Book review: Apocalypse Never

by Stephen Shafer on March 16, 2021

 Review by Stephen Shafer of
 Apocalypse never:  why environmental alarmism hurts us all by Michael Shellenberger   New York, Harper 2020

     Michael Shellenberger can’t be dismissed as a standard-issue climate change denier.  He acknowledges scientific evidence that average global surface air temperature is going up.    He recognizes that fossil fuels under human control have had, and still have, a big role in that rise.  He does deny, however, that efforts to radically lower CO2 emissions in the next few years are justified.  He argues that the rate of change in air and sea surface temperature and the effects of that change are greatly exaggerated by “apocalyptic environmentalists.” The exaggerations, in his opinion, are fomented by persons phobic and confused about nuclear fission; indifferent to poverty in the developing world; and, he speculates, using maladaptive defense mechanisms against an unconscious death wish for humanity.   

     Shellenberger’s be-all and end-all is continued economic development for the whole world, with the lion’s share to lower-income countries.  This is constrained of course by resources and sinks.  A good ideal fifty years ago, it is incompatible now with what most climate scientists say must be done to arrest global warming unless methods of energy conversion can be deployed that don’t release greenhouse gases (GHGs).   The author allows that renewables (principally wind and solar with some hydro) are good on GHGs but argues they can’t power the scope of development he calls for.  Consequently, he stakes everything instead on the “peaceful atom” or in some situations, natural gas.  Anyone who says “No Nukes” or “Leave it in the Ground” or “Circular Economy” or (worse yet) cites Garrett Hardin’s lifeboat analogy must in Shellenberger’s  view be irrational about  nuclear power or care nothing for  people in  low-income regions or both.  The introduction (p. xiii) sets out the dialectic thus: “[The book] makes the moral case for humanism, of both secular and religious variant, against the anti-humanism of apocalyptic environmentalism.”

     Near the book’s ending (p. 270) the author uses “if” and “might” to make his polarities look subtle.  The implication is not lost.  He writes

If the climate apocalypse is a kind of subconscious fantasy for people who dislike civilization, it might help explain why the people who are the most alarmist about environmental problems are also the most opposed to the technologies capable of addressing them, from fertilizer and flood control to natural gas and nuclear power.

     The “environmental problems” Shellenberger refers to are not limited to rising global surface temperature and its sequelae, To him, a worse environmental problem is low potential for rapid economic development  in much of the world.   For that problem his practicable solution is processes extant now that can convert one form of energy to another very rapidly in a small space.   Prime among these is “atoms for peace.” (p. 280)  A distant second is natural gas.

     The author can’t see a rational basis for anyone’s opposing nuclear fuels as a solution to both widespread poverty and long-lived atmospheric pollutants like CO2 and N2O; so, he psychoanalyzes the opposition.  He presents his finding not as a declarative nor (as in the excerpt above) in hypothetical “if … might” terms, but as a rhetorical question ripe for a “yes” answer. “Could a similar hatred of human civilization, and perhaps of humanity itself, be behind claims of environmental apocalypse?” (p. 270)  Shellenberger conjures up   from Ernest Becker’s “denial of death” his personal  insight that “apocalyptic environmentalists,” especially  those who act out die-ins and carry pretend coffins, have an exaggerated fear of death, stoked  because the prognosis for life on earth as we know it looks worse to them than to the him.  Indeed, he regards “apocalyptic environmentalists” as “lost souls” who believe the false doctrine that emissions of GHGs are now a net detriment to the living earth and who “derive psychological benefits from climate alarmism.” (272) .  The authors writes

Young people learning about climate change for the first time might understandably believe, upon listening to [Sarah] Lunnon {of Extinction Rebellion] and [Greta] Thunberg, that climate change is the result of deliberate, malevolent actions. In reality, it is the opposite.   Emissions are a by-product of energy consumption, which has been necessary to people to lift themselves, their families and their societies out of poverty, and achieve human dignity.  Given that’s what climate activists have been taught to believe, it’s understandable that so many of them would be so angry. (272)

     Whose reality, please? Most people would agree that the industrial revolution did not begin with a plan to heat up the planet. Most “apocalyptic environmentalists” will concede that we would not live as we do now without a lot of fossil fuel burnt or processed in the past.  That said, nearly all climate activists, even those not engaged with Extinction Rebellion, do believe that energy buyers and sellers in the last fifty years have knowingly encouraged the release of now intolerable quantities of GHGs to the atmosphere in pursuit of corporate profits. This has been deliberate. vide Supran and Oreskes, 2017  Whether it’s malevolent or just reckless endangerment  is a matter of opinion.  

     Three pages later, Shellenberger reprises the defense of economic development as practiced around the world.

The picture promoted by apocalyptic environmentalists is inaccurate and dehumanizing.  Humans are not unthinkingly destroying nature.  Climate change, deforestation, plastic waste and species extinction are not, fundamentally, consequences of greed and hubris but rather side effects of economic development motivated by a humanistic desire to improve peoples’ lives. (275)

     This is humanistwashing,  Shellenberger’s own  variant of greenwashing.  Oil companies like Shell, Exxon, Texaco and Chevron were not motivated by humanistic desire when they plundered Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador.  See Crude World by Peter Maas

     The author contrasts activists people motivated by anger in what’s to him a fallacious cause with those called  to what he sees as the authentic cause of civil rights.  (273)

As such, when we hear activists, journalists, IPCC scientists and others claim climate change will be apocalyptic unless we make immediate, radical changes including massive reductions in energy consumption, we might consider whether they are motivated by love for humanity of something closer to its opposite (275)

     In summary, Shellenberger believe that activists who say that to be recognizable and stable thirty years hence the world must reduce CO2 emissions radically without relying more on nuclear fuels are lost souls following false gods.  For a rebuttal much better than I can do,  let’s turn to the  words of  someone who may be thought by atheists or adherents of non-Abrahamic religions  to serve a false god, but by few humans a lost soul: His Holiness, Pope Francis  in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si .  I call your attention especially to paragraphs 59, 104 and 161 among those reprinted here (italics added).

59. At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.


66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.


67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).


104. Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it


106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.[86]

113. There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.


161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.


171. The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.


225. On the other hand, no one can cultivate a sober and satisfying life without being at peace with him or herself. An adequate understanding of spirituality consists in filling out what we mean by peace, which is much more than the absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment. An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence “must not be contrived but found, uncovered”.

Climate Imperative: lower natural gas

by Stephen Shafer on October 31, 2019

                                                 Climate imperative: lower natural  gas 

 CVE tractor

                                                         Tractor swarm Dover Plains NY  January 2019         

Qualitative summary Earth’s atmosphere handles methane and CO2 very differently.  It disposes completely (mostly by oxidation) of an inflow of methane within about ten years, but constantly renews  its stock of CO2 through the carbon cycle. So, where CO2 emissions must always add to atmospheric heat-trapping and thus to global heating,  methane emissions need not.   If annual methane emissions are just kept level year over year for a decade, their addition to heat-trapping will be  ZERO.  A steady decline in annual emissions over that period will allow cooling,  where even a steep drop  in CO2 emissions won’t.  

              The  Global Warming Potential  that  compares methane to  CO2  hides that crucial difference:  humanity  has leverage over methane’s future additions to heat-trapping that we don’t with  additions by  CO2.   As we strive to lower CO2 emissions,  we  must  exert our leverage on methane  by halting the annual growth of [mostly fracked] natural gas production,  now the chief driver  of  human-influenced methane emissions. To end  that  growth demands an abrupt cutoff of all new natural gas infrastructure.  Cricket Valley Energy, CPV Valley, Danskammer,  National Grid E37 Albany Loop and the Williams pipeline under NY Harbor (to name just five) must all be stopped in their tracks.  This is a climate imperative.

Quantitative summary  Suppose methane emissions in 2029 = 351 million metric tons (Mmt).  How much heat-trapping capacity will that add to the atmosphere?  Using GWP20 (global warming potential) of 86, the equivalent of 30 Gt (gigatons or billion metric tons) of  CO2,  almost as much as the   37 Gt  of actual  CO2 emissions in 2018.   THIS  CLIMATE  DEATH BLOW CAN BE AVERTED BY ACTION  STARTING NOW.  Here’s why:                                                                                                                                                        

             The atmosphere disposes of a year’s inflow of methane (mostly by oxidation) within about ten years, but constantly replenishes its stock of CO2 through the carbon cycle.  If methane emissions  over the next ten years  never exceed 351 Mmt/yr , that mass released in 2029 will add to the atmosphere the heating-up equivalent of  ZERO  mt  of CO2.   CO2 emissions always add; methane emissions need not.  In fact, steadily falling methane emissions will allow cooling to begin after ten years, where falling CO2 emissions will never.

                To keep methane emissions level 2019-2029, natural gas (NG) withdrawal and consumption must be held level; leaks and losses of methane from the NG supply chain are now the main source of human-influenced methane releases.   To end  all new natural gas  infrastructure  is a climate  imperative.  Come  2029,  do we want methane to add the heating equivalent of  30 Gt CO2 to  the atmosphere or the equivalent of  ZERO ?  “Therefore, choose life.”  Deut 30:19     

              Cricket Valley Energy, CPV Valley, Danskammer,  National Grid E37 Albany Loop and the Williams pipeline under NY Harbor (to name just five) must all be stopped in their tracks.     


Introduction  There are many good reasons to ban fracking.  Not always at the forefront among them  is that fracking has led  to a tremendous increase since  2006  in the withdrawal and marketing of natural gas (NG),  especially in the USA.   Total production rose by 62%  from 518 bcm in 2006 to 841 bcm in 2018.  In that time conventional went down by 58% and unconventional  i.e. “fracked” rose  by 273%.  Graph 1 .  The surge in  production of NG, which is about 93% methane,   causes increased emissions of the super-efficient greenhouse gas methane.


      Graph 1.  Natural gas production in USA  by type (conventional vs. unconventional AKA  “fracked”) 2006-2018 in billion cubic meters/yr   source Rystad Energy

           GWP, (global warming potential)  says that a molecule of methane is 25 to 105 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than a molecule of CO2.  From this fact, most people think that a one-ton emission of methane will always add to atmospheric heat-trapping capacity the equivalent (termed CO2-e) of 25 to 105 tons of CO2 released at the same time.  

            There,   most people are wrong.

            In all scenarios where methane emissions year-on-year have been flat (zero slope) or decreasing (negative slope) for about ten years, calculated CO2-e may be billions of  tons  yet the  year’s emissions will add nothing to atmospheric heat-trapping potential,  even let it decrease.  This is because the atmosphere disposes of a year’s methane inflows entirely over the next ten or so years while instantly replenishing its stock of  CO2 for centuries through  the carbon cycle.  

            To have reached  ten years hence  this zone of no future added heating from stable ongoing emissions will  not  end our methane crisis.   Atmospheric levels will be much  higher than today’s.  It is, however, a bend in the arc of methane’s contributions to heat-trapping capacity. The curve of  CO2’s additions, by contrast,  will always rise  until emissions are zero.  People fighting fossil fuels need to see we have leverage over methane that we don’t have over CO2.  We must use it.                        

            To bend the arc by 2030 we must  prevent year on year increases of  methane emissions starting 2019.  What  that would require is unclear.   I can find no global methane emission figures (which are famously imprecise anyway)  for after  2012.  Graph 2 shows that yearly emissions recorded were flat 1990 to 2002, then  rose steadily to 2012  except in 2008.  The average annual increasein those ten years  was 5.8 Mmt (million metric tons)  about 2% per year.  [Emissions of methane are typically recorded in teragrams (Tg) where 1 Tg = 1 Mmt.  For familiarity,  Mmt will be used for methane instead of Tg.]


 Graph 2.  Global human-influenced methane emissions by year 1990-2012   in Tg (million metric tons) Data source  EDGAR       graph by Shafer

            Atmospheric concentrations of methane are more precise and timely than emissions data, though it is hard to relate the two quantitatively.  From 2006 to 2018 the concentration rose steadily from 1774 parts per billion (ppb)  to 1857 ppb, an average annual increase of about 6 ppb ( +  0.5% of 2006 baseline)  (Graph 3, below)


     Graph 3.    Globally averaged marine surface monthly mean CH4 concentration  1983-2019 Source Ed Dlugokencky  NOAA


            In short, we don’t know how much annual methane emissions have been changing since 2012.  Extrapolation of  the 2003-2012 trend and the rise in atmospheric concentrations 2006-2018 indicate they must be going up.  How fast,  it  is impossible to say precisely.

            It is plausible, though  not proven,  that all recent conjectured  annual increases in global methane emissions are due to losses of methane from the natural gas supply chain,  which moves more gas each year.  In 2005 global production of natural gas was 2.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm).  By 2018 it had gone up by 1.055 tcm ( + 81 bcm/yr),  a 2.9 %  average annual increase over baseline.  (source Rystad Energy )  [Not incidentally, more than half the increase was from USA “unconventional,”  i.e. fracked. (source Rystad Energy )]  See Graph 4 below.


 Graph 4.  Increase  in global total natural gas production above  2005 baseline of 2800 billion cubic meters /yr.  Values  thru 2018 are real; after that,  projected  source Rystad Energy

            The increase in global supply chain throughput  2017-2018 was 200 bcm;  if  (say) 5% of that was lost from the chain as methane in that year,  the increased emissions would amount to  6.5 Tg or Mmt..  [Arithmetic for  that number is in appendix.]   Ecological prudence should assume that all the increase in human-influenced methane emissions is due to natural gas withdrawal and distribution; no other emitting sector (e.g. ruminants) is growing at anything like the pace of natural gas. In fact, in the UK at least  methane from ruminants is going down.   Under this assumption, flattening the curve of natural gas production over the next ten years then holding that course  would  stop  all  subsequent additions by  methane to atmospheric heating,  a sea change. Ending all fossil fuel infrastructure expansion in New York State  forwards  this strategy.  Ending that expansion includes

  • No new conventional gas wells; fracked ones are banned
  • No new gas pipelines, long or short, no extensions no spurs
  • No new or renovated gas-fired power plants
  • No new gas storage facilities
  • No new buildings hooked up to natural gas
  • No exports of liquefied natural gas for  fuel or feedstock
  • Properly identify and cap all abandoned gas wells
  • Carbon fee & dividend  on natural gas with agricultural exemption for specified covered fuels
  • Top priority for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, battery storage
  • Government and private (utility) incentives for renewable heat technologies
  • No federal subsidies for natural gas systems

            This is not a call to shut down natural gas in the USA in 2020.  It is a call to keep it from growing.  Cricket Valley Energy,  CPV Valley,  Danskammer,  the proposed National Grid E37 Albany Loop and the proposed Williams pipeline under NY Harbor (to name just five) must all be stopped in their tracks  Past that inflection point, withdrawal and consumption need to be reduced speedily in sectors (electricity generation, structure heating) that have a renewable alternative.  Reducing methane emissions year on year will start cooling  the atmosphere after ten years.  Reducing CO2 emissions  is crucial,  but by itself will never promote cooling.

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Divergent metrics for methane’s heating effect

October 26, 2019

CO2-e , CO2-e* and CO2-we:  Divergent  Metrics for  Methane’s Additions  to  Atmospheric Heating in Scenarios of Sub-optimal or no Mitigation.    photo of a playground in Butler Co PA USA next to a fracking pad is by Moms for Clean Air Force   source: Summary: I did simulations using the GWP and the variant GWP* [...]

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CO2-e is the Wrong Metric for Methane’s Heating Effects

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Methane Manifest

September 29, 2019

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Methane madness

August 10, 2019

  Rising unacknowledged  emissions of methane from the natural gas supply chain  are dangerously under-estimated as  a driver  of global heating and must be ended. Stephen Q. Shafer  MD MA MPH                                                                                                     Aerial view of fracking pad in Pennsylvania  photo source Smithsonian magazine Summary:  The  natural gas industry  is now  the largest source  of [...]

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Over-heaters Anonymous:the Methane Diet

June 24, 2019

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Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management

March 11, 2019

                                        Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management (BEAM)                                Summary: Views of a regenerative grazier and climate hawk  on  Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management,  a system to boost soil organic carbon and  improve soil health without chemical inputs. BEAM  uses  a  low-tech composting method  (static [...]

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Potential of Different Practices for Carbon Sequestration in Soils

February 25, 2019

                           Potential of  Different Practices for Carbon Sequestration in Soil               This essay starts with  the current loci of carbon sequestration, geological hydrological and biological.  I’ll  then review  some “natural solutions”  for near-term biological C-sequestration, which are mostly through photosynthesis in living organisms.  I will look at  the potential for various of these to contribute [...]

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Soil Your Undies

November 5, 2018

Introduction Soil your undies or soil my undies  is an international gimmick to show that soil is alive and  demonstrate  its vigor.  A pair of  brand-new 100% cotton underpants is left underground to the mercies of soil biota,  then retrieved after exactly two months for public display  Here’s one of many how-to descriptions.      Procedures vary.  [...]

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