Shellenberger’s Optimistic, Viral Take on Climate Future Challenged by Scientists He Cites

Activist Michael Shellenberger argues that fears of a future climate-driven apocalypse are unfounded. But several scientists he cites told Snopes he misunderstands — or mischaracterizes — their research.

  • Published 4 August 2020

On June 28, 2020, environmental activist and nuclear energy advocate Michael Shellenberger published an article in the business magazine Forbes titled “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare.” In it, Shellenberger proffered a list of 12 “facts few people know” that “will sound like ‘climate denialism’ to many people.” A day later, Forbes removed the article, which teased his new book “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.”

Shellenberger, a self-described “environmental humanist” who often casts the demands of climate activists as oppositional to the economic needs of impoverished populations, asserted that he was being censored. That claim resonated with several conservative media outlets, including Breitbart, Quillette, and the Daily Wire, who each republished all or some of the article. In reality, as reported by multiple outlets, the article was removed for violating Forbes’ editorial policy against self-promotion. The ensuing virality brought the situation to the attention of several fact-checking organizations, including Climate Feedback, where a panel of seven Ph.D. experts deemed the article’s credibility to be “low.”

The scientific controversy initially created by the article turned into a broader dispute over fact-checking and alleged censorship after Shellenberger’s article was temporarily flagged on social media as misleading. In response, Shellenberger argued that his views had been mischaracterized by fact-checkers, pointing to context from his book that does not appear in the article. The office of at least one United States congressman reached out to Facebook over the controversy. Since then, Shellenberger has been hailed as a more rational kind of environmentalist on various podcasts and cable news programs, including an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

In this article — which is based in part on a 90-minute Zoom interview with Shellenberger — Snopes explains both the controversy behind Shellenberger’s “apology” and analyzes the 12 facts it includes, which range from “global warming is not making natural disasters worse” to “adapting to life below sea level made the Netherlands rich not poor.” In an effort to assess the claim that Shellenberger’s conclusions stem from a widely held scientific consensus, Snopes interviewed multiple scientific experts, including several who have been cited by Shellenberger himself.

The Controversy

From a fact-checking standpoint, much of the controversy comes from Shellenberger’s view that critics have attacked implications of his article that he never stated while ignoring the somewhat more nuanced arguments presented in “Apocalypse Never.” Shellenberger’s book is an argument in favor of the specific form of environmental policy known as ecomodernism. He currently advances his version of ecomodernism through his non-profit organization Environmental Progress. That group was “founded to achieve two goals: lift all humans out of poverty, and save the natural environment,” its website reads. “These goals can be achieved by mid-century — but only if we remove the obstacles to cheap, reliable and clean energy.” Nuclear energy is that solution, Shellenberger has long advocated.

But the Forbes piece is explicitly about “climate alarmism,” and the structure of the article suggests each fact listed is a critique on the severity of climate change as a problem facing humanity. Before he lists the facts that comprise his apology, Shellenberger says that “climate change is happening,” but that, “it’s not even our most serious environmental problem.” Following that list of facts, Shellenberger asserts, “I know that the above facts will sound like ‘climate denialism’ to many people. But that just shows the power of climate alarmism.”

For example, one of these facts is that “fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003.” As evidence regarding the severity of climate change, as fact-checkers pointed out, the fire statistic is useless. The reduction stems primarily from fewer intentionally set agricultural fires. In our interview, Shellenberger told us that he was “absolutely not” linking this statistic to climate change. When Snopes challenged him on the statistic’s inclusion on a list of facts that “sound like climate denialism,” he conceded it could be viewed as a critique on climate change.

“Now that you’ve unpacked it for me,” he said, “I could see why that is possible.”

From a scientific standpoint, at least some of the controversy stems from his criticsview that he uses cherry-picked statistics or references to draw misleading conclusions. In describing the 12 facts in his Forbes apology, Shellenberger wrote that they come “from the best-available scientific studies, including those conducted by or accepted by the IPCC, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other leading scientific bodies.”

As we will show below, however, the authors of many of those “best-available scientific studies” say their work either refutes or is irrelevant to the broader points Shellenberger makes in his book. This is no minor quibble. Shellenberger exaggerates the extent to which his arguments have widespread scientific support to advocate for specific policies — the same behavior for which he faults climate alarmists. Below, we take a look at each of his claims by grouping them into themes, or topics.

Claims Related to Extinction

Shellenberger’s focus on extinctions and biodiversity is part of an argument that economic development, rather than restrictive policies advocated by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in developing nations, is the key to conservation. The Environmental Progress website states that, “The world is not in the midst of a sixth mass-extinction, but we are witnessing declines in the size of wildlife populations.”

In order to rectify this, Environmental Progress argues, we should encourage developing nations to transition away from wood fuel and charcoal, “which disproportionately destroys habitat area,” by using energy sources like natural gas as a bridge to a carbon-free future.

“Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change”

Here, Shellenberger places habitat loss and climate change as two largely unlinked threats to biodiversity. This is a position several scientists told us misrepresents how scientists believe the two factors work together to exacerbate extinction.

Stephen Porder, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and assistant provost for sustainability at Brown University, told us by phone that the idea is that the continued reduction of habitat currently occurring will make it challenging, if not impossible, for many species to adapt in response to future climate changes. As several scientists explained to Snopes, the two are not separate issues.

“Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction'”

Shellenberger focuses on, and takes objection to, activists and writers who have claimed we are presently in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Such an assertion depends on how one defines the problem, and pointing to “mass extinctions” on human timescales may be a largely impossible task. Chris Thomas, a botanist at the University of York whose work Shellenberger cites in “Apocalypse Never,” told us by email that the question “depends on what you mean by ‘mass extinction.'” While current extinction rates are higher than average, he explained, it would “require current rates to continue for several tens of thousands of years to reach the 75% species-level extinction characteristic of the ‘Big Five’” mass extinctions found in the fossil record. 

Shellenberger — in his book, on his organization’s website, and in earlier articles — has cited the same set of academic papers to make the argument that claims of apocalyptic extinction rates stem from a mathematical model that, “fortunately,” is flawed. Environmental Progress’ website’s description is representative of this argument:

Claims that the extinction rate is accelerating and that hundreds of thousands of species are doomed to go extinct are based on very complicated models that rely on many assumptions that aren’t supported by observation. Fortunately, the assumptions that many of these models rest upon proved to be wrong, and it is becoming clear that these models have significantly over-predicted species losses. In fact, the biodiversity of islands around the world has actually doubled on average. In Europe, the number of new plant species has surpassed the number of documented plant extinctions over the past 300 years.   

In correspondence with Snopes, several scientists who authored the underlying papers used to make this argument disputed their relevance to contemporary conservation issues. The model Shellenberger refers to is known as the species-area curve, or relationship.

First proposed by biologists E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur in 1967, it is an estimated relationship between the size of an area and the number of species contained within it. Estimates of this relationship in various ecosystems have been used for decades as an indirect way to estimate extinction due to habitat loss.

As part of this argument, Shellenberger cites a 2011 paper that demonstrated that the species area relationship overestimates extinction rates, and that more habitat loss than previously thought was required to drive extinction. That is indeed what the paper found, but as evidence for the claim that humanity is not in a mass extinction, Shellenberger’s use of this study is problematic. That paper explicitly argues “the sixth mass extinction might already be upon us or imminent.” While Shellenberger accurately quotes the paper as stating “extinctions caused by habitat loss require greater loss of habitat than previously thought,” he omits the next clause of the same sentence, which reads, “our results must not lead to complacency about extinction due to habitat loss, which is a real and growing threat.”

Shellenberger also cites a 2002 study regarding the relationship between invasive and native species of plants and birds on islands as further evidence of the failure of the species-area relationship, and of the theories of Wilson and MacArthur in general. In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger cites this paper to make the argument that invasive species on islands do not crowd out endemic species “as Wilson and MacArthur feared.” Problematically, according to James Brown, a biologist at the University of New Mexico and an author on that study, the failings of the species-area relationship are “not really very relevant to most contemporary conservation issues.” Dov Sax, another author on that study, told us by phone that increasing biodiversity in some areas, like islands, does not tell us anything about global extinction rates.

It is similarly problematic to use an increase in tree species in Europe as evidence against high levels of contemporary extinction. Thomas, who is the author of the paper Shellenberger cites regarding the increase in tree species in Europe, told Snopes by email that Shellenberger’s framing “mixes up ecological and evolutionary thinking,” and that on a global scale, “there is no doubt that current rates of extinction are elevated.”

Claims About Land Use, Conservation, and Food

A large part of Shellenberger’s philosophy includes optimism in technology’s ability to lift populations out of poverty — specifically in the area of farming and food production. On Environmental Progress’ website, high-tech industrial farming is presented as a solution to habitat loss and carbon emissions: “highly intensive industrial meat farming produces far less carbon emissions than extensive organic farming techniques [and] takes up far less land.”

Environmental activists’ rhetoric concerning the Amazon rainforest unfairly demonizes poor farmers, Shellenberger argues. The policies of many activist organizations, he said, serve to lock these poor farmers in a cycle of poverty in a way that adversely affects the environment. In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger focuses on the potential for industrial farming to conserve land and lift people out of poverty. He presents what he views as overzealous and inaccurate reporting on the Amazon and climate change as an impediment to this solution and as an example of the hypocrisy of some forms of environmental activism.

“The Amazon is not ‘the lungs of the world'”

In an August 2019 Forbes article, in his recent apology, and in “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger highlights people who have compared the Amazon rainforest to the “lungs of the world” as an example of alarmist reporting concerning climate change and the Amazon. His book, part of which is based on this Forbes article, cites journalists, activists, and celebrities who have either used that metaphor or made the claim that the Amazon provides Earth with 20% of its oxygen (some of Shellenberger’s cited examples include only the metaphor, others include only the 20% statistic).

While the utility of the metaphor is a matter of opinion, the claim that 20% of Earth’s oxygen comes from the Amazon is, as Shellenberger recognizes, false. The net oxygen produced by the Amazon is minimal thanks to the amount of respiration that also occurs in Amazon soils. In response to his 2019 Forbes article, however, critics accused Shellenberger of misleading and misdirecting readers. According to several scientists we spoke to, the focus on oxygen misleadingly implies that environmentalists or climatologists view the most pressing concern from Amazon deforestation as the depletion of Earth’s “oxygen supply.”

In both the 2019 article and in “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger exploits the fallacy of the lung metaphor as evidence against the plausibility of an entirely different concept known as savanification — a climate scenario in which the Amazon transforms into a savanna-like ecosystem. This process, which many scientists view as the central concern regarding Amazon deforestation and climate, would result in massive pools of carbon presently contained in the plants and soils of the Amazon being released into the atmosphere, thereby accelerating global warming. In his 2019 article, Shellenberger explicitly conflates oxygen and the savanification concept using IPCC chapter author and Earth Innovation Institute President Daniel Nepstad’s words as his source. Shellenberger wrote:

What about The New York Times claim that ‘If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’? Also not true, said Nepstad.”

In a response to that piece, Nepstad clarified that he was not rejecting the concept of savanification — quite the opposite. “As I’ve written on extensively,” he wrote, “the Amazon forest dieback — savannization, as it is sometimes called — is the biggest threat to the Amazon forest in my opinion.” In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger includes in his discussion of the lung metaphor an example of a reporter calling the potential release of carbon a “doomsday bomb” (p. 27) without explaining that it (alarmingly, granted) refers to a wholly different issue. In an email to Snopes, Nepstad described his interview with Shellenberger as “one of the most ill-advised interviews I ever gave.”

“Preventing future pandemics requires more — not less — ‘industrial’ agriculture”

Unlike other points in the Forbes apology, little context from “Apocalypse Never” can be invoked for this claim. The book, which was largely written before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, makes limited mention of infectious diseases outside of the argument that economically developed nations are better prepared to fight them. “To the extent that agricultural intensification reduces pressure on wildlands, it can help reduce risk of future pandemics” by reducing human-wildlife contact, Hausfather wrote at Climate Feedback.

Though largely an uncontroversial point, it bears mentioning that the country hit worst by the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of this reporting is the United States, a notably developed nation whose leaders initially downplayed the severity of the threat.

“The amount of land we use for meat — humankind’s biggest use of land — has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska”

It is true, based on data provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), that the amount of land used for meat has been declining and has, since 2000, ben reduced by an area comparable to 80% the size of Alaska. “That said,” wrote Hausfather, “there are large climate impacts of meat consumption apart from land use, and growing meat consumption is still driving deforestation in areas like the Amazon even as overall pasture use shrinks.”

“We produce 25% more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter”

In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger argues that “when it comes to food production … crop yields will increase significantly, under a wide range of climate change scenarios,” and “humans today produce … a 25 percent [food] surplus, and experts believe we will produce even more despite climate change.” He attributed these increasing yields, which reduce the burden on land use, to technological improvements, like factory farming. Similar to claims made regarding extinction, however, the sources he cites do not fully support his broader conclusions.

To support the argument that “Humans today produce enough food for 10 billion people, a 25 percent surplus, and [that] experts believe we will produce even more despite climate change,” Shellenberger cited a figure from an FAO report showing estimated farming yields under a variety of future climate scenarios (p. 82). As evidence that allegedly shows the “power of climate alarmism,” the use of the FAO report is problematic. The report identifies climate as one of the primary uncertainties about future food-supply issues and states that “the future of food and agriculture faces uncertainties that give rise to serious questions and concerns regarding its performance and sustainability.”

In addition to the FAO report, Shellenberger cites an editorial published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture by a group led by Eric Holt-Giménez, a political economist and the executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a California-based think tank focused on “end[ing] the injustices that cause hunger.”

Holt-Giménez told us by email that Shellenberger “has either misunderstood our editorial, or is purposefully mischaracterizing our points.”

That editorial is explicitly hesitant to proclaim future victory over hunger, in large part because of climate change.

“Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need to feed 10 billion people by 2050?” the authors asked in the editorial. “Given climate change, the answer is an unsustainable maybe.”

Equating food surpluses with the alleviation of hunger — at least based on the work of Holt-Giménez — is problematic. “People don’t go hungry because there isn’t enough food,” Holt-Giménez told us. “They go hungry because they are poor and can’t afford to buy the food that is produced.”

In fact, Holt-Giménez’s work is explicitly critical of the industrial farming Shellenberger advocates.

“In my work, I argue that industrial farming is based on a model of overproduction,” Holt-Giménez told us, which reduces the value of farmer’s products. “The industrial food system is effectively a poverty-generating machine …. The factory farms Shellenberger champions do not feed poor people, because they [the poor] can’t afford meat.”

Claims Related to Natural Disasters

Many of the statements in the Forbes apology related to natural disasters are responses either to media coverage of the 2019 wildfire season specifically, or of IPCC reports released in 2018 and 2019. In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger writes that these reports “warned of .. dire consequences: worsening natural disasters, sea-level rise, desertification, and land degradation.” He cites The New York Times’ coverage arguing that global warming threatened to worsen “floods, drought, storms and [that] other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply.”

“Fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003”

As discussed earlier, this statistic is a response to popular claims that Amazon wildfires in 2019, specifically, were the result of climate change. The number, which is uncontroversial and cited in IPCC reports, comes from a 2017 study that found that “global burned area declined by ∼25% over the past 18 years, despite the influence of climate,” thanks to “a shift toward more capital-intensive agriculture has led to fewer and smaller fires, driven by population increases, socioeconomic development, and demand for agricultural products from regional and global markets.” Its inclusion on a list of “facts that sound like climate denial” is misleading, however.

“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”

Here again, Shellenberger’s primary objection is with coverage of the 2019 wildfire season, which coupled sometimes-out-of-context pictures of wildfires alongside dire warnings about climate change. While the combination of brush build-up and increased densities of homes near forests are central causes of wildfires in places like Southern California, Shellenberger’s categorical rejection of climate change’s link to wildfires —  i.e., “not climate change” — is unfounded, according to several scientists critical of the Forbes apology article. Further, focusing on these specific geographic regions does not paint a complete picture of what scientists understand about the relationship between wildfires and climate.

Shellenberger cites U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Jon Keeley. His research argued — in part —  that the record of California wildfires in coastal Southern California (tied to climate change in some media reports) is so dominated by association with human activity that a climate signal is impossible to find. These factors include a buildup of wood fuel thanks to humanity’s prevention of smaller brush fires, new ignition sources from power lines, and massive increases in population near wildfire zones.

“I think the most important message to get across is there is no single story about fire,” Keeley told Snopes in a phone interview. “It depends on the fire regime in the landscape. And that’s really confounded by the distribution of population.” Hausfather, in a phone interview with Snopes, also cautioned that “whenever we’re talking about extreme events like this, we want to make sure that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, argued on Climate Feedback that “while the legacy of 20th century forest management policies, as well as urban incursion into the wildlands, are indeed relevant in some areas, research has shown that such non-climate factors cannot account for the enormous increase in area burned by wildfire both in the broader American West and California specifically.”

“Adapting to life below sea level made the Netherlands rich not poor”

The argument here is that, as evidenced by the Netherlands, humanity is capable of adapting to rising sea levels. “I’m saying that adapting to life below sea level — or … adapting to rising sea level — is not some obstacle to either economic growth or prosperity. If it were, the Netherlands would be poor, not rich,” Shellenberger told Snopes.

The utility of comparing the Dutch’s millennia-long experience living below sea level to countries that — according to IPCC reports — may have less than a century to adapt to rising sea level is largely an opinion, but it is at the very least also a simplistic argument. “Statements such as these are dangerous and misleading,” wrote Ryan Sriver, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, in his review for Climate Feedback. “Sea-level rise poses a major threat to coastal communities with global socio-economic implications.”

“Climate change is not making natural disasters worse”

Some of the fact-checking disagreements around the natural-disasters statement stem from interpreting “natural disasters” as “extreme weather events.” Jennifer Francis, a climatologist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, wrote that “an abundant and rapidly growing body of peer-reviewed scientific research identifies numerous ways that climate change is increasing the likelihood and intensity of various extreme weather events.”

Shellenberger, however, argues that he is only discussing events that, as defined by the IPCC, create “severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or a society” and is using the term “worse” to mean either loss of human life or economic damage.

“If we think that climate change is making a whole bunch of extreme weather events worse, there remains the question of whether it matters,” Shellenberger told us.

He cited research arguing that deaths from natural disasters have been declining, and that, when accounting for increases in wealth, they have become less costly. At the very least, this is a specific argument that relies on an opinion of how “worse” is defined.

“Whichever way one looks at it,” wrote Kerry Emmanuel, an MIT professor who blurbed favorably about his “Apocalypse Now” book, “Shellenberger’s statement is not defensible.”

It is true that deaths from natural disasters have declined between 1900 and 2020, Emmanuel wrote, but this is due to “greatly improved warnings, evacuations, and resilience.” In his book Shellenberger points to reduced deaths as an example of economic development’s promise to create resilient societies. But, argued Emmanel, reduced death alone is not evidence of climate’s inability to affect the death toll during natural disasters. The declining trend, he argues, would be present regardless of climate. The important question concerns the rate of that decrease. “We do not know from [the data highlighted by Shellenberger] whether climate change is decreasing the rate of decline of deaths from natural disasters or not.”

In terms of the economic argument, Shellenberger relies almost entirely on the work of Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado who formerly served as a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. This work, which Pielke co-authored, relies on a series of assumptions about the best economic indicators and models to use.

For example, in a series of letters published in July 2020, after the publication of Shellenberger’s book and article, researchers challenged some of the economic models Pielke relied on. In response, Pielke conceded that his methods may underestimate normalized losses from disasters.

Claims About Carbon Emissions

Shellenberger’s claims related to carbon emissions form part of the argument, as presented on Environmental Progress’ website, that “because wealthier nations are more resilient and more capable of adaptation, our goal should be to reduce emissions over the next century and keep temperatures as low as possible without undermining economic development.” In some cases, Shellenberger argues, this means allowing developing nations access to fossil fuels like coal or natural gas as a bridge to a carbon-free future.

“Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels”

Shellenberger highlights the practice of burning wood or charcoal to cook and heat homes in the Congo as an example of a situation in which fossil fuel energy projects could serve as a way to uplift the population economically, preserve forests, and reduce emissions in the long run. “Ultimately, for people to stop using wood and charcoal as fuel, they will need access to liquefied petroleum gas,” he writes in “Apocalypse Never.”

That heating and cooking with wood or charcoal is bad for health is well-accepted. People in areas reliant on this form of heating suffer increased risk of a variety of respiratory maladies, among other health problems. Allowing developing nations access to some form of fossil fuel-based energy as a bridge, at least in the scientific community, is not as controversial as Shellenberger suggests. “For decades now,” Porder of Brown University told us, “climate scientists have been saying a few more coal fire power plants in Africa are not a bad thing.”

“Air pollution and carbon emissions have been declining in rich nations for 50 years”

Shellenberger highlights rich nations that have reduced their emissions for multiple purposes. First, he uses them as an argument in favor of his thesis that economic development and prosperity will lead to reduced carbon emissions. “The new good news is that carbon emissions have been declining in developed nations for more than a decade,” Environmental Progress’ website argues. “Most energy experts believe emissions in developing nations will peak and decline, just as they did in developed nations, once they achieve a similar level of prosperity.”

This argument does not indicate, however, the time frame it would take for these various countries to reach that peak and decline. The Breakthrough Institute’s Hausfather, in an interview with Snopes, told us that “it’s generally true that most energy experts expect developing countries’ emissions to peak and decline when they reach prosperity levels similar to the U.S., but that’s not really saying much, because they could increase their emissions a hell of a lot before they get there.”

Shellenberger also highlights these reductions in emissions as a way to highlight the power of natural gas, which the International Energy Agency credits for much of the reduced emissions in developed nations. Finally, he cites the reductions as an argument that fears of a future climate-driven apocalypse are unfounded. “As a result [of this decline in emissions], global temperatures today appear much more likely to peak at between two to three degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels, not four, where the risks …  are significantly lower,” Environmental Progress’s website argues.

Two to three degrees of warming is a wide range, climatologically speaking, and the idea that humanity, absent further action, is headed toward a future that peaks at two degrees of warming is not commonly held.

“I’ve not seen anyone claiming that, in the absence of concerted policies, we could get to two degrees warming based on where we are today,” Hausfather told us. In his book, Shellenberger cites a Twitter thread from University of British Columbia postdoctoral researcher Justin Ritchie regarding various future climate scenarios described by the International Energy Agency as the citation for this point. The IEA report itself does not make this argument, however. Ritchie and Hausfather later wrote an article for the Breakthrough institute arguing, with slightly revised figures, that without action, humanity is likely headed for a three-degree warming world.

With regard to the reduced emissions, Shellenberger rejects that “climate alarmism” deserves credit for the reductions. In “Apocalypse Never,” he writes, “Can we credit thirty years of climate alarmism for these reductions in emissions? We can’t.”

This is “completely wrong,” according to Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. It’s also contradicted by the source Shellenberger uses —  the IEA — to make that argument. That 2019 report states that “Emissions trends for 2019 suggest clean energy transitions are underway, led by the power sector,” citing “the expanding role of renewable sources — mainly wind and solar PV — fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power output.”

What the data show is that some nations, such as the European Union, have seen a long-term decline in carbon emissions, Mann said.

“(This is) precisely because they have prioritized decarbonization through increased renewable energy etc. The U.S. has seen a decline over the past two decades and that, too, is in large part due to policies aimed at increased energy efficiency and, more recently, decarbonization.”

A Commitment to Accuracy

In “Apocalypse Never,” Shellenberger dismisses climate alarmism as an anti-scientific “religion.” He accuses the movement of using exaggeration to promote a political agenda. In testimony before the U.S. House Committee On Science, Space, and Technology, Shellenberger said, “It is a peculiar feature of climate policy that its advocates feel the need to exaggerate with so much severity and frequency.” In past statements and in several media appearances for his book, he has invoked a dispassionate commitment to scientific accuracy as central to his philosophy. Policy advocates, he told Congress, “must strive to represent the science with a strong commitment to accuracy, even if that accuracy reduces the salience and urgency of the problem one believes should be addressed.”

But in advocating for a specific environmental philosophy, Shellenberger has, at times, presented the scientific literature in ways that misrepresents the level of support they lend his arguments. While inspired by actual scientific research, in many cases, Shellenberger’s “facts” stem from extrapolations of that research unsupported by their authors. Writing a review of “Apocalypse Never” for Drilled News, an environmental news publication that investigates “delay on climate action,” Amy Westervelt argues that “having a list of great citations doesn’t change the fact that [Shellenberger] chose to interpret those studies and make judgement calls about which findings to use.” 

It’s not that scientists don’t support some or many of the policies advocated for by Shellenberger — they do. Climate alarmism, even to some of Shellenberger’s fiercest critics, is also a legitimate barrier to climate progress. “Exaggeration of the science in furtherance of a narrative of doom and gloom and hopelessness, can lead us down a path of inaction,” Mann told us. “What’s unsettling and worth thinking through,’” Westervelt continued in her review, “is not what the book gets wrong, but what it gets right, and then ham-fistedly bashes the nuance right out of.”

This dynamic likely played a role in the fact-checking controversy Shellenberger’s Forbes article generated. The post contained even less nuance than the book, and left fact-checkers to fill in —  falsely, Shellenberger contends — the blanks. If one were to take the facts presented in his “apology” as a critique on climate science, as many did, the Forbes article is misleading. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the facts without the context provided in his book, as Shellenberger argues many fact-checkers have done, but it is equally unreasonable to assume an article posted as a stand-alone piece on a major media platform requires the purchase of a book to fully understand. Teasing a book with salacious sounding but context-free “facts” may be a good strategy for selling a book, but it is not a clear way to present a message.

“This is supposed to be science,” Shellenberger told Quillette Podcast host Jonathan Kay following the Forbes controversy. “Science takes the words it uses extremely seriously.”