Scientists Weigh in on Bogus “Environmentalist Apology”

July 6, 2020

I’ve had some inquiries about a new book being pushed by purported “Environmentalist” Michael Shellenberger, which he has promoted with an online piece titled “On Behalf of Environmentalists, I Apologize for the Climate Scare”.

In the puff piece on Forbes last week, Shellenberger put forth a number of bogus talking points, aimed to get him maximal uptake from the climate denial and fossil fuel apologist community – which worked. He’s been all over the media, much the way Michael Moore’s recent dumpster fire of a movie made the leftist grifter a new hero to the white supremacist crowd.
The centerpiece of his argument so far is a list of assertions that, if you’re the average Sean Hannity viewer, sound like they falsify environmental media memes, but in fact are largely bogus straw men, distortions, or outright lies.
Here’s the list.

  • Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction” 
  • The Amazon is not “the lungs of the world”
  • Climate change is not making natural disasters worse
  • Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003
  • The amount of land we use for meat — humankind’s biggest use of land — has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska
  • 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
  • Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have been declining in Britain, Germany, and France since the mid-1970s 
  • Netherlands became rich not poor while adapting to life below sea level
  • We produce 25% more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter
  • Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change
  • Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels
  • Preventing future pandemics requires more not less “industrial” agriculture

Scientists who probably have a lot of better things to do spent the July 4th weekend going thru the list and clarifying.
The very long response thread is excerpted here, but I encourage anyone interested to go to the link, and bookmark it, if you think you’ll need it in some future post-Covid Thanksgiving dinner.

Climate Feedback:

The article by Michael Shellenberger was published in various media outlets, including Forbes, Zero Hedge, Breitbart, PJ Media, The Daily Wire, The Australian, and Quillette. The article has been shared more than 200,000 times on social media since it was published, according to Buzzsumo. Forbes unpublished the article on the same day it was published. In the article, Shellenberger, who is promoting a new book, outlines a series of claims about climate change. As the reviewers describe below, several of these claims are accurate or partially accurate. However, others are inaccurate and mislead readers by lacking context and cherry-picking data while overlooking other relevant scientific studies.

Specifically, Shellenberger claims that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse.” As the reviewers describe below, this claim is inaccurate and contradicts reports from the IPCC as well as numerous scientific studies linking anthropogenic climate change to temperature extremes, drought, precipitation patterns, and wildfires[1-4].

Shellenberger also claims that “Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction,’” which contradicts scientific evidence demonstrating that extinctions in animal species far exceed background extinction rates[5-9]. As described in Ceballos et al. (2015), “conservatively almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last 100 years.” This result contrasts with the estimated background extinction rate, which would take approximately 10,000 years for 200 vertebrate species to go extinct.

Scientists who reviewed this article also noted several misleading claims about wildfires, including “fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003,” and “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.” Although global burned area declined ~25% from 1998-2015, this is driven in part by non-climatic factors, such as clearing land for agriculture[10,11]. By conflating purposefully set fires and wildfires as well as climatic and non-climatic factors driving these fires, the claim relies on flawed reasoning to suggest that wildfires are not affected by climate change. These claims also contradict scientific studies showing that anthropogenic climate change has increased fire risk in the western U.S. and Canada[12-14].

The reviewers who analyzed this article rated its overall credibility to be low. In their comments below, the scientists evaluate many of these claims and describe how they are inaccurate or mislead readers by contradicting available evidence or using scientific data out of context.

These comments are the overall assessment of scientists on the article, they are substantiated by their knowledge in the field and by the content of the analysis in the annotations on the article.

Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy, The Breakthrough Institute:
Shellenberger’s article promoting his new book “Apocalypse Never” includes a mix of accurate, misleading, and patently false statements. While it is useful to push back against claims that climate change will lead to the end of the world or human extinction, to do so by inaccurately downplaying real climate risks is deeply problematic and counterproductive.

Shellenberger’s claims that climate plays no role in natural disasters and wildfires fly in the face of a large peer-reviewed scientific literature showing clear links between climate change and extreme heat events, drought, and extreme rainfall as well as links between hotter and drier conditions and wildfire areas burned in many regions of the world[1-4].

Shellenberger also falls into the trap of seeing a single technology (nuclear) as the one true solution to climate change, and mistakenly sees denigrating other clean energy technologies as the best way to promote it. The real world involves messy trade-offs and uncertainties, and decarbonization will involve a range of different technological solutions across industries and geographies rather than a single panacea.

For more details on each, see my comments below.

Stefan Doerr, Professor, Swansea University:
The article argues that society has been misled about causes and consequences of climate change, which has led to “climate alarmism.” The author advocates that we should be less concerned about climate change than many environmentalists argue. Whilst the latter is relative depending on how concerned an individual is and which specific (and perhaps extreme) view this aligns with, some of the supporting statements in the article related to wildfire are (i) inaccurate for key facts supporting argumentation, or (ii) omit important information that leads to flaws in the conclusions.

“Climate change is not making natural disasters worse”.

This is incorrect for wildfires. Several global climate trends promote fire: increased temperature, frequency, intensity and/or extent of heatwaves, droughts and extreme winds. This is very well established and summarised in the IPCC (2014) report[1,2].

“Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003″.

It is correct that the total global area burned has OVERALL declined over the last decades, BUT this is incorrectly used to argue that climate change is not affecting wildfires. The overall decrease is largely due a substantial reduction in flammable vegetation in African grasslands arising from human land use changes. Climate change has led to an increase in area burned in regions where fires burn more intensely and have a greater impact (e.g. western USA and Canada)[13,14]. This is omitted, leading to a false perception.

“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”.

Partially correct[12], but the assertion that the climate change related factors outlined above do not also contribute to increasingly “dangerous fires” is fundamentally flawed. It is comparable to suggesting that smoking alone and not obesity is responsible for an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Both factors are clearly important.

Daniel Swain, Researcher, UCLA, and Research Fellow, National Center for Atmospheric Research:
The article presents a mix of out-of-context facts and outright falsehoods to reach conclusions that are, collectively, fundamentally misleading. The author claims to reference specific sources, including “the IPCC, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), [and] the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).” However, the author’s claims are broadly unsupported by any of these authoritative bodies[1].

Gerardo Ceballos, Professor, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico:
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. Being objective, this is a really bad article. It will cause confusion among the public—perhaps that is his idea.

He indicates, with no data, that we are not in the Sixth Mass Extinction. I will explain here why he is wrong. For a long time, we have been aware that our activities have caused the extinction of many species. The case of the dodo, the first human-caused extinction in modern times (1600 AD) is relatively well-known for the general public[5]. In the last decade, there has been a plethora of scientific studies that have carefully analyzed the current extinction rates and have compared them with the natural or background rates occurring in the last million years[6-8]. Evolution of life proceeds as a dynamic balance of the extinction and speciation processes. While some species become extinct others are generated by speciation events. Under normal times, when Earth is not suffering a global catastrophe, the normal extinction rate is called the “background extinction rate.” However, in the last 600 million years life has experienced 5 mass extinctions, where most species on Earth have disappeared. These mass extinctions were each caused by a natural catastrophe, such as a meteorite, or happened over thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, causing the extinction of 70 to 90% of all living species.

In 2015, I showed with my colleagues from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Stanford University that we have entered the Sixth Mass Extinction (see figure below)[5].

Figure—Cumulative vertebrate species that have gone extinct or extinct in the wild according to IUCN data from 2012. Dashed black line represents the background extinction rate. From Ceballos et al. (2015)[5].

The 543 species of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) that were lost over the last 120 years would have become extinct in 10,000 years under the background extinction rates prevailing in the last million years. In other words, in the last century we lost in one year the same number of species that would have been lost in 100 years!

We and other scientific groups have also shown that the extinction crisis is more severe because hundreds of millions of populations of animals and plants have disappeared in the last 40 years[5-9].

Those extinctions are accelerating, threatening the ecosystems that support life on Earth. If the current extinction crisis continues unchecked, we will lose entire ecosystems and the critical services they provide, including the proper combination of the gases of the atmosphere that make life on Earth possible, provision of fresh water, pollination and pest and disease control[8].

Jennifer Francis, Research Professor I, Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University:
Many statements are half-truths or based on cherry-picked information. Some are outright false. For example, it’s ludicrous to state “climate change is not making natural disasters worse.” An abundant and rapidly growing body of peer-reviewed scientific research identifies numerous ways that climate change is increasing the likelihood and intensity of various extreme weather events, exacerbating coastal flooding, and destroying ecological systems[1,2,6,13,14].

“Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction’”

An exceptionally rapid loss of species is occurring and expected to continue. Climate change is not the only factor responsible—pollution, habitat deterioration, over fishing and hunting, and invasive species are also contributing. Human fingerprints are all over these factors[5-9].

“Climate change is not making natural disasters worse”

This statement is refuted by numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies[1-4]. While disasters related to non-climate-change events (such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis) have not increased in frequency, those associated with climate change have tripled in frequency since the 1980s (see figure below).

Figure—The number of geophysical, meteorological, hydrological, and climatological natural events that occurred globally from 1980-2017. From NatCatSERVICE.

“Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003”

This is true in terms of a global average, mainly because forests have been cut down and replaced with agricultural land and because of fire suppression activities[10]. Some areas, however, are experiencing more frequent, larger, and more damaging fires—such as the U.S. western states, Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Eurasia[13,14]. This statement is misleading at best.

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

This is true, but it’s in large part because high-emission industries have been moved to developing countries. Global carbon emissions are still increasing steadily (see figure below).

“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”

Both factors are contributing to increased fires[11].

There is way, way more at the link, and I’ve heard other scientists have their own debunks on the way – so this one is going to be roasted the way Moore’s movie was, and end up being influential only in the right wing Bizarro-verse.

I haven’t read the book, but if it runs along the same lines as his promotional material, his only chance for actually influencing the dialogue would be as Kanye West’s running mate.


16 Responses to “Scientists Weigh in on Bogus “Environmentalist Apology””

  1. jimbills Says:

    I was wondering if you’d get to this. I knew Shellenberger was an arse, but woof, his recent article was a doozy:

    One could line by line in that thing and find inaccuracies.

    I’ll mention one small part that gave me a chuckle:

    “Nations are reverting openly to self-interest and away from Malthusianism and neoliberalism, which is good for nuclear and bad for renewables.”

    Shellenberger clearly doesn’t know what neoliberalism is.

    The worst part of his article, though, is that it is giving deekwads in the conservative media a chance to crow.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      his embrace of Hannity, Breitbart, and climate denial, as well as his serial inaccuracies, are completely clarifying for anyone that had any doubts about him.
      Following the Michael Moore path to oblivion.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    In a world full of lies, what difference will a few more make? He is just another whore looking to make money off people’s ignorance and inability to value the advice of true scientists and experts.

  3. redskylite Says:

    AT least he didn’t try to hijack “Earth Day” and his article got kicked off Forbes as breaking their “Self-promotional” rules.


    “Forbes told Guardian Australia the article was removed “because it violated our editorial guidelines around self-promotion”.”

  4. Sir Charles Says:

    Study: Post-environmentalism: origins and evolution of a strange idea

    … 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. …

    • “a modernization core from liberal economics”.

      I certainly hope so. What’s the alternative? A great leap forward? We will bury you? Scientific socialism? Start over at year zero?

      • J4Zonian Says:

        It’s not liberal economics. Nordhaus, Shellenberger, and the breakthrough boys lie by calling themselves environmentalists, and various things with eco in the name, which they’re absolutely not. It’s right wing economics that form the basis of and motivate every argument they make, and makes them anti-environmentalist, an utterly insane position equivalent to wanting to burn down the boat one is living on far from shore in icy waters. They lie if they call themselves anything but right wing extremists.

        They get a fair amount of money from the nuclear industry. He’s associated with the Heartland Institute.

        They’re climate denying delayalists, also in the interests of the rich and the right.

        And of course, were bigly in favor of one of the worst state bills of the year, which is saying a lot in these times.
        “In 2019, Shellenberger also testified in support of Ohio House Bill 6. The bill, which was signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine later that year, provided subsidies to uncompetitive nuclear and coal plants, and rolled back Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for electric utilities.”

  5. Michael Shellenberger has a slide deck with a lot of sourced graphics for his claims:

    I always find Shellenberger’s stuff to be clearly argued.

  6. […] getting it right, the reality of tRump’s suicide cult, and regarding a book you won’t need to […]

  7. Gingerbaker Says:

    This is the same genius who gave a TED talk that said RE will not work, right?

  8. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I’m always ready to jump down the throat of anybody who claims we’re facing extinction from AGW. We could lose 99.999% of the human population and still have a viable gene pool.


  9. Says:

    Hello and thank you. Wildlife has had a catastrophic hit. Biodiversity is dwindling and zoonotic diseases are on the rise. There is plastic deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench. There is plastic pollution in all H₂O: lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and ocean gyres. This planet is more H₂O than land. Maybe researching the H₂O cycle would assist the population in learning about the source of rain. One cannot ignore the science.

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