'The climate movement is a religion'

World catches up with Apocalypse Never :: My interview with Swiss newspaper Weltwoche

Dear Friends —

Over the last 18 months I was honored to testify six times before Congress where I raised concerns about America’s growing dependence on weather-dependent renewables, the loss of nuclear power, and the psychological impact of climate alarmism on young people. In response, some activist journalists and others have misrepresented my views. In three recent cases, reporters were forced to correct their articles.

Given that, I was happy to do an interview with Beat Gygi of the Swiss newspaper Weltwoche, translated and reprinted below, which accurately represents my views. 

In truth, real world events have reinforced the core findings of Apocalypse Never since it was published one year ago this month. Princeton researchers confirmed the large body of research by Environmental Progress showing that renewables require 300 times more land than nuclear plants. Other academic researchers confirmed that China made solar panels cheap with coal, forced labor, and heavy subsidies, not innovation. And two days ago The Times reported on why the long-heralded off-shore wind energy boom may never occur, for economic, environmental, and physical (power density) reasons.

Meanwhile, Europe banned plastic waste exports to poor nations following revelations that they were ending up in oceans, evidence grows of financial support from fossil-renewable energy companies for anti-nuclear campaigners, and the closure of Indian Point nuclear plant in New York resulted in emissions spiking by more than one-third, as climate scientists organized by Environmental Progress repeatedly warned they would.

As a result, the Malthusian environmental agenda is in crisis everywhere. President Joe Biden has failed to win bipartisan agreement with Republicans who rightly refused to go along with new taxes for renewable energy infrastructure. Nuclear plant closures, rising energy demand, and over-investment in weather-dependent renewables are resulting in power outages everywhere from China, Japan, & Taiwan to California. And Greta Thunberg complains that, after Covid, “people no longer want to hear the bad news.”

Meanwhile, the work of Environmental Progress is expanding, and the impact of Apocalypse Never, a best-seller in the U.S., is growing. It will soon be available in 17 languages. I will promote the book in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East this fall. And am happy to announce that HarperCollins will publish my next two books which, with Apocalypse Never, will constitute a trilogy on why Western civilization is undermining itself.

— Michael

‘The climate movement is a religion’

Science journalist Michael Shellenberger cleans up the apocalyptic warnings from environmental activists and climate scientists.

By Beat Gygi 

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, published last summer, is a cool breeze of reason in the heated climate debate. In his analysis, which is now available in seventeen languages, the American science journalist Michael Shellenberger uses dozens of examples to show why the doomsday warnings by climate activists are wrong, and even harmful to the economy, society and the environment. 

In an interview here, he does away with the exaggerated expectations of renewable energies such as wind and solar. The 49-year-old Shellenberger is one of the most renowned science authors and advises policymakers in several countries.

Weltwoche: Mr. Shellenberger, under the Biden government, the USA is returning to the Paris Agreement and promising to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris targets. What effect do you expect? Is that good for the world?

Michael Shellenberger: The effect is zero. In the US, carbon emissions have declined more sharply since 2000 than in any other country in the world. Compared to 2005, the decrease is now 22 percent. The Paris target for the US was 17 percent. So we far exceeded it, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the Paris Agreement.

Weltwoche: For what reasons?

Shellenberger: Fracking for natural gas was the key. Natural gas causes about half as many carbon emissions as coal, and so the shift away from coal to gas, which has been going on for some time, is bringing considerable relief. Under Trump, the shift took place just as quickly as under Obama, and emissions even fell at an accelerated rate.

Weltwoche: And what is the effect of the Paris Treaty?

Shellenberger: The Paris Agreement is purely public relations. And more than that, it will never be more than an employment program for diplomats.

Weltwoche: Are the efforts to strengthen the Paris Process also a complete waste of time for the whole world?

Shellenberger: In some respects it is even worse because it encourages the idea that it is primarily up to the bureaucrats to decide on energy supply, use and production of goods in the respective countries.

Weltwoche: But the state has certain tasks with regard to environmental protection and energy use, doesn't it?

Shellenberger: By far the most important variable with regard to energy is its price, because this determines economic growth. Environmental quality is improved through more efficient power plants, plants and vehicles, not through announcements at UN conferences. 

Politics can certainly exert a beneficial influence. The US government, for example, promoted the fracking revolution, which led to cheap natural gas and, as a result, to a replacement of coal combustion and a drastic drop in CO2 emissions.

Weltwoche: The Europeans are not on this track.

Shellenberger: No, you are currently faced with the question of whether you should expand natural gas and weather-dependent renewable energies such as solar and wind or whether you should strengthen nuclear energy.

Weltwoche: Things are looking bad for nuclear energy in Germany and Switzerland.

Shellenberger: Politicians banned them, but debates are ongoing in the Netherlands, Great Britain and France about expanding them. 

A comparison of Germany with France is extremely interesting: France only generates a tenth of that per unit of electricity of CO2 emissions from Germany, and the French electricity price is half as high. Germany also has difficulties with solar and wind. Wind turbines have met with much local opposition, and recent reports of forced labor in China have sparked political opposition to the import of solar panels.

Weltwoche: In Europe in particular, however, there is the impression that the entire UN apparatus with climate agreements, conferences, the world climate council and climate research is bringing about an energy turnaround.

Shellenberger: The climate discourse increases the pressure to shut down nuclear power plants and expand the weather-dependent renewable forms of energy and to withhold modern food production and energy systems from poor countries. That’s the impact on the world.

Weltwoche: So there are winners and losers. Who are the winners?

Shellenberger: The winners are the Chinese who produce solar panels, shadow banks like Blackrock who finance it, then global elites who cultivate their status awareness and a feeling of superiority, and also young people who oppose parents, institutions and Supervisors rebel.

Weltwoche: And the losers?

Shellenberger: Countries from sub-Saharan Africa because they are prevented from creating modern energy and food systems. To a lesser extent, also South America and South Asia. Above all, the climate debate is damaging weaker people and weaker countries.

Weltwoche: Don't the losers fight back?

Shellenberger: There is resistance in different forms. India, for example, continues to rely heavily on coal and is simply installing a few solar panels next to it to satisfy European diplomats and also to give young people in developing countries the feeling that they are part of the global elite. With industrialization and better organization, developing countries would be much better served to escape poverty and protect forests.

Weltwoche: When did the whole environmental and climate movement actually get going? The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was a kick - but where did the dynamic come from?

Shellenberger: In my opinion, this whole apocalyptic climate discussion really gained in importance when the apocalyptic nuclear weapons discussion came to an end at the end of the Cold War and so secular fears of apocalypse had to find something else to attach to. Even nuclear weapons was a substitute for earlier apocalypse presentations, including fascism and communism. In addition, in the early nineties, fears of overpopulation faded  and so environmental thinkers turned to the climate.

Weltwoche: Should anything be done about global warming?

Shellenberger: Yes, you always have to try to move from technologically poorer to more advanced energy sources: from wood to coal and hydropower, from there to natural gas and finally to nuclear energy. Nuclear energy and natural gas have great advantages in terms of reliability and environmental quality, far beyond the climate aspects.

Weltwoche: What is the energy mix worth striving for in the long term?

Shellenberger: I think at the end of these energy transformations we will have practically 100 percent nuclear power. With every step, the economy becomes less carbon-intensive: from coal to natural gas to the hydrogen economy, driven by nuclear energy.

Weltwoche: Is nuclear energy getting enough political support?

Shellenberger: Nuclear energy spreads among those who also have nuclear weapons. The fact that France has so much nuclear power has to do with its role as a nuclear weapons power. The UK is also good at nuclear power for the same reason. In Western Europe, on the other hand, the fear of it is greater. But I think this will decrease over time because every time a new country is added, the risks rise at first and then decline. Fears and risks are greatest at the beginning. The most dangerous time for North Korea was a few years ago. In nuclear energy production there have been isolated accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima, but these made the industry better, less vulnerable.

Weltwoche: The main forces behind environmental and climate policy do not see this as a solution. They want a radical reversal in energy consumption and a complete move away from fossil fuels by 2050 or earlier, a kind of emergency brake. They say that science clearly shows that you have to act immediately, otherwise it will be too late and the climate system will tip over. There is a mood of alarm that is causing even local parliaments to declare a climate emergency. 

Shellenberger: A lot is mixed up there. In my opinion, the science of climate change is well founded. It says that the earth is getting warmer and that man-made emissions cause warming. I think it's good that there are differences of opinion on the question of how large the proportion of people is in it. In my opinion it is quite significant, the role of CO2 emissions in relation to the greenhouse effect is not controversial.

Weltwoche: So the alarm is inappropriate?

Shellenberger: Climate science fails elsewhere, namely when answering the question of what effects the higher temperatures can have. The alarmist warnings of catastrophic developments are completely absurd. We do not see any increase in the frequency of hurricanes or cyclones and the deaths associated with them decreases while their cost does not increase in relationship to rising economic growth. Even with drought and floods there are no increases. The best available estimates of how hurricanes will evolve over the next half century in the United States suggest that frequency will decrease by 25 percent and intensity will increase by 5 percent. So climate scientists spread misinformation about the effects of warming, not about the fact of warming. 

Weltwoche: What about nuclear?

Shellenberger: I think the transition to nuclear will take a while. That was also the case with coal. After the first steam engine in the early 18th century, it took almost seventy years for James Watt to come up with his more modern steam engine. Nuclear technology is now 75 years old, its use as an energy source almost sixty years. Nuclear energy is a very demanding technology because its primary purpose was the weapon. That is why it has established itself as a source of energy primarily through those countries.

Weltwoche: Do you also see a connection between nuclear power and energy use in modern reactor types?

Shellenberger: I see it that way. The connecting relationship is the process of nuclear fission that must be mastered.

Weltwoche: And can this technology really be controlled reliably enough?

Shellenberger: It has worked pretty well to this day. Nuclear energy is slowly spreading from country to country and that's a good thing.

Weltwoche: Would it be cheaper to adapt to the consequences of climate change than to fight global warming?

Shellenberger: As I said earlier, the US has cut its carbon emissions more than any other country in human history in the past twenty years. And during this time, the USA was insulted as a climate villain. 

But here’s the punchline: it was not associated with any economic loss. On the contrary, as the price of natural gas fell, that saved consumers costs of $100 billion dollars a year. So it is even more dramatic than saying that one causes less costs than the other: we reduced CO2 emissions by making clean energies cheaper, in other words, realizing a profit.

Weltwoche: That sounds like a secret recipe.

Shellenberger: The only measures that are really important are the transition from form of energy to form of energy: from coal to natural gas to nuclear energy. This is central to the whole thing and not complicated at all.

Weltwoche: Isn't this solution too convenient, too cheap?

Shellenberger: There are many lies about the climate, but the biggest lie is that combating climate change requires economic sacrifices. That is only true if we think we have to go back in time, back to renewable forms of energy. But if we move forward in the direction of natural gas and nuclear energy, then no sacrifices are necessary; on the contrary, we create more prosperity.

Weltwoche: But many would now object that renewable energies are a good thing, because they are closer to nature and the supplies are not exploited.

Shellenberger: Yes, that's exactly how it is. And that's why I say: It's a religion. The renewable energy and environmental movements form a religion. There are biblical arguments that are put forward: We humans lived in a harmonious state with nature at the time, we then injured nature, damaged it, and violated it with technical learning and knowledge, with fossil and nuclear fuels.

We fell away from nature, are fallen, guilty. We must therefore stop eating meat. This is a central point in many religions: no meat, no pleasure, no travel around, or the world will perish. As stated in the Book of Revelations, the Apocalypse is coming.

Weltwoche: Wait a minute, you could say that the warning of the apocalypse should bring about measures to avert it.

Shellenberger: I think the purpose of alarmism is simply alarmism itself. The goal is not to reduce CO2 emissions, because then natural gas and nuclear energy would be targeted. The climate interest groups, however, want solar and wind energy. Why? On the one hand, because you see it in harmony with nature, and on the other hand, because they think you have to make sacrifices.

Weltwoche: Costs must be incurred?

Shellenberger: Yes, and the unreliable forms of energy need more control and authoritarian structures. Take the electricity networks. Supply and demand can best be reconciled in systems with a small number of large power plants. If you now add renewable energies, you have to add an enormous amount of equipment, controls, employees and government agencies. This is how you can generate costs and force people to pay more for energy.

Weltwoche: Which countries will be the fastest in developing new energy supply combinations?

Shellenberger: The rich, developed countries are in a certain leadership crisis, including the Biden administration, whose climate plans are contradictory. Germany also has major problems with the transition. The simplest answer to the question is China. Because its economy is growing, because it is centralized. At the same time, it has rival interest groups with in the Party for solar, for nuclear and for coal and they fight each other. The Communist Party gives little room to market forces. [Same as with Soviet Union over-whaling past the point of profitability, as I point out in Apocalypse Never. – MS June 6)

Weltwoche: How do you see the long-term prospects for solar energy? Sunlight is free, why not make full use of it?

Shellenberger: It was said for years that solar panels would become cheaper because the use of sunlight to generate electrical energy was becoming more and more efficient. 

But it’s now clear that solar panels have now become cheaper for three reasons: firstly, they are subsidized by China. Secondly, the Chinese government allows the dirtiest form of coal energy to be used for their production. Third, forced labor is involved. Non-technical progress drove the price down. And the raw material silicone is now becoming more expensive. In my opinion, solar energy will always remain a nice niche product, suitable for smaller applications.

Weltwoche: But many countries are making solar energy a pillar of their supply. 

Shellenberger: I believe that when the solar bubble bursts, people will wake up from their trance and see: There is no way to get one that is powered by solar energy driven economy.

Weltwoche: Should the climate wave subside, would another major current arise? 

Shellenberger: At the moment there are actually two religions, two secular religions, that shape the scene. One is, as I said, about the climate and the environment. In addition, another religion has developed that is obsessed with the issues of identity, race, biological and social gender and the like. The central idea is that certain people take on the role of victims and that victims are sacred. I will take up this new religion in my next book. 

Weltwoche: Does this flow work because it is similar to the environmental movement? 

Shellenberger: It is a bit different, but both religions are very strongly driven by elites who are trying to create new ones after the weakening of the previously strong national identities. It's about new groups, new tribes, new policies, morally charged debates about victim roles. As a sister religion, it goes well with the climate