scientists or the U.N. define extreme weather and natural disasters.
“We are absolutely seeing impacts of climate change now: fires, drought, heavy precipitation events, heat waves,” Marvel said. “Are these bad? I think so, but that’s a moral, not a scientific judgement. Are these happening? Yes. And downplaying or denying that is not supported by science.”
Q&A: Michael Shellenberger
The following is an interview with Michael Shellenberger, conducted the week "Apocalypse Never" was released. During our talk he explained the history of his thinking on climate, and some of the arguments he makes in the book.
Michael Shellenberger: I'm totally down for having debates and arguments. I mean, I'm not a shrinking violet or something.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
I mean, I'm excited to hear what you thought of it [the book].
I liked it. You know, I've had this issue recently where I do feel like there's this shrinking tolerance for debate in the climate movement. Around the Michael Moore movie recently, for example, you had to either hate it or love it. And I was like, I agree with some parts. I disagree with some parts. I think they should have updated their data. And also, I think there are things to consider here. I don't know.
Well, thank you. I agree a hundred percent.
Yeah. So I think [Apocalypse Never] is a useful addition to the conversation. And I had some questions! There were parts where I was like ... I don't know about this.
Of course. Let's talk about it.
Okay! Awesome. So I happened to be in the Bay Area when Breakthrough started and when The Death of Environmentalism came out. And actually, I was at the Commonwealth Club when Adam Werbach made his speech about it.
Oh, my God, bringing back some history.
So I wanted to start a little bit with your history, what was happening in the few years leading up to the Death of Environmentalism, both in your life, but also what were you seeing happening in the environmental movement? What were some of the things that made you think the environmental movement really needed to change?
OK. I would say one important moment for me personally is that I was reading a lot. I was very alarmed about climate change. You know, I had been really, since the 90s and was increasingly so. And in the early 2000s, I really wanted to focus on it. And I didn't know what I wanted to do. At first, I was very interested in these corporate campaigns because, as you know from the book, we had a very successful campaign against Nike for its factory conditions in Asia. So I thought it might be a corporate campaign. And I was actually working with Sierra Club a little bit to target one of the automakers. But then, my friends, including a supporter at the time, Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who was really 10 years older than me and had a lot of really good legislative experience, he was just like, “You're thinking too small. And this needs to be a wholesale transformation of the energy economy. And therefore, we need to be thinking much bigger than just the automakers.”
And then I was also reading one of these books that really described how really the entire Silicon Valley was invented by the Defense Department, you know, as microchips and visuals. The whole story. I might have heard that there had been an Apollo project proposed for energy in the past—I can't quite remember exactly—but basically with a group of other people, Bracken Hendricks and obviously Ted Nordhaus, who was my coauthor, Adam Werbach, Peter Teague we essentially created something called the New Apollo Project, which was basically identical to the Green New Deal. And it was really focused on investing in new technology and infrastructure to replace fossil fuels rather than putting a price on carbon through cap and trade.
We had some foundation support. This is all probably 2003. And we had incredible resistance from the big environmental groups. It was weird, like so dogmatically against it. Like it had to be a price on carbon, that was like the only way it would work. It had to be these regulations and it had to dictate exactly when the emissions would come down. And we started not only pushing back against that, just advocating for Apollo, but also just trying to figure out “Why the heck are environmentalists so dogmatic about this?” So that was one thing going on.
Another thing was I was interested in social movements. I've always been interested in social movements. I was reading, or was re-reading, Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, which is this beautiful history of the civil rights movement. And I was reading a ton of Bill McKibben and I noticed that after I got done reading the Taylor Branch book on the civil rights movement, it's all about love in the face of hatred. And I felt happy.
And when I read Bill McKibben, I would literally become depressed. And I shouldn't really use that word because that's a bit too strong. I certainly felt sad, but it definitely lingered with me. And, as you know if you get to the end of "Apocalypse Never," there were other things going on in my life that didn't have anything to do with the environment that I wasn't super happy about. I think now, looking back so many years later, probably influenced my apocalyptic mentality and my alarmism and even the utopianism, which has really there's been, at least until recently, a big feature of apocalyptic thinking. So that's sort of the story of Apollo.
You know, somebody in our coalition presented it to John Kerry's team in 2004. And they were like, “Well, that doesn't make any sense because it appears as though it is an agenda that transcends energy, the economy and national security.” Whereas for us, those are boxes, and each has its own list of things. That was the John Kerry world.
And then you fast forward in 2007, my last book with Ted was about to come out, Break Through, and my marriage was falling apart, and I was in probably what it's fair to describe as a fairly manic state of mind and just was like, I gotta go sell Apollo to Obama. Jeff Navin, who was a congressional staffer, but close to folks in the Obama campaign, basically arranged for us to get a meeting with David Axelrod and really the whole policy team. I hadn't been at that Kerry meeting three years earlier, but this team was different. I mean, they really were great. We'd actually briefed Hillary Clinton on some of the research data at the time. And her people were just of the worst of Washington. And the Obama people, they got it right away. And then the rest is history.
They basically were like, “Yeah, we want to do a big investment in clean energy.” And that was the stimulus investment.
So I'm curious about what you feel the initial reaction to Breakthrough was. And if people were sort of open to that kind of new thinking, or if you got a lot of pushback at the time.
Are you actually asking about Death of Environmentalism or the book Break Through?
I'm asking more about Death of Environmentalism and then the early days of the Breakthrough Institute. But we could talk about the Break Through book too.
So The Death of Environmentalism. Here's what happened: we were frustrated that the environmental philanthropists were not supportive of this new agenda because of that resistance.. it had to be about a price on carbon, it had to be, you know, carbon regulations.
Peter, again the funder at Nathan Cummings Foundation, gets us into this Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting in Kauai, Hawaii in 2004. And we were like, “Fuck it. We're just going to write something that just calls out all the bullshit.” you know, Ted and I, and Peter, and Adam were kind of, you know, fellow travelers. Co-conspirators.
Adam was the one that maybe had the most to lose because he had been president the Sierra Club and had the most mainstream legitimacy of the four of us, and certainly celebrity. So we work on this essay and, it points out, the most famous line is, “Martin Luther King didn't give the I have a nightmare speech, he gave the I have a dream speech.”
Yeah, that's right.
And that's right out of my experience with being depressed by reading Bill McKibben and being inspired by reading about the civil rights movement. Ted brought in some just very deep and important stuff around literalism and the literalism of environmentalism and the ways in which the box thing with Kerry, like if it's a climate problem, then the climate plan. It couldn't possibly also benefit the economy or something. This is still a very mainstream view. And that's Robert Stavins' view, you know, at Harvard.
And it was the criticism of Van Jones's book. You know, Van was sort of in all of this as well. After I was shitcanned from the Apollo Alliance board of directors for writing Death of Environmentalism, Van happily jumped right into my spot.
So anyway, we write this essay, Death of Environmentalism. And of course, we knew it'd be controversial. People were like, “You gave it that headline because you were trying to attract attention!” And it was like, “Yup, you got it. That is what we were doing. How secret.”
And it was just a crazy event. I mean, it was at this luxurious hotel. And it was just scandalous because, you know, that philanthropic culture is just very stuffy and snobby and stuff. So it was a huge scandal, but of course, everybody had to read it. We heard from multiple people that on the flights back to New York and California, it was filled with all these environmental philanthropists, and you would walk down the aisle of the jet plane and just see the green back cover of Death of Environmentalism. Because everybody was reading it.
We lost friends and funders and, you know. Meanwhile, we’re being accused of being opportunistic. But actually there was all these consequences.
One of the things that I have noticed with the current iteration of the climate movement is that it seems to be getting more human focused. The early environmentalists seemed much more nature focused and less about human survival or human life. Do you think you were feeling that way during this period that you're describing?
Well, yeah sure. I mean, definitely. And of course, the big humanizing element or potentially humanizing element was environmental justice. We hit some environmental justice themes in Death of Environmentalism. And I think Ted had a better developed criticism of environmental justice than I had, certainly at the time. And then, of course, after we wrote our essay, the environmental justice folks were split. I think half of them felt kind of glad to see what they viewed as very similar criticisms being leveled at similar people, you know: the white leadership of the environmental movement. I think they also felt a little slighted. And maybe they were justified in feeling that way in the sense that we didn't really recognize what they had done.
Which I might regret. I'm not sure. So then we ended up writing a criticism of the environmental justice movement, and some affirmations too, in Break Through
I'm curious what you have to say about environmental justice. Because I do feel like it's almost like the environmental justice movement and the “mainstream” environmental movement evolved on different tracks. What was your criticism then and how do you feel like it's evolved?
Yeah, I mean one thing I discovered in the research for "Apocalypse Never," I was trying to get to the bottom of this problem of how did the post-socialist or sort of ostensibly socialist left in the 60s marry itself to this Malthusian tradition, which is traditionally viewed as a right wing or conservative tradition. So how do you get this marriage of left and right in environmentalism? Because of course, you know, Marx and Engels hated Malthus. This is Thomas Malthus, the economist from the 18th century, who said we'd always run out of food, there'd be too many people.
Well, you kind of end up with this thing today they called donut economics, which is where poor people in the Congo can get a solar panel on a battery for their huts and maybe we'll create a well that they can pump for water. And then we in the United States will all basically degrow our way into and we'll kind of meet in the middle. And I'm not saying there's ever like a room or a meeting or something where that happened. I mean, it really happens around this debate between Barry Commoner, who's the socialist greens, you know, huge, major intellectual force in the environmental movement, the 60s and 70s, and an argument he's having with Paul Ehrlich, who is a Malthusian biologist.
With Population Bomb and all that stuff.
Yeah. So it's been in that more of a socialist-ish discourse around...we have to redistribute wealth. So basically, the accommodation is we're gonna’ stop the World Bank from helping poor countries to develop. So we don't want the money to go to agricultural intensification, roads, hydroelectric dams, flood control.
We want it to go to democracy workshops and charitable enterprises like that. I mean, the hot thing right now is solar panels and batteries. At other periods of time it might have been something else. So we'll divert money from development to charity in the World Bank. And then the United States will pursue policies to move towards a low growth renewable power economy. And that basically was then the architecture of what we called the New Apollo project, and what is now called the Green New Deal. It's a bit of a mash.
But they were all directionally supposed to be headed towards a low energy society in the United States. And just a modestly improved standard of living in poor countries, but certainly not industrialization.
Right. OK. So I wanted to ask you one more thing about the past before we get into the book. And that is around why you decided to leave Breakthrough and start Environmental Progress and what Environmental Progress is doing.
So I started Environmental Progress to do environmental advocacy. I really wanted to do two things, which you see in "Apocalypse Never": fight for the right of poor countries to develop using whatever modern energy they want because they're poor. And then the second was to save our nuclear plants because our nuclear plants were being closed down around the world for non-economic reasons, for political reasons, and even in the cases where people claim it was economic, I view it as political because they were not getting anywhere near the support that say renewables were getting to compete with gas.
Long story short, nuclear turned out to be such a crazy, complicated, difficult, difficult issue that required basically all of my attention. So I didn't get to any of the advocacy for energy for poor countries at all until now. And I'm very happy to finally get there with this book. But that's what I've been focused on.
We've helped save nuclear plants in New York, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, South Korea. And now I just hired the former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in Britain to help us to get six new full-sized French built nuclear reactors in Britain in what I think is the most important nuclear build project in the West. Maybe the world. So that's been my focus.
The truth is, because we don't accept any funding from any industry, including the nuclear industry, I just haven't had very much money. And so what that meant was that I've never been able to really hire organizers. Organizers are actually very expensive. And basically what it's meant is that Environmental Progress turned into a research organization that does advocacy. I mean, it's kind of like what is advocacy. I don't pretend to be some objective—I don't believe in that anyway—objective news reporter or something. So, for example, I decided to write a column for Forbes. Because I view it as part of my social change work, and I always hashtag it social change. And I view "Apocalypse Never" as emerging from a set of ethical and political commitments.
On the nuclear front, the thing that I hear a lot of climate folks who support nuclear talking about is, you know, save "good" or more modern nuclear plants, but close down old ones and fund new-gen nuclear, is that in line with what you’re seeing, or what you’re advocating?
Oh, absolutely not. And I'm a little surprised to hear you say that.
I'm surprised to hear you say that because actually I feel like there is a consensus among a lot of people that we should keep the existing plants running.
I mean, obviously I think if a nuclear plant should be shut down because it's unsafe, it should be shut down. Let me also real briefly explain what my view of nuclear power plants are. But I will preface this by saying I think that you have to understand nuclear in the context of it being a completely radical revolutionary technology whose most famous manifestation is absolutely terrifying, and should be terrifying. Nuclear weapons are scary and they should be scary. That's how they work.
So nuclear plants themselves. All we know about what makes for safe nuclear and economical nuclear is experience, experience, experience. That's all we know. That's it. In other words, the same people building the same reactor over and over again, the same people regulating the same kinds of plants over and over again. It works just like you would imagine. It's like checklists in hospitals.
So then there's this idea that maybe there's something fundamentally wrong with the technology. The accidents that occur, they occur because of a loss of coolant, loss of water to cool the hot radioactive cores. They then melt and emit some amount of radioactive particles into the natural environment that have, we know now, actually very modest health impacts on very few people. But nonetheless, it's scary. My view is that we are much better off continuing to go down the large lightwater nuclear path than to make a big change now, 60 years later. It's like we'd literally be going back in time.
There's this idea that we would know in advance that there's some design that's cheaper and better. And first of all, it's a cognitive error that you would imagine that you would know from a paper design, from a blueprint or something else, that it would be somehow game changing.
So my view is that nuclear plants themselves, the facilities themselves, we should think about them as basically immortal. They are jewels in the sense of being the basis for a fully, deeply decarbonized economy.
Especially if you're alarmist about climate change, the option value of existing nuclear sites is enormous if you really care about decarbonization.
Yeah I was going to ask you about that. What is it about nuclear that you think is so off-putting to some environmentalists? And then also, there are people who are very concerned about climate and also very against nuclear, which seems like cognitive dissonance. I'm curious what you think about that and how people have explained it to you.
Yeah. So what happens is nuclear is this terrifying thing. I mean, genuinely, like the U.S. government was terrifying people. They were making schoolchildren watch films about potential nuclear war, making them cry. So just basic trauma to baby boomers of that era.
You know, even, I'm Gen X and even we had that a little bit.
Absolutely. Day After.
Yeah. I remember. And in my small sort of hippie California town, we had a bunch of Russian exchange students come over and we did a whole play with them around nuclear disarmament and the need for peace.
Yeah, yeah. So for sure. There's just like some general fear that's there. Now, of course, immediately the people who are most afraid are also the people that most dislike the US military and are most anti-imperialist.
The people that are the most scared of nuclear, or the most anti-nuclear, are also the people that are the most suspicious of American power. So it tends to be the Left, the socialists. And then it really grows from there.
And this is an important shift because, of course, the greatest generation liberals were the biggest advocates of nuclear energy. So it was Al Gore senior (Al Gore, Jr's father) it was Jerry Brown's father, and it was the character who I have as one of the heroes of that chapter, which is Will Siri, the president of the Sierra Club.
They were the biggest advocates of nuclear. They made the ecological case for nuclear way back. And they knew exactly why nuclear was best. It didn't require very much land. Vanishingly small amounts of land.
So they're all gung ho on nuclear. And then this moment occurs where basically the Malthusian wing of the conservation movement, which says there's too many people, that discourse turned against nuclear. And what I argue—I'm giving away the book!—but basically, much of what we call the climate movement, much of the environmental movement was not actually centrally motivated out of solving those problems and reducing emissions. They're really essentially motivated out of a) creating a society that's harmonized with nature through renewables and b) a world without nuclear.
Nuclear becomes, I think it archetypally takes the position of the devil for secular people with nature playing the role of God and science playing the role of kind of the religion. Complete with apocalypse, the end of the world, a view of nature that resembles what you would describe as the Garden of Eden.
That's super interesting. OK, so I want to talk to you about a couple of specific questions I had about the book. And one is around the California wildfires. I was reading it and going “Yes, development in the wildland urban interface, bad, forest management, really bad.” This whole thing where we don’t let any fires burn, all of that.
But then there were parts where it seems like there was almost ...an attempt to remove climate entirely from being a factor and as I understand what you've written, you're not saying that climate change is not a factor. You're just saying that it's not THE factor. So I'm curious about whether that was something that you intended or not, to strip climate out.
Yeah. So let me walk through this a little bit. One of the things I did for this book—I was very careful because I knew that this book would be controversial. And so I wanted to publish the science and the core scientific claims as far out in advance of the book being published with the scientists in question all seeing it so they would have a chance to respond and correct me before I actually published this very cold take. I refer to this book as a cold take. So I did a column in Forbes in early November on forest fires in California. And I very quickly figured out in my research that one of the top guys is a guy named John Keeley, who works at U.S. Geological Survey.
So I published this long thing with him. He's also in the book. The article was published. Of course, he got criticized. Nobody asked for a correction. John Keeley defended the article to other people.
What John Keeley says, which is that we've looked at the history of climate and fire throughout the whole state, through much of the states to the west and we don't see any relation to past climates in our area burned.
And then they did this study of 37 different regions across the US and found that humans may not only influence fire regimes, but their presence can actually override or stomp out the effects of climate. Now, you know, the article in Forbes is longer and does say, that it’s not that there's no impact of climate. Fire season is longer. It appears as though there may be more droughts there, maybe less precipitation. Those are definitely factors.
But all I'm saying is that what Keely's research shows is that right now, those two things—that buildup of wood fuel and the growing development near what we call shrubland or chaparral—explains the increase in severity and frequency of those fires.
So it just swamps it. Maybe I should have put a sentence in here that clarified. But it's just kind of overwhelmed by these other factors.
OK. I want to ask you a couple of things about the natural gas chapter. First, there has been some new stuff that's come out in the last year or two—and I wasn't sure if it had come out in time for your book—around methane emissions being underestimated. And on the financial side, the shale gas industry being wildly unsuccessful at making money—good at making gas, bad at making money. And how that fits into your view.
Well, it did come out in time and I addressed it. And I basically agree with Zeke Hausfather and [Ray] Pierrehumbert who I quote in here, you know. The real issue is just that, that carbon is just so much more longer lived than methane.
And so when you're concerned about these longer term temperature impacts, the shorter term warming effects are less significant. So that's where I come down in the debate. Plus that's just climate, by the way. And I do think it's really important to consider the other environmental benefits of gas. They're just amazing. You don't have...
The air pollution and all that. Yeah. Yeah.
We burn it in our homes! I mean, it’s the only fossil fuel I mean, liquefied petroleum gas, which basically burns like gas, is the only fossil fuel that …you could do it with coal, but you’d have to have a complicated stove and whatever. So you know
I mean there's been some interesting stuff on that recently too though around the fact that it might be bad for people in their homes. I don't know if you caught in on that whole, paid Instagram influencer gas thing…
No, I didn’t
Oh it’s a whole rabbit hole
I mean I suspect there is air pollution from natural gas. I mean, I love my natural gas stove and I try to open the windows. But there's even some of this research that shows that maybe the frying of the vegetable oils has been contributing to some problems. I mean, I'm like, of course, it's causing some impact. So eventually, you know, when we have a hundred percent nuclear. And all of our homes are electrified and our heating and cooking are electrified, then it'll be much better.
And this issue of the oil and gas guys losing money – I mean, let me say clearly that I think some people have been really harmed by that, and we should have a proper social safety net in the United States rather than what we have, so that they're not hurt. Nonetheless, the fact that that that the shale gas industry is suffering financially is because we've been so successful getting shale gas and shale petroleum, which is a lighter, sweeter crude. It's the opposite of the tar sands oil.
And again, my view, which I describe in the book, is that all fuels are temporary until we arrive at nuclear. Nuclear is kind of, for me, the final destination. So what really matters, you know, in California is don't shut down our last nuclear plants. Restart them. That will make us less dependent on natural gas.
And in places where we're still using coal, replace it with natural gas.
I did want to ask you about . . . natural gas and nuclear have been almost adversaries, in some way. A lot of people think that natural gas shut down nuclear plants, which I know you talk about in the book, too.
My argument is that the physical energy pyramid perfectly matches the moral progress of societies in energy systems. So we go from Bernadette and Suparti using wood or dung or biomass; to getting electricity from a large hydroelectric dam or coal fired power plant in the case of Indonesia; to Helen, who gets her electricity from large hydroelectric dams that were built 100 years ago, nuclear and natural gas. And so in each of those situations, what would we want?
Well, we want Bernadette to get the hydroelectric dam. We want Suparti to shift from coal to natural gas and or nuclear. They're very anti-nuclear in Indonesia, so that's a stretch, but they could do a lot of natural gas. We want Helen to get her electricity increasingly from nuclear and not from natural gas. That's my basic approach, super simple. It's taken me 15 years to get there.
How warm the planet gets will be most determined by how much nuclear we continue to operate, and we build. So if you want to get closer to 1.5 or 2 degrees, then you should be out there demanding more nuclear plants to be built. And if you're not concerned about climate change, then don't worry about it. Although there's reasons to move to cleaner sources of fuels other than climate change. So . . .
My view is that it's a very simple thing. And so people are like “Are you for or against natural gas?” And I'm like, “I'm for natural gas replacing coal. I'm against natural gas replacing nuclear.”
I got this sense from the book that part of the argument that you're making, and correct me if I'm wrong or have misunderstood something, is almost that we're missing a whole bunch of near term immediate. Because we're blinded by concern about a longer term problem. Is that fair to say? That we're not helping people adapt to current disasters or, you know, rethink development in areas where they're more likely to be harmed.
We're spending a bunch of money on climate policy instead.
You got it.
OK. I want to ask you about the economic development piece because in the beginning of the book, there's some stuff around bad development choices in the US, in particular, putting people in danger, like the fire example. But then you make the argument multiple times that we shouldn't be dictating how economic development works in other countries.
And, of course, that's very imperialist and ridiculous, but I do wonder, if there’s a way to help other countries from making the same mistakes that we've had without dictating how they do things? And even in the U.S., how do we change the underlying systems that lead to those sorts of repeated mistakes?
Well, I guess the question is, “What are the mistakes?”
Well in the US, we have known for decades about building in the wrong places in California and fire, for example.
I mean, it seems like there's sort of a question of,”Wow do we help the Congo? How would we help Indonesia?” Because, of course, the impulse to help them is totally OK. And we should want to help. And then there's another question, which is, “What do we do in places like California?” Which is also something I think a lot about.
This is a state that, you know, a big part of the reason that many of us came here. But even the people that are born here stay here because we love the natural environment. I love California. We all want to spend more time in nature. That's what you do when you're wealthy.
But Bernadette in the Congo, she wants less nature. Nature is eating her sweet potatoes. In California, it’s more that everybody wants to live close to nature. And if everybody keeps doing that, there's just not going be a lot of nature left. So how do you deal with that? Well, my view is more vertical housing, more housing density, so that you can have the best of both worlds.
I think on a bunch of these things, my view is not very interesting because I probably just agree with the mainstream environmental view of why are we subsidizing homes in massive flood and fire zones. That just doesn't seem very good.
But I don't usually write about things where my opinion is in the majority.
Are you getting any feedback on the book, like, “You should be trying to build a bridge with environmentalists instead of criticizing them?”
Oh, yeah. I got a lot more of that with Death of Environmentalism fifteen years ago. I think I've gotten less of it since I've been an open advocate of nuclear. In other words, it's more I'm trying to get you guys to stop shutting down nuclear plants.
I suppose you're already not on the same side.
In terms of engaging with environmentalists, I just hired the spokesperson from Extinction Rebellion in the UK.
Who was it? Was it one of the ones that was mentioned in your book?
Yeah. So in the epilogue, I note that in my interview with Zion Lights, she says, “Hey, I just want you to know I agree with you on nuclear.”
And then three weeks ago it became very clear that Britain was the most important country in the world for nuclear. And I was like, “I only know two people in Britain who are pro-nuclear, Mark Lynas and Zion Lights. And Mark has a job.” So I just called Zion and I was like “Hey, will you help me?”
And without hesitation, she was like, “Yeah, I would love to help build those nuclear plants.” And she's just proven to be one of the most delightful people I've ever worked with. And so she hasn't read the book yet. So we shall see. You know, maybe I'll report to you in a week that she's quit!
But I really tried in every chapter for there to be the leading a environmentalist, or expert, or whatever in each space. And where that didn't happen it was because I was not granted the interview. It wasn't because I didn't try.
I'm really interested in just achieving this change of mindset.
You know, to the point where—I told Zion that if I'm too controversial—I've told this to everybody in the pro nuclear movement, that the moment that I’m too controversial then you should not associate with me. I don't want to get in the way of nuclear advocacy. Because, of course, I'm controversial. I know that.
But I'm not doing that to be controversial, in every instance. I do feel like I've tried reaching out and getting people on board.
So, I've seen online some people calling you a climate skeptic or a climate denialist. What do you think about that reaction to your work?
I'm kind of surprised there's not more of it. But, you know, what can I say? I am a climate activist. I've been a climate activist for 20 years. By my reckoning, I have reduced, I have prevented carbon emissions from rising more than anybody else I can think of in the United States by keeping those nuclear plants operating as opposed to being replaced by natural gas.
In every one of those fights, the people on the other side have been so-called climate activists. I've been doing that work with climate scientists. I was invited by James Hansen, the climate scientist, to go with him to China. I also was with him to Germany at the IPCC meeting.
My book is blurbed by the father of climate modeling. I was invited by the United Nations government, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be an expert reviewer. And unlike what people are saying on Twitter, I was invited. I have the invite, where they say they're inviting me because I'm a qualified expert. So just to get my credentials in there.
So, you know, that's my record. Do you really think that's the record of a climate denier or even a climate skeptic? I wrote my book to go through the science really clearly.
So I say they are the climate deniers, not me!