HarperCollins, 430 pp, $29.99
“What you’re experiencing and seeing,” Jennifer Manfre, spokeswoman for Southern California Edison, told me back in 2012, “is nuclear safety in action.”
At the time, engineers at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), a coastal plant located some sixty miles north of San Diego, had discovered a small leak in a steam generator tube, resulting in the release of a minute amount of radioactive gas—much smaller, Manfre explained, “than you would receive from your smoke alarm in your house for a whole year.”
Yet that small leak triggered a cascade of events culminating, first, in the temporary closure of the plant, which had been built in the late 1960’s and which supplied electricity to 1.4 million Californians, and, ultimately, in its permanent decommissioning. As I reported in 2013, local and national antinuclear politicians and advocacy groups worked in concert to leverage byzantine regulatory requirements and exploit public wariness of nuclear accidents in order to scrap the reactor outright.
But far from ushering in a green utopia in the Golden State, the SONGS shuttering cost California ratepayers more than $3 billion in direct costs, replaced emission-free nuclear energy generation with capacity from natural gas-fired plants, spiked local carbon emissions, and raised electricity prices for Edison customers. At San Onofre, well-meaning but wrong-headed efforts to solve a spurious environmental problem sparked much more serious ecological challenges.
This unfortunate and destructive tendency animates Apocalypse Never, Michael Shellenberger’s provocative new study cautioning against unwarranted environmental panic and counseling careful consideration of the costs and benefits of green policy.
“Much of what people are being told about the environment, including the climate, is wrong, and we desperately need to get it right,” Shellenberger contends. “I decided to write Apocalypse Never after getting fed up with the exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism that are the enemy of a positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism.”
The founder of Environmental Progress, which aims to “lift all humans out of poverty, and save the natural environment,” and the recipient of Time’s “Hero of the Environment” award, Shellenberger’s green bona files are incontestable. While his version of “environmental humanism” won’t find a warm reception among the apocalypticists, and while his analysis misses the mark in some places, his sensible approach—rendered during his journey from yellow-eyed penguin redoubts on New Zealand’s South Island to Congo’s Virunga Park gorilla reserve to Indonesian textile factories to South Korean nuclear reactors—is all too necessary in a deeply polarized era.
“There are no solutions,” Thomas Sowell once said, “only tradeoffs,” and nowhere is this axiom truer than in Shellenberger’s exploration of efforts to combat climate change.
First, the good news: Over the last 35 years, tree growth has exceeded tree loss globally by the size of Alaska and Texas combined, while European forests grew back between 1995 and 2015 by an area the size of Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined. Even Greta Thunberg’s native Sweden has seen its forests double over the past century.
Moreover, during the past 50 years, humanity has taken great strides in conserving species-rich land from development. By 2019, worldwide, conservation areas larger in aggregate than the African landmass were protected, amounting to roughly 15 percent of Earth’s land. The number of designated conservation areas has spiked globally from 9,214 in 1962 to 244,869 in 2020.
But even conservation exacts a human cost. In their 2006 journal article “Displacement and Relocation from Protected Areas,” Mahesh Rangarajan and Ghazala Shahabuddin observe that “the displacement of people who herded, gathered forest products, or cultivated land was a central feature of twentieth-century nature conservation in southern and eastern Africa and India.” Even Sierra Club founder John Muir favored evicting indigenous residents from Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.
On the climate side, the rise in global temperatures is far more likely to top out at two or three degrees than the potentially disastrous four touted by the apocalypticists, and “extreme weather” bears only a tenuous relationship to climate change.
Importantly, Shellenberger demonstrates, while the world’s population has quadrupled since over the last 100 years, the number of people dying from natural disasters has plunged from 5.4 million in the 1920’s to just 400,000 in the 2010’s. While “a role for climate change has not been excluded,” said a 2018 IPCC report, “long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change.”
Florida suffered 18 major hurricanes between 1900 and 1959 but only 11 from 1960-2018. Meanwhile, the horrific inferno that enveloped Australia during the 2019 fire season was actually the country’s fifth-worst; those recent blazes destroyed 50% fewer houses than the worst fire season, which took place in 1938. In California, which has also recently endured devastating wildfires, human activities—most prominently the failure to perform controlled burns—have caused far greater damage than climate variance.
Other key tradeoffs abound. Consuming grass-fed cows and free-range chickens may be healthier than eating industrial meat, but factory farms tie up far less usable land and natural resources than the alternatives. Organic farms operate largely without chemical fertilizers but are far less land-efficient than their traditional cousins. Wind farms run clean but severely threaten eagle, condor, and whooping crane populations, while remote solar installations require translocation of desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and other species. Finally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization anticipates that measures to impede the severity of climate change will curb food production significantly because they will “make energy more expensive and result in more bioenergy use.”
The story of technological progress in developing resources is also the story of important tradeoffs.
In the 1860’s, wood accounted for 80 percent of American energy; that proportion plummeted to 20 percent in 1900 and then 7.5 percent in 1920. Coal packs twice as much potential energy per kilogram as wood, and a coal mine’s power density is 25,000 greater than a forest’s. “Fossil fuels were thus key to saving forests in the United States and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Shellenberger reckons. “Ending the use of wood for fuel should thus be one of the highest priorities for people and institutions seeking both universal prosperity and environmental progress.”
Similarly, the mid-19th century discovery of petroleum likely prevented the extinction of whales, whose oil produced 600,000 barrels per year at the peak of whaling in 1845.
In turn, newer technologies like fracking, which extract cleaner-burning natural gas, have reduced our dependency on coal and petroleum. Fracking, in Shellenberger’s telling, accounts for the 13 percent decline in U.S. carbon emissions from energy between 2005 and 2018. Pound for pound, natural gas fields are three times as power-dense as coal mines. Then, too, a natural gas plant requires one four hundred-fiftieth of the land area needed for a wind farm outputting the same amount of energy.
But it is in nuclear energy where Shellenberger’s most impassioned and persuasive line of argument emerges: contemporary nuclear is clean, safe, and reliable, notwithstanding the irrational claims of its most virulent opponents, like the ones who closed SONGS.
There was a time not too long ago when even California greens favored nuclear energy. Will Siri, a UC Berkeley biophysicist and onetime Sierra Club president, argued in the 1960’s that “nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation” because “cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors in allowing a large rapidly growing population to preserve wildlands, open space, and lands of high scenic value.” Siri’s group ultimately greenlit construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on California’s pristine central coastline.
But by the 1970’s, the tide had turned, and leading environmentalists actively opposed fission plants, largely as an outgrowth of their opposition to nuclear weapons, and they labored to cripple the industry through a web of regulation and negative public opinion. In 1976, the Sierra Club pushed for tighter regulation of nuclear reactors specifically in order to “add to the cost of the industry and render its economics less attractive.”
Nowadays, however, a more cynical alliance of fossil-fuel and renewable interests has conspired to stymie nuclear’s ambitions. Shellenberger documents how green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund populate their boards of trustees with Halliburton executives and fight alongside the American Petroleum Institute to thwart nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The National Resources Defense Council invests in Phillips 66, Valero, and Transocean, among other energy concerns, while the owner of Arco founded and funded Friends of the Earth. In short, green groups have implemented a strategy of “taking money from oil and gas investors and promoting renewables as a way to greenwash the closure of nuclear plants.”
The ethos of such groups can be discerned in popular culture, such as in the blockbuster 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” which described “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus” in the wake of the troubled reactor’s explosion. However, the World Health Organization in 2006 instead concluded that the disaster generated an uptick of only 0.6 percent of cancer deaths among the affected population. By that point, 20 years after the meltdown, the International Atomic Energy Agency reckoned that “in most of the settlements subjected to radioactive contamination, the air dose rate above solid surfaces has returned to the pre-accident background level.”
Furthermore, according to a 2017 study by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, while earlier research attributed some 20,000 cases of adolescent thyroid cancer to Chernobyl, the meltdown, in fact, caused only 5,000 such cases. Given the typical one percent mortality rate of thyroid cancer, Chernobyl will, in the end, have caused fewer than 200 deaths among young people.
In contrast, the ongoing quest by many green activists to curtail nuclear energy production will cost lives in the form of air pollution deaths, including in post-Fukushima Japan, where some four thousand people die every year from air pollution caused by fossil fuel plants supplanting nuclear. The phase-out will also cost money: a National Bureau of Economic Research found that Germany’s plan to sunset nuclear will cost the country $12 billion per year. Elsewhere, Shellenberger estimates that while nuclear energy and renewables like solar and wind have each received roughly $2 trillion in investment over the last 50 years, nuclear has produced twice as much electricity.
These tradeoffs fundamentally favor pursuing nuclear energy, at least until even cleaner and safer fusion energy becomes practical.
Shellenberger isn’t always the most reliable narrator of this tale. At times, he whipsaws between praising the benefits conferred by certain technologies and lambasting their environmental costs. In places, he lauds the advantages of coal, while in others, he holds it responsible for “deadly air pollution” that claims the lives of millions each year. At various points, he extols the benefits of natural gas, while elsewhere, he castigates politicians and advocacy groups who favor it over nuclear.
Shellenberger also sometimes digresses into geopolitics, the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, and the ethics of eating animals. Other discordant notes include his failure, in discussing the growing prevalence of renewables, to account for creative financing plans that effectively render residential solar installation an economic no-brainer.
And Apocalypse Never retreads well-worn ground in recapitulating the famous Paul Ehrlich-Julian Simon “population bomb” debate of the 1970’s without adding much additional insight. The book also recycles the well-known malign hypocrisies of celebrities jet-setting around the world to fight for green causes and rehashes the claim that environmentalism has become a secular religion, replete with apocalyptic visions and doomsday prediction.
But here, Shellenberger adds a fascinating, albeit deeply unsettling, twist:
If the climate apocalypse is a kind of subconscious fantasy for people who dislike civilization, it might help explain why the people who are the most alarmist about environmental problems are also the most opposed to the technologies capable of addressing them, from fertilizer and flood control to natural gas and nuclear power.
This nihilistic urge, which motivates many of the most extreme climate activists, must be understood, resisted, and eschewed in favor of its diametrical opposite: a realistic, humane approach that weighs costs and benefits for all humankind and makes sanguine calculations about optimal trade-offs. As Shellenberger concludes, “we must ground ourselves first in our commitment to the transcendent moral purpose of universal human flourishing and environmental progress, and then in rationality.”
Ecological apocalypticists won’t soon be convinced, but persuading the persuadables of the merits of this eminently reasonable approach is urgently necessary.