The environmentalist’s apology: how Michael Shellenberger unsettled some of his prominent supporters

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Few things engage a particular subset of conservative media more than an environmentalist having an apparent change of heart and dumping all over the “climate scare”.

Earlier this week, the Australian newspaper ran an opinion piece that fitted this narrative so perfectly that room was found on its front page.

The American environment and energy commentator and nuclear power supporter Michael Shellenberger was the provider.

“On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologise for the climate scare we created over the past 30 years,” wrote Shellenberger in his 1,700-word article.

A long interview on Australia’s Sky television, known for airing derisory views of environmentalism and climate change in its evening schedules, soon followed.

Though he had almost no profile in Australia before the piece, Shellenberger has been a contrarian voice on environmental issues and a critic of aspects of environmentalism for more than 15 years.

But his “apology for the climate scare” has unsettled some supporters of his who spoke to Guardian Australia.

His op-ed was first published three days earlier on Forbes, but was removed by the outlet.

Shellenberger claimed on social media he had been censored and told rightwing site the Daily Wire he was grateful Forbes was committed to publishing viewpoints that “challenge the conventional wisdom, and thus was disappointed my editors removed my piece from the web”.

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

Before appearing in the Australian, the op-ed also ran on the website of Shellenberger’s thinktank, Environmental Progress, and on at least three other sites. The article heavily promoted Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never.

The article contained a list of “facts few people know” to buttress his claim that while climate change was happening, “it’s not even our most serious environmental problem”.

Among Shellenberger’s many claims was that climate change was not making natural disasters worse, fires had declined around the world since 2003, and the more dangerous fires being experienced in Australia and California were because of the build up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change.

Voices that have questioned human-caused climate change have embraced and applauded Shellenberger’s article.

At the same time, climate science experts have also offered qualified praise, while expressing concerns about the broader impact of the opinion article.

Respected MIT climate expert Prof Kerry Emanuel sits on a line-up of science advisers of Environmental Progress.

He told Guardian Australia he was “very concerned” about the opinion piece, and was consulting with other members of the advisory group before deciding whether to remain listed.

Emanuel said he joined the thinktank some years ago “as it was then a voice for a rational approach to dealing with climate change, emphasising the need for nuclear power as part of the solution – a point I still very much agree with”.

But commenting on the opinion piece, he said: “In the first place, no one has the right to speak for the entirety of the environmental movement.”

He said Shellenberger was right to call out extreme statements from some environmentalists, but added: “Elsewhere, he gets a few of his facts wrong.”

He said: “For example, he states ‘climate change is not making natural disasters worse’ when there is plenty of evidence that it is.”

Residents defend a property from a bushfire at Hillsville near Taree, 350km north of Sydney

The environmental movement, Emanuel said, had “consistently and destructively overemphasised the risks and costs of nuclear power” while pushing “the fantasy of 100% renewables, overlooking the bad environmental outcomes of those energy sources”.

But he said there was nothing to be gained “by embracing disinformation on the other side”.

One example of the more questionable claims in the opinion piece comes when Shellenberger claims fires in Australia and California were becoming more dangerous because of the “build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change”.

That claim is at odds with many studies showing higher temperatures driven by rising levels of greenhouse have already increased the risks of bushfires in Australia and will continue to do so in the future.

A review of the academic literature produced earlier this year in response to Australia’s devastating bushfire summer found “human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire”.

Shellenberger came to prominence in 2004 when he co-authored an essay criticising mainstream environmentalism. He wrote: “We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially technical.”

Veteran climate scientist Prof Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide, was asked by Shellenberger to read his book and gave it a glowing review. He told Guardian Australia he thought the book “may well be the most important book on the environment ever written”.

But he said the way the opinion piece had framed the issue of climate change would put Shellenberger in a difficult position.

“I think that Michael has gone a little too far and he will have to defend this article for many years and, in the meantime, some damage will be done as his words may be misrepresented by people who don’t believe in human-caused global warming,” Wigley said.

Ben Heard, founder of Australian environmental group Bright New World, which also advocates for nuclear energy, has known Shellenberger for a decade.

“That’s not the article I would write,” he told Guardian Australia. “Michael is getting a number of extremely important truths out there, although they may have been expressed only partially and that can be a problem.

“If the objective is to draw more attention to other impacts [on the environment] then that’s good and important, but that doesn’t need to be done at the expense of urgent action to reduce emissions – and I don’t think Michael thinks that either.

“I can’t speak for his motivations in writing this piece but I can say he does care about the natural world and the human beings that live in it.

“Whether or not climate change is the most urgent environmental problem is Michael’s answer to an unhelpful question.”

According to the latest publicly available financial records, Environmental Progress earned US$809,000 in revenue in 2017 from gifts, grants and donations.

In the process of researching this article, Guardian Australia emailed questions to Shellenberger to clarify why Forbes had removed his article and who funded his organisation.

A third question related to a 2017 internal report from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) which said the institute, which represents the nuclear energy industry, had “engaged third parties to engage with media through interviews and op-eds” and named “environmentalist Michael Shellenberger” as one of those it had engaged.

Ninety minutes after the deadline to respond to the questions had passed, Shellenberger emailed a letter to Guardian Australia entitled “Formal request for ethics investigation of Graham Redfearn [sic]” and then shared the letter on social media.

A spokesperson for NEI said: “Our engagement with third parties that you referenced means to keep in contact with people and organisations who have an interest in nuclear energy and sharing materials of common interest. No payments have been provided to Mr. Shellenberger. NEI has been a participant and registrant to annual meetings that Environmental Progress hosted in 2018 and 2019.”

In his letter to Guardian Australia, Shellenberger wrote: “We accept donations solely from individuals and organizations with no financial interest in our work and publish the names of our donors on our website.”

According to the website of Environmental Progress, the thinktank takes “no contributions from energy companies or energy interests”, and then lists a series of individuals and foundations who were donors.

In follow-up questions, Guardian Australia asked Shellenberger to comment on the criticisms of his opinion piece by some of his supporters, but received no response.


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