We have all heard it relentlessly repeated that green policies are the only sure way to protect the environment and stop climate change. But four key works published this year are pulling away the facade surrounding green movement’s climate and energy policy prescriptions. These books and documentaries together make a convincing case that we have been misled.
2020 has been notable for its unusual and challenging events. Over a period of months, the novel coronavirus has dealt repeated blows to the entire world’s medical system and markets. Then, just as Americans began to take their first steps out of COVID-19 lockdowns, massive social justice protests, rioting, and demands for fundamental reforms of policing rocked the nation.
At the same time, policy prescriptions like the Green New Deal are calling for “climate justice” by completely disrupting society’s energy supplies. Its proponents claim that settled science proves that emissions of greenhouse gases put the very existence of the human race in question. For example, the primary proponent of the Green New Deal, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, famously opined, “The world will end in 12 years if we don't address climate change.”
Four new works, though, have disrupted the progressive green demands that the world move away from reliable energy sources like nuclear and fossil fuels. They include two books — Bjorn Lomborg’s “False Alarm” and Michael Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never,” along with a pair of documentaries — “Juice” by Robert Bryce and “Planet of the Humans” by Jeff Gibbs. Reviews of each follow.
Bjorn Lomborg, “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet”
Basic Books, 2020 | 320 pages
In his latest book, Bjorn Lomborg builds on his groundbreaking works, like “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and “Cool It,” to review many global warming claims and policies in circulation. Lomborg handily debunks the claim that our world will end in 12 years, by using a calmer and more reasoned look at the data.
Lomborg’s work is an intriguing entry into the so-called skeptical genre in that he accepts at face value much of the supposed scientific consensus over climate change. He also supports an international tax on CO2 (carbon dioxide) to force people to use fossil fuels less. While Lomborg relies on the modeling data used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he approaches climate change in a slightly different manner. Where media headlines often present the most extreme and outlandish climate modeling scenarios as the only possible outcome, Lomborg relates far less inflammatory findings from the actual scientists and their studies.’’
As a trained economist, Lomborg addresses the alleged costs of past energy policies and then tenaciously refuses to let those who predict a climate apocalypse avoid addressing the costs of their own policy preferences. He also repeatedly points out the actual costs associated with the IPCC’s worst-case modeling scenarios, which suggest a far better outcome than Ocasio-Cortez’s end-of-the-world prediction. One U.N. model’s forecast suggests that 7.2°F of warming by 2100 would only cause the equivalent of a 2.9% decrease in global GDP. That’s hardly a solid foundation for the dystopian fiction that the world will end by around 2030.
And, another U.N. model supports the notion that, even after accounting for the potential damages associated with a changing climate, economic growth will leave the average human better off by $69,000 per year. Lomborg explains that if we use fossil fuels to power economic and technological development, per capita, annual GDP will be $69,000 higher in 2100 than it would be if we followed a more restrictive green option the U.N. has titled the “sustainable development pathway.”
Lomborg outlines how many of the basic assumptions that influence studies, media reports, and climate change policies ignore the documented human habit of adapting to changing environmental conditions. For example, he describes a 2019 study that says meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Accord would mean fewer and less severe heat waves, savings thousands of lives in 15 major American cities. But the study, he says, assumes that no one — even when facing an imminent heat-related death — would lift a finger to adapt to the heat. So, it pretends that people would simply allow themselves to die, rather than installing air conditioning. This is a comically nonsensical concept, given that the cost of air conditioning has dropped by 97% in the past 70 years.
While many will disagree with Lomborg’s call for a CO2 tax, anyone who reads “False Alarm” will find it a studiously researched and tirelessly footnoted document. It exposes many of the fatally flawed assumptions that guide climate change policy. Climate change activists often refuse to look at the costs of their preferred policies, and in doing so, they do not consider whether their proposed cures would be worse than the disease they claim to diagnose.
Michael Shellenberger, “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All”
HarperCollings Publishers | 432 pages
A life-long environmental activist and former California gubernatorial candidate, Michael Shellenberger opens “Apocalypse Never” by describing how much of his early life was driven by progressive politics and protecting the natural environment. He describes starting an Amnesty International chapter in his high school, traveling to Nicaragua to “witness the Sandinista socialist revolution,” and living in Brazil to work with the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Workers Party.
Despite those early experiences — which should have firmly established his progressive green credentials — Shellenberger is now attacked by the same groups he once worked with. That is because, while he believes climate change is real, he argues that it will not mean the end of the world. He says, “Much of what people are being told about the environment, including climate, is wrong, and we desperately need to get it right.”
As a means of correcting the record, he fact-checks reporting on climate change. He also points out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has never predicted that the world would end, or human civilization would collapse, if global warming increases by more than 1.5° Celsius. Just as Lomborg does in his book, “False Alarm,” Shellenberger explains that going above this point will only lead to a slight reduction in a rapidly growing GDP, meaning climate change is poised to make us all only a tiny bit less rich.
He has filled “Apocalypse Never” with facts that may surprise many. For example, climate-related death rates have dropped by 80% to 90% over the past four decades. He pokes holes in the alleged threats posed by rising sea levels and shows how extreme weather events are decreasing in both number and frequency. He describes how the Netherlands, a wealthy and developed nation, has progressed despite having one-third of its land below sea level, and shows that the best defenses against flooding involve developing modern water and flood control systems.
Having lived and worked with desperately poor communities in South America, Shellenberger has seen firsthand how and why the developing world desires the same creature comforts and access to energy that we enjoy. He attacks the notion that well-to-do environmental campaigners from the developed world have the right to tut-tut, or work to stifle, people’s desires for a better life. He critiques their paternalistic attitudes, pointing out that the places progressive elites reflexively castigate as sweatshops often provide people in developing nations with life-changing jobs and income.
Shellenberger explains that these jobs can provide people with the chance to escape a life of grinding rural poverty, allowing them to move to urban areas with better education opportunities, better food, and improved medical care. One anecdote describes how a young Indonesian woman had been expected to spend her life in a small, rural village where she would “do [her] chores, and wait for a good man to marry.” Instead, she chose to move to a city and find work that enabled her to live on her own, while purchasing amenities like a flat screen TV, a motor scooter, and even her own home, all by the age of 25.
Shellenberger debunks the popular notion that renewable energy provides cheaper or better options for households and businesses, explaining how building renewable energy infrastructure inevitably leads to rising energy prices and less-reliable electricity services. He also disproves the notion that renewable energy will protect the natural environment, quoting his previous research to show how solar produces 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear power for each unit of energy produced.
Shellenberger capably demonstrates how our understanding of energy and environmental policy has become skewed by politicized misinformation. His story is one of a progressive environmental activist who realizes that many of his early beliefs and causes actually harmed the things he had hoped to protect. “Apocalypse Never” is, therefore, a valuable addition to your library, if for no other reason than it demonstrates how reconsidering your sources and challenging your own beliefs can lead to immense personal growth.
It is also an important resource in that it shows, in significant and graphic detail, the contrasts between a life lived in the developing world and one lived in the developed world. On this issue, “Apocalypse Never” makes a strong case for allowing individuals to determine their own futures, instead of trusting those decisions to well-fed and well-funded environmental activists who will not have to endure the outcomes of those choices.
Robert Bryce, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World”
A Tyson Culver Film | Produced and narrated by Robert Bryce | Documentary | 80 min.
The third major work in our review also looks at the grotesque inequity that is forced on the developing world by many green energy policies. Bryce’s documentary, “Juice,” contrasts that reality with the potential for human flourishing offered by abundant, reliable energy. He journeys to developing nations like India to tell the story of people who are living with no, or limited and unreliable, access to electricity. He explains that electricity has helped billions of people lift themselves out of poverty. Access to reliable electricity, he argues, is especially important to women and girls in developing countries, because it allows them to minimize the dangerous pollution associated with indoor cooking fires.
Like Shellenberger, Bryce castigates the paternalistic attitudes of green activists who expect people in the developing world to be content with a small solar panel that might power but a few LED lights for their home. One quote from the film captures the arrogance of environmental activists who tell the desperately poor, “You can have enough energy to stay poor, in a little more comfort — and maybe to be educated enough to know you are poor.” A Ghanaian energy activist puts that same sentiment into question form: “What makes you think that an African’s need for power is inferior to an American’s need for power?”
Bryce looks at the early days of American energy development, discussing Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station and the first utility-scale distribution of electricity. He discusses how Edison’s co-worker, Frank Sprague, took electricity beyond its initial use for lighting to also power the machines that allowed Americans to build upward, instead of outward. By that, he means we have densified our use of electricity — using more watts per square meter. In doing so, we can accomplish more in a smaller area, thereby improving overall environmental health. Diffuse, or unconcentrated, energy sources, on the other hand, require that we spread out and develop more land to ensure we can capture sufficient amounts.
Bryce also demonstrates how thin the veneer of energy security actually is when he travels to Puerto Rico, which was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Even seven months after the devastating hurricane, the island still lacked basic or reliable electrical supply in many areas. Almost as if the island wanted to highlight the unreliable nature of its power, the electricity cuts out in the main government offices when Bryce is conducting an interview with the Senate majority leader. Faced with months of nonexistent or unreliable power, one of the many Puerto Ricans Bryce interviewed wondered, “How long do you think New Yorkers would accept being without power? A day? A week? A month? Before you would have massive demonstrations?”
Through his travels, Bryce demonstrates that renewable energy cannot meet the demands of real people. He shows how wrongheaded policies make renewable energy the objective, when we instead should strive for reliable, affordable electricity, from whatever source, that causes as little damage to the environment as possible.
Jeff Gibbs, “Planet of the Humans”
Filmed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs | Executive Producer: Michael Moore | Documentary | 100 min.
Gibbs, unfortunately, approaches the discussion in this fourth major work on our list from a fundamentally anti-human perspective. But despite that weakness, his most recent documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” still lays a figurative wrecking ball to the foundations of the renewable energy establishment. This is because Gibbs correctly reports that basic physics keep renewables from ever providing reliable electricity on their own. The wind does not blow and the sun does not shine 24/7, so renewables always need a reliable backup. Currently, that means fossil fuels and nuclear energy must fill in the gaps, but to do so, they must be run in intermittent spurts and pulses, making them far less efficient and more expensive to operate.
Replaying several interviews and man-on-the-street confrontations with famous environmentalists, Gibbs shows how the renewable energy industry, its supporters, and their carefully scripted marketing are as focused on money and personal power as they claim the other “big” energy sources are. Gibbs catches renewable activists like Bill McKibben and Al Gore glossing over their own questionable funding sources and ignoring the environmental damage caused by the massive installations of industrial turbines and solar arrays.
Gibbs explains how renewables must cover considerable areas of land so they can collect the extremely diffuse energy in wind and solar radiation. But the scale of these industrial developments entails the use of even more natural resources beyond land — steel, copper, plastic made from oil and natural gas, and a variety of rare earth minerals.
Gibbs also details the rapid increases in mining and land-clearing needed to supply rapidly expanding wind and solar facilities. One especially revealing video clip shows heavy machinery grinding 500-year old Joshua trees into chips to make room for a California solar facility; another views shows a Vermont mountaintop being ripped off to build an industrial wind installation. Gibbs interviews an energy expert who considers the costs of building and later abandoning another large solar facility. The expert then suggests, “You would have been better to just use the fossil fuels in the first place.”
Each of these four pivotal works provide an essential service to anyone interested in learning more about the energy that powers our lives. Each one demonstrates the essential role energy plays in human flourishing, while also delving deeply into the confusion, and often outright misinformation that shapes so much of our energy policy.
One observation from “Juice” neatly sums up the policy discussions in these four works. University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke describes his “Iron Law of Climate,” which suggests that there are two ways human society can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation. First, you can become poor and live in much the same manner as our forebears, or as billions living in developing world do today. Second, you can reduce emissions through using technology.
Ultimately people have every reason to demand access to the energy that will help them live clean, healthy, productive lives, and they will resist politicians or groups that keep them from accessing it. And they will reward those who help them obtain it.
The creators of these four works make a compelling case: Access to reliable, affordable electricity allows you to live life as a modern human being.
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