From claims that the world is coming to an end, to child environmentalists chiding the world for not taking the proper action, we hear environmental alarmism on a regular basis. Today, we get an alternate view from an environmentalist who apologizes for what he calls misplaced panic.
Michael Shellenberger: So environmental alarmism is really this incredible exaggeration of what are really manageable, often serious environmental problems, but nonetheless manageable, and turning them into something apocalyptic or religious, like the world is coming to an end. So we see it on all these different issues, and my book goes through them. Climate change, rainforest destruction, plastic waste, species extinction. It's not just that there's exaggeration, but it actually leads us to behavior in ways that are harmful.
Sharyl: There are people who have declared we have, what, seven, eight, nine years to live if we don't do a giant reverse course.
Shellenberger: There's so much of that. There's definitely like ten years to live, and they would say, "Well, no, I just mean ten years to act." I think it creates real harm. My other motivation was a lot of this alarmism is used to justify policies that I think are really unfair. So it used to be that the World Bank, which we contribute to, and other development banks, they used to fund the bridges, the roads, the irrigation, the fertilizer for poor countries to develop. Well, that money has now all been diverted into various green energy sources, solar panels and batteries that don't provide the energy that countries need in order to develop. So I wanted to blow the whistle on that. And I also wanted to make the case for nuclear power, which is this incredible source of electricity, it doesn't produce any air pollution at all, certainly no carbon emissions. It's our largest source of clean energy in the United States, and yet the people who say they're the most concerned about climate change are trying to shut down our nuclear plants.
Sharyl: Who is driving the apocalyptic view?
Shellenberger: There's really three groups that are responsible for apocalyptic environmentalism. There's a group of what we would call Malthusian scientists, scientists who think there's too many people in the world, that we're overpopulated, that we all need to consume less and have less growth. The second group are the journalists, who themselves are often activists, exaggerating stories. There's an incentive in journalism to do that already, but many of them do have a radical left politics that they're trying to use science to advocate for. And then the third group is the activists. The Greta Thunbergs of the world, the AOCs, the Extinction Rebellions. And combined it's just proven to be an incredibly overwhelming story, and a terrifying story. Yeah, I think it's all three of them work with each other. They're all in some ways activists in their own ways.
Sharyl: Is there any big funding mechanism behind this, or is that just a conspiracy theory to even consider that?
Shellenberger: So certainly there's huge financial interests. The biggest ones often are the industrial wind energy and industrial solar energy. These companies, which I point out they require three to 400 times more land to generate the same amount of electricity as a natural gas plant or a nuclear plant, they have huge negative environmental impacts. And then all of sort of status, virtue signaling that you see, where people want to feel better about themselves for underlying psychological reasons, also political reasons, by condemning other people for eating meat, or flying on airplanes, or driving in cars, or using plastic straws. I think the most powerful driver, is that environmentalism has become the dominant secular religion of people who don't believe in God anymore. People that are not religious in traditional ways. And when you don't have that, you start looking for ways to basically condemn the whole world. And so there's something about that apocalyptic story of environmentalism that's very depressing and it's very negative and it's full of a lot of anger and hatred at really at this incredible wealth and civilization that we have. Is environmentalism, is it depressing, or are depressed people attracted to environmentalism? I think we have to talk back to it. We have to remind people of all the incredible things that we've made as a human species. We have to talk about all these incredible trends that are going in the right direction. Carbon emissions are actually going down in most rich countries. We are returning more of the earth to the natural environment in a lot of ways. And the future could be very bright for that reason. So in some ways I think of the book as a talking back to the depressed environmental movement, which is I think at bottom of so much of that alarmism.
Sharyl (on camera): Shellenberger says his views and book have been subject to censorship from Forbes to Facebook, which claim he’s being “unscientific.” But he says the footnotes in his book are well rooted in established science.