It’s hard to write against your former heroes. Michael Shellenberger has highlighted so many of the challenges facing a 100% renewable energy grid, and shown so comprehensively that nuclear is a viable alternative, that I feel I owe him a debt of gratitude. But his all-or-nothing, take no prisoners approach to writing is making him dangerous. His anger with the renewable energy activists has finally burst over into him fuelling climate denial.
His latest post causes me so much conflict. He makes some good points! In “The Real Reason They Blame Heat Deaths, Blackouts, and Forest Fires on Climate Change Is Because They’re Causing Them” he plays the old game of “not enough tech”. As my favourite futurist Isaac Arthur always says, “If brute force isn’t working – you’re not using enough.” Click “Play all” on any of his playlist themes, and you’ll see the sheer scale at which Isaac discusses stuff. But a lot of Isaac’s future brainstorming relies on an Earth GDP that’s centuries away, many orders of magnitude greater, and even involves future-tech like fusion or reliable sentient AI or robotics or post-scarcity economies.
Shellenberger sounds like he wants more tech, but right now to solve this generations climate problems. Heatwaves? Just add more air conditioners – and more nuclear power plants while you’re at it. Forest fires? Clear out and burn the forests more to prevent fuel load. Done! Case closed. Except I forgot to mention, he likes to poo poo climate activists that go on about the increased risks of all this while he’s at it.
Now I don’t have time to go into the intricacies of analysing every forest management scheme in the USA. He might even score some points against the management of some specific forestry schemes.
But his blithe assurance that fuel load management is the answer to prevent every case of climate mega-fire makes one enormous fatal error. It assumes we can keep that forest the way it is, and hand it on to our grandchildren – while fire-bombing it with ever increasing rapidity as climate change threatens to cook it up ready for mega-fires with ever increasing rapidity.
First, there comes a point with climate change where no local forest or bush reserve is safe. The terrible 1939 Australian Black Friday bushfires that killed 71 people required 6 months of unusually warm and dry temperatures to cook up the land ready for that inferno. But today’s weird climate extremes can dry the land in two weeks. There can also be climate extremes where the normally wetter winters are too dry and hot and dangerous to run backburning programs – as was the case in the Australian 2019/20 fires. It was just too dry in winter 2019 for backburning. They would have lost too many homes, even during winter. Shellenberger ignores all this.
With climate change able to cook the land tinder dry in record short time, it may be the case that no homes can be in the bush. Adjunct Associate Professor Phil Zylstra from Curtin University makes this point. Simply, we need to burn closer to homes. Burning thousands of hectares in remote areas might reduce the fuel load on paper. But it doesn’t help protect assets like homes and farms and sheds and powerlines anywhere near as well as just burning the local 500m around assets. Yet burning around homes is trickier and more expensive than just lobbing fire starters from planes. It requires vastly more staff from both parks and fire agencies to watch. It could soon create demand for just clear-felling half a kilometre around every rural town or house or built infrastructure. And the horrible side effect? Doesn’t this all reduce the charm of living in rural areas anyway? You can still see the trees – but they’ll be half a kilometre away!
Also, regularly fire-bombing forest changes those ecosystems. The horrible Black Friday fires mentioned above resulted in the 1939 Royal Commission findings (page 2):-
The Condition of the Forests.—When the early settlers came to what is now this State, they found for the greater part a clean forest. Apparently, for many years before their arrival, the forest had not been scourged by fire. They were in their natural state. Their canopies had prevented the growth of scrub and bracken to any wide extent. They were open and traversible by men, beasts and wagons. Compared with their present condition, they were safe. But the white men introduced fire to the forests. They burned the floor to promote the growth of grass and to clear it of scrub which had grown where, for whatever reason, the balance of nature had broken down. The fire stimulated grass growth ; but it encouraged scrub growth far more. Thus was begun the cycle of destruction which can not be arrested in our day. The scrub grew and flourished, fire was used to clear it, the scrub grew faster and thicker, bush fires, caused by the careless or designing hand of man, ravaged the forests; the canopy was impaired, more scrub grew and prospered, and again the cleansing agent, fire, was used. And so to-day in places where our forefathers rode, driving their herds and flocks before them, the wombat and the wallaby are hard put to it to find passage through the bush.
Where does Shellenberger address this? What changes could happen in the American landscape and ecology as they fire-bomb it with ever more frequency to reduce the ever-increasing risk of mega-fires as climate gets further out of hand? After all – he even tries to debunk the seriousness of 4 degrees of warming. The landscape will be cooking up a whole lot faster in that world.
Again, I’m all for ecologist driven, scientifically valid discussions about fire management. And maybe Shellenberger makes some points on some American schemes – I’m not dismissing the importance of good backburning programs. But listen to Professor Zylstra’s interview. Shellenberger avoids all this and basically seems to be thumping the arms of his lazy boy as he joins the armchair denier mob.
Next, he starts raving about reliable baseload power and the wonders of air-conditioning. Now, I LOVE air-conditioning and reliable baseload power. I consider air-conditioning to be one of the most outstanding inventions of the modern world – as miraculous and necessary and enjoyable as modern medicine, television and the internet. I’m a big fan – and probably use it too much.
But here’s the catch. I also LOVE not dying in a heatwave if the power happens to go out. And when is the power most likely to go out? When we discover that the grid can’t cope with the extremes of a nation’s first really bad wet-bulb mega-heatwave. Or maybe that heatwave has already burned down some major power lines and then it goes into a wet-bulb territory. Oh – what’s a wet-bulb heatwave? Shellenberger avoids that. It might spook the troops. It’s the heatwave that kills any mammal stuck in it for more than a few hours. Here’s the horrible truth. Equatorial nations at the vulnerable latitudes could lose millions in their first wet-bulb mega-heatwave. This is not Sci-Fi. This is the laws of physics and biology.
How to bake a killer heatwave? Add 100% humidity to 35 degrees C and you’re dead in 8 hours.
And it’s a truly slow and horrible way to die! Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s well researched novel “Ministry for the future”. You can read the opening chapter free. How horrific!
Here’s the science of wet-bulb heatwaves.
But Shellenberger won’t tell you any of this. He’s thick with the alt-right and Fox News crowd. Even his old colleagues have spoken out against him. I’ll leave you with the LA Review of Books.
Shellenberger has a history of anti-green contrarianism. He thrust himself into the limelight in 2004, when he and Ted Nordhaus wrote an essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism.” Thirty-three at the time, Shellenberger was already portraying himself as an environmentalist who had realized that environmentalism’s problem was environmentalism itself. Not just an activist with a history, he was a successful opinion maker whose PR companies had challenged Nike’s labor practices and consulted for the Sierra Club and Ford Foundation. After their confrontational essay made waves, he and Nordhaus co-founded a think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, and another PR firm, American Environics. By 2008 they had published a book that landed them among Time’s 32 “heroes of the environment” alongside the likes of Van Jones and Alice Waters. Their position was that if environmentalists want to win politically, including with fence-sitting conservatives, they have to invent and tell better stories. The story Shellenberger has stuck with is that the things environmentalists resist — nuclear, GMOs, fracking, industrial agriculture, and so on — are actually good for the environment.
In a 2019 academic article about ecomodernism’s history, Giorgos Kallis and I wondered whether denialists might soon take up these ideas.  This is exactly what has happened with the publication in June of Apocalypse Never. Climate change deniers and delayers have eagerly embraced a self-declared environmentalist who says that global warming is real but no big deal. In July, Shellenberger talked about his new book on Fox News and a Heartland Institute podcast. Right-wingnewspapers and climate “truther” websites praised it. When Forbes took down Shellenberger’s provocative piece plugging Apocalypse Never — an “apology” for the “climate scare” on behalf of environmentalists (whom he’s denounced since 2004) — because it violated their policy against self-promotion, Shellenberger tweeted on June 29 that he was censored. The Daily Wire, Quillette, and Breitbart quickly published all or part of the article.  Conservative media can’t get enough of this story: the born-again whistleblower bashing scientists and environmentalists who want to cancel him for it. 
Many scientists and environmentalists are disowning Shellenberger, but it’s because he plays fast and loose with the facts. In his promotional article, in between trying to apologize for the actions of an entire movement he disavowed 16 years ago, Shellenberger includes bullet-point lists of bold claims such as “Climate change is not making natural disasters worse” and “Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003.”  Specialists pounced on these assertions. Seven experts fact-checked the article and deemed its credibility “low.” Others, myself included,  posted point-by-point evaluations of Shellenberger’s claims on blogs and social media,  finding that the “op-ad” presented a combination of truths, half-truths, cherry-picked facts, and misleading statements.  For example, he claims, “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,” when really both the increase in burnable material and the hotter, drier conditions brought by climate change have contributed to making fires more frequent and severe.  Contrary to what he implies, the global area burned by fires has decreased 25 percent despite climate change mainly because people have converted fire-prone savannas to farms.  If we were to pave forests too, there would be nothing left to burn.