Climate disinformer brings a bigger gun to the fight

BEN KRITZ Twitter: @benkritz



The Manila Times


THE in-house anti-environmentalist was at it again this week, this time using the occasion of the opening of the 77th General Assembly of the United Nations to inveigh against “the alleged climate emergency,” and once again try to gaslight everyone into believing that the vast, halfcentury’s worth of scientific research and corresponding public policy will collapse at the slightest touch, if only the right “expert” is found to deliver the blow. As just one small point of order, the UN General Assembly did not open on Tuesday, September 20, the day the opinion piece was published, but a week earlier, on September 13, at least according to the official schedule posted on the United Nations website. Please try to keep up. To our comprehensively misguided colleague’s credit his choice of “expert” — which, as a number of readers have pointed out, apparently means the same thing as “content provider” — is rather more interesting this time than the usual barely literate and detached from reality fare offered by right-wing media outlets. In this case, the supplied content is a lengthy republication of recent (September 15) testimony before the US Congress by a certain Michael Shellenberger, who is described as “the noted author and environmental policy advocate.” Shellenberger’s position on climate change, as summarized in a controversial article he wrote in June 2020 (more on that later) is that, “Climate change is happening. It’s just not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem.” Shellenberger’s recent congressional testimony was an argument that climate action in the form of the push toward renewable energy “is being used to repress domestic energy production,” and that the US should increase oil and gas production as a lesser evil than inflation, joblessness and growing social unrest the “energy shortage” is causing. To be clear, Shellenberger didn’t advocate scrapping climate action altogether, but instead repeated his long-held advocacy that expanding the development of nuclear power and pursuing technologies such as hydrogen fuel are the practical solutions to addressing fossil fuel reliance. In any event, Shellenberger argued, the world has more time to do this than it thinks, offering several problematic assertions in support of this notion, namely, that US carbon emissions declined 22 percent between 2005 and 2020 (not quite; it was actually about 19 percent, and that due to the decline in fossil fuel use that Shellenberger argues should be reversed); that global emissions were flat over the last decade (not true; they have increased steadily since 2009 and reached their highest level ever in 2021); and that weather-related disasters have declined since the beginning of this century (completely false; they have increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years). Climate scientists and advocates have been reluctant to completely dismiss Shellenberger over his lengthy career because at its most basic, his position is not completely unreasonable, i.e., climate change is an actual thing that needs to be addressed, and if technology can be applied to address it, it should be. However, this seeming agreeableness is rather insidious; Shellenberger actually represents two rather wellworn positions in the spectrum of climate action rejection: “technological optimism” (disruptive change is not necessary), and the “appeal to well-being” (change will be too disruptive to bear). An examination of his background — what lies behind the “environmental policy advocate” tag, in other words — exposes Shellenberger as a rather conventional climate denier, which became evident in the controversy surrounding the previously mentioned article of June 2020. It was originally published by Forbes, but was retracted just a day later due to “violating Forbes’ editorial policy on self-promotion,” in this case, Shellenberger’s 2020 book Apocalypse Never. In that book, Shellenberger makes several spurious claims, including the aforementioned claims on global emissions reductions and a decline in the number of weather disasters. Shellenberger, who complained bitterly on social media that he was being “censored,” quickly found a more appreciative audience for his piece on right-wing platforms such as Zero Hedge, Breitbart, PJ Media and The Daily Wire. One of Shellenberger’s biggest advocacies is the use of nuclear power, and he has lobbied extensively both at the national and state levels in the US to prevent the closure of several nuclear plants. While he may have had a rational basis for taking this position originally, his credibility in sticking with the argument has been severely compromised by associations he has never publicly acknowledged. In 2017, in an end-of-year report to its members, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear industry lobbying group, disclosed that it “engaged third parties to engage with media through interviews and op-eds,” including Shellenberger. In addition, Shellenberger’s biggest single contributor in a failed campaign he waged for the governorship of California in 2018 was Frank Batten Jr., president of the Landmark Foundation, “a charitable foundation that provides support for nuclear fuel recycling,” according to congressional records. Although they have a less direct bearing on his climate change perspectives, Shellenberger’s political orientations over the years have done little to assuage critics. Besides his Breakthrough Institute and the ironically named Environmental Progress think tank, Shellenberger is also the president of the political consulting firm Lumina Strategies, which in 2004 was hired by the government of Hugo Chavez “to oversee the media relations strategy for Venezuela’s government.” More recently, Shellenberger has casually aligned himself with the insurrectionist supporters of the defeated former US president Trump, suggesting in a Twitter post that the coup attempt of Jan. 6, 2021, was justifiable with language that is disturbingly racist. “Once progressives adopted the toxic language of the campus left, absurdly vilifying old-stock White Americans as ‘settlers’,” he wrote, “it was only a matter of time before young white male right-wing radicals began wearing cowboy hats or buckskins in response,” referring to the now-infamous “QAnon Shaman” who was later jailed for his part in the attack on the US Capitol. In another post, Shellenberger suggested that a certain individual seen in the Capitol “appears to be a paid actor,” echoing the claims of some that the attack was staged by leftists in an attempt to discredit the former president. Most of Shellenberger’s social media commentary on the January 6 insurrection has since been deleted, but much of it has nevertheless been archived by climate information watchdogs.