Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

Alternatives to Climate Alarmism

(Mustafa Yilmiz/Getty)
False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, by Bjorn Lomborg (Basic Books, 320 pp., $30), and Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 432 pp., $29.99)

I  first encountered Michael Shellenberger’s work in 2007 as a freshman in college.

Back then, Shellenberger identified as a progressive and, together with my now-colleague Ted Nordhaus, had co-authored The Death of Environmentalism and co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, the ecomodernist think tank where I am now deputy director. In those years, Nordhaus, Shellenberger, and a growing community of scholars that they had brought together around Breakthrough focused on the limitations of carbon taxes and regulation as the central strategies to address climate change, arguing instead for major public and private investments in clean-energy R&D and infrastructure in the name of economic opportunity — a framework that in many ways anticipated the Green New Deal by more than a decade.

At the time, though, many progressives considered their work heretical. The Death of Environmentalism was repudiated by environmental luminaries including Van Jones and then-president of the Sierra Club Carl Pope. For Breakthrough’s criticism of the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, Joe Romm — then a blogger at the Center for American Progress and self-appointed gatekeeper of the climate-policy debate — attempted to blacklist Shellenberger and Nordhaus, along with a host of other environmental heretics.

As an environmental-economics student at UC Berkeley, I followed these debates closely. Like many of my peers, I was outraged by what we all agreed could only be bad faith from Shellenberger and Nordhaus. After all, we all knew that we had only a few short years to solve the climate crisis. The moment called for solidarity and resolve, not deconstruction and debate.

Then one day, particularly frustrated by these so-called progressives who had diverged from the environmentalist consensus, I imagined the next Hurricane Katrina, and an electric jolt of anticipation shot up my spine. “That’ll show them,” I thought.

I don’t know whether most environmentalists share these sorts of fantasies. But I was, momentarily, giddy, and then, just as suddenly, ashamed. I had become so committed to my vision of climate apocalypse that I was prepared, even briefly, to wish a plague upon another community in order to be right, or perhaps more accurately, righteous. What followed was a long process of introspection, not worth fully recounting here. But it culminated in a fellowship at the Breakthrough Institute.

By the time I got to Breakthrough, much of the mainstream environmental movement had soured on Nordhaus and Shellenberger. But most still reserved their heavy munitions for a Danish political economist named Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg had published his first book on the environment, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in 2001. The book argued that environmental organizations (including Greenpeace, of which Lomborg had previously been a member) overhyped environmental problems. It was a best-seller and was well received. “Lomborg pulls off the remarkable feat of welding the techno-optimism of the Internet age with a lefty’s concern for the fate of the planet,” wrote Rolling Stone’s reviewer.

Over time, the shine wore off. In the years after Hurricane Katrina and An Inconvenient Truth, niche climate alarmism matured into a central tenet of the American Left. Lomborg’s “lukewarmism” became a target of climate advocates and progressive pundits. A decade after praising The Skeptical Environmentalist, Rolling Stone placed Lomborg on a list of “12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming,” along with Rex Tillerson and the Koch brothers.

Since then, Lomborg has continued to publish on climate change and other global challenges at the Copenhagen Consensus Center, where he is director and founder. Shellenberger left Breakthrough in 2015 to found Environmental Progress, an organization dedicated exclusively to promoting nuclear power.

Now the two are out with new books pushing back on the latest wave of climate alarmism. Both Apocalypse Never, by Shellenberger, and False Alarm, by Lomborg, argue not only that things are not as bad as they seem but that environmentalists have perniciously exaggerated climate change in pursuit of an ideological or even commercial agenda. According to both Shellenberger and Lomborg, the catastrophism that dominates the climate discourse overstates the problem, offers false solutions, and directs our gaze away from more pressing human and environmental challenges.

In place of catastrophism, each book offers optimism. Each wisely rejects some of the more outlandish environmental orthodoxies — that we have only twelve years to stop climate change, for instance, or that climate change threatens human extinction.

As he has since his first book on climate change, Cool It, Lomborg starts from a premise that seems eminently reasonable: Climate change is one global problem among many. We should prioritize global resources by targeting the most serious problems first and by applying a strict cost–benefit analysis to solutions — how serious is the problem, and how much, in a world in which resources are constrained, will it cost to solve it?

In this context, Lomborg argues, “climate change is a moderate problem in a sea of problems, big and small,” and he identifies a number of global crises more deserving of investment than is the cause of reducing carbon emissions, among them childhood malnutrition, gender inequality, and infectious disease. And while we could debate the interconnectivity of various social and environmental ills, it’s hard to fault him for prioritizing these problems.

Still, in purporting to objectively establish a hierarchy of social priorities, Lomborg falls victim to the same sort of scientism that plagues environmentalists. “This is not what science tells us,” he writes, accusing environmentalists of using climate science as a stalking horse for an ideological agenda. “This is what politics tells us.” Fair enough. But in suggesting that his science ought to trump environmentalists’ politics, Lomborg echoes environmentalist demands that politicians pay obeisance to climate science. “My think tank,” he writes, “worked with fifty teams of economists and several Nobel laureate economists to analyze these development investments and find which initiatives will achieve the greatest ‘return on investment’ for humanity.” Bill McKibben, who has famously argued that “you can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, . . . you can’t compromise with them or spin them away,” could not have said it better. Both would substitute expert judgment, in McKibben’s case that of climate scientists, in Lomborg’s that of economists, for the messy business of politics.

To his credit, Lomborg does not lack solutions. In False Alarm, he advocates a range of cost–benefit tested policies to address both climate change and global poverty, including a carbon tax, research into geoengineering, “dramatically ramping up spending on green R&D,” and various mechanisms for international aid to boost economic growth in low-income countries and “make people richer.” These are all reasonable ideas, even if he somewhat brushes past the political difficulty of establishing any, let alone the “right,” price for carbon; how best to design and structure R&D policy; and the considerable debates over whether and how international aid helps accelerate socioeconomic development in emerging economies.

For many on the right, the solutions are secondary. Lomborg is the enemy of the enemy, and it more than suffices that he pours cold water on the overheated rhetoric of climate activists. For those, by contrast, who seek some reasonable alternative to mainstream environmental approaches to climate change and other environmental problems, it is worth noting that Lomborg is no right-wing populist. He is, in most regards, a classic Scandinavian progressive, seeking to bring a calm, measured rationality to discussions of climate change and global poverty. “Only when the screaming stops,” he writes, “will we finally be able to identify the most effective ways to both address global warming and actually help people with their real-world problems.” Lomborg is, if not a globalist, an internationalist, and he doesn’t want to get rid of the United Nations. Rather, he wants to redirect its efforts away from a focus on the Paris Agreement and towards a broader commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In contrast to Lomborg’s cool rationality, Shellenberger makes an impassioned case for economic development, modernization, and, most of all, nuclear energy. When not excoriating environmentalists in Apocalypse Never, Shellenberger mostly focuses on delivering the “good news.” And there is, indeed, plenty of laudable environmental progress to herald. Carbon emissions have peaked in many rich nations. Forests and wildlife are coming back in many parts of the world.

The book is, in Shellenberger’s words, his attempt to explore “how and why so many of us came to see important but manageable environmental problems as the end of the world, and why the people who are the most apocalyptic about environmental problems tend to oppose the best and most obvious solutions.”

Those solutions — technological innovation, agricultural industrialization, urbanization, broader economic growth — undergird a model of environmental protection that I find not only practicable but inspiring. But in his eagerness to prove that industrial modernity has been good for the environment, Shellenberger glosses over both its downsides and its messiness.

It is true, for instance, that “it was vegetable oil, not an international treaty, that saved the whales.” But another reason for the decline in whaling was the radical reduction in whale populations, which today remain far below their pre-industrial levels despite decades of protection.

Likewise, wildlife may be coming back in many parts of the world, and claims that a sixth great extinction is underway may be overstated. But it is also the case that we have lost a huge amount of biodiversity over the last 50 years. Populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians saw an average decline of 60 percent in that time. To date, these losses have mostly been driven, as Shellenberger notes, by land-use change, not climate change. But even if three or four degrees of warming in this century turns out, as he argues, to be largely manageable for human societies — a scenario that itself presupposes widespread access to technologies and wealth to enable adaptation — the further impacts on nonhuman nature are likely to be devastating.

Lurking beneath all the good news, though, are darker claims about the motives and corruptions of environmentalists. A business deal that his father, Edmund G. Brown, made with Indonesia’s state-owned oil company in the 1960s explains former governor Jerry Brown’s long-standing opposition to nuclear power and his support for both oil-and-gas infrastructure and renewable energy in California. The NIMBY and Malthusian leanings of a few Sierra Club board members in the 1960s is the explanation for all anti-nuclear sentiment within the environmental movement, while the co-development of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons in the 1950s, high-profile accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and rising costs of nuclear construction from the early ’70s onward merit hardly a mention. Tom Steyer’s advocacy of renewable energy is nothing but a smokescreen for his interest in natural gas, which, Shellenberger says, can flourish only in a future that is also solar- and wind-powered.

These claims point to what his book is really all about. “Environmental, energetic, and economic progress constitute, in the real world, a single process,” writes Shellenberger. Savvy readers will intuit that, for Shellenberger, that single process involves increasing the use of a single technology: nuclear power. The book covers livestock production, plastic pollution, deforestation, species extirpation, and much else. But he scarcely mentions other nature-saving technologies, such as biodegradable plastics, biotechnology, fake meat, precision and indoor agriculture, microbial fertilizers, carbon-removal technologies, carbon-fiber materials, and electric vehicles.

In lieu of discussing these and other innovations, he writes that “only nuclear can accommodate the rising energy consumption that will be driven by the need for things like fertilizer production, fish farming, and factory farming.” He is right that cheap and abundant low-carbon energy will be necessary to address climate change and other environmental problems; he is wrong in insisting that nuclear is the singular solution to all these problems. Even if one accepts his claim that renewable energy serves no purpose other than to line the pockets of its investors, neither nuclear nor renewable energy can solve many critical environmental challenges without a host of other technologies.

Even the problems that nuclear energy can solve become obscured by Shellenberger’s nuclear fetishism. “Few things make one feel more immortal,” he writes, “than saving the life of a nuclear plant.” I struggle to remember an odder sentence in the countless environmental jeremiads that I have read over the course of my career. And while closing a nuclear-power plant that could continue to produce carbon-free energy for decades is a terrible idea, nuclear plants today generate less than 5 percent of total primary energy on earth. For Shellenberger’s single process to have much meaning, societies would need to build enough nuclear plants to generate, if not the other 95 percent, some share of global energy much greater than what they provide today. But beyond exhorting his readers to reject the fearmongering of environmentalists and overcome irrational concerns about nuclear radiation and proliferation, he has little to say about how this might happen.

Shellenberger’s theory of the case, ironically, is parallel to that of climate activists. Nuclear denialism, stoked by malicious and corrupt interests dedicated to misinforming the public, is for Shellenberger as climate denialism is for environmentalists, the primary obstacle to solving environmental problems. Once it is removed, and the forces promoting it are defeated, the world presumably will build thousands of massive nuclear projects. All we lack, as Al Gore famously argued in An Inconvenient Truth, is political will.

Why a world abundant in fossil fuels would do this, Shellenberger never makes clear. If one follows his reasoning, it wouldn’t be to address climate change, which he argues throughout the book is not an urgent problem. He celebrates the models of France, Sweden, and South Korea, all of which, in response to fossil-energy scarcity, embarked upon major, state-led nuclear programs. These top-down, state-controlled electrical systems are the sort of thing that appeals to many nuclear-friendly social democrats. I suspect that many of Shellenberger’s libertarian- and right-leaning fans would have a problem with such a program. It is worth noting, too, that the two major builders of nuclear plants today, China and Russia, go almost entirely unmentioned in Apocalypse Never.

If Shellenberger made a strong case for government-owned and -operated electricity sectors, his vision for nuclear would at least be coherent. He hasn’t made such a case, though, even as he’s been dismissive, in articles and interviews, of the new generation of advanced nuclear reactors that experts expect to be commercialized in the coming years. Start-ups in the United States are designing these reactors to be smaller, less capital-intensive, and more compatible with liberalized electricity markets, but Shellenberger has argued that such innovations aren’t worth pursuing.

Ultimately, skeptics of mainstream environmentalism seeking a pragmatic approach to environmental challenges that doesn’t involve either Lomborg’s carbon tax or Shellenberger’s centrally planned global nuclear agenda will need to look elsewhere. That elsewhere, in my admittedly biased opinion, is ecomodernism, a pragmatic, ideologically diverse environmentalism that I’m proud to associate myself with and that Shellenberger helped launch shortly before he left the Breakthrough Institute.

The “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” published in 2015, offers a far more balanced approach than the one Shellenberger presents in Apocalypse Never. It rejects apocalyptic environmentalism while recognizing that climate change does threaten human societies with consequences that are highly uncertain but potentially quite serious. It embraces both nuclear energy and solar power as the two critical energy technologies capable of both scaling to meet growing human needs and decoupling the provision of those needs from environmental impacts. It embraces markets and innovation and rejects “the planning fallacy of the 1950s.”

Pragmatic approaches of this sort, of course, are easy to talk about and far harder to enact. To succeed, ecomodernism, like environmentalism, must navigate a social, political, and economic landscape in which trade-offs are the rule and in which priesthoods of climate scientists, neoclassical economists, or nuclear technocrats cannot impose their version of rationality upon publics that, quite rightly, resist the promises of scientific and economic elites.

In the end, despite the flaws in both books, Shellenberger and Lomborg do a service in calling out the environmental alarmism and hysteria that obscure environmental debates rather than illuminate them. And they stand as outliers in those debates for precisely the reason that they claim: Abjuring environmentalist orthodoxy carries heavy social and professional penalties, so few are willing to do so.

Like Shellenberger and Lomborg, I have become frustrated with mainstream environmentalism. But in my career I have observed much introspection, evolution, and generosity of spirit from many environmentalists, even those who have little time for ecomodernism. As well founded as the critiques in these two volumes are, I fear the alternatives they offer are too rigid for a productive conversation to occur. Seriously engaging in environmental debates requires acknowledging that environmental problems, and the solutions to them, are legitimately contested. This applies to Shellenberger’s inspiring “single process” and Lomborg’s cost–benefit analysis as much as it does to the Green New Deal.

This article appears as “Alternatives to Alarmism” in the August 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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