Michael Shellenberger’s “apology essay” is the last gasp of “ecomodernism”

Although ecomodernists make a lot of claims, the only one that is distinctive is that nuclear power is the zero-carbon “baseload” energy source needed to replace coal, and that mainstream environmentalists have wrongly opposed it.

Historically, there is something to this. It would have been better to keep on building nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s than to switch from oil to coal, and it was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal

. But none of that is relevant anymore, at least in the developed world. Solar PV and wind, backed up storage are far cheaper than either nuclear or coal. As a result, there have been very few new coal or nuclear plants constructed in developed countries in recent years.

Several countries (Belgium, Austria, Sweden) are already coal-free and most developed countries will be by 2030. So, ecomodernism is obsolete.

At this point, Shellenberger is faced with the choice between admitting that the mainstream environmentalists were right or explicitly going over to the other side. He has chosen the latter.

(From Twitter using Spooler)

28 thoughts on “Shellenberger

  1. JQ: “It was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal.”
    Not silly but tragic. The absolutely non-negotiable core belief of German Greens has always been opposition to nuclear power. Climate change and the fossil phaseout came later. The feasible pathways were: EEG plus nuclear phaseout, ten years or so before it’s technically necessary; and no EEG plus ten more years of nuclear, replacing coal. The EEG played a critical part in the 2000s in creating a mass market for solar and wind and bringing them down the learning curve. The tradeoff was IMHO a large net climate benefit to the rest of us.

    BTW, the policy of everybody else to extend the lives of legacy nuclear reactors until the rising costs of safety maintenance make them uneconomic against new firmed renewables is not without its risks. The Germans may still be proved right on nuclear dangers, in a bad way.

  2. “Historically, there is something to this. It would have been better to keep on building nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s than to switch from oil to coal, and it was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal”.

    Some of us are old enough to have been politically active in 1979. There were two significant events that year that are relevant to this debate – the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident, and the First World Climate Conference in Geneva. A case can be made with the benefit of hindsight that the conclusions drawn by the scientists at the conference could have justified support for continued construction of nuclear power plants as part of an incremental and transactional strategy to move the world’s energy production and use away from fossil fuels. However, the attention and imagination of the environmental movement and the pro-environment left in 1979 – certainly in Australia, and certainly among those of us who were young then – were totally focused on the nuclear danger. In any event, even if it is accepted that we pulled the wrong rein back then, that doesn’t change the fact that the way forward for energy transitions in 2020 has to proceed from the realities of 2020.

  3. If, as I was, you were involved in the Left in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s, being uncompromisingly anti-nuclear and anti-uranium was a shibboleth. You had to be there to understand the passions around the issue.

  4. If a nuclear accident in Germany with nuclear material released in a similar way and a similar amount to the to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As it’s not really possible for the radioactive plume to blow out to sea, the cost of evacuations and compensation, whether in Germany or neighbouring countries would be immense. Given that massive liability it made “sense” for them to phase out nuclear power. Especially as they didn’t place a great value on random Bangladeshi flood victims not becoming random flood victims in their accounting.

  5. Shellenberger is one of those seeking to make the climate issue about unreasonable extremists and not about the world’s best science based advice. It is apparently the fault of environmentalists that people are alarmed about global warming – and the fault of environmentalists that people won’t fix it with the way he thinks this non-problem should be fixed. His ideal nuclear powered future is made less likely by climate science denial, but he hits all the right buttons with people already well primed with denier memes.

    He is the darling of climate science deniers and practitioners of Doubt, Deny, Delay politicking – and why not? He proposes the unconstrained use of fossil fuels until everyone is so rich that (presumed insignificant) climate change won’t hurt them, until we all agree to use nuclear power. They don’t really want nuclear – they really don’t care about it – but they like the fossil fuel use bit and the claims global warming not being serious and the scapegoating of environmentals extremists; besides the alarmist economic fear of shifting away from fossil fuels that framing of the issue as driven by loonies has been the most potent 3D’er meme.

  6. @Paul Norton I was there, but I stopped worrying about nuclear much earlier than most. By the early 80s, it was evident that the worst case scenario, massive expansion of a plutonium economy with weapons proliferation wasn’t going to happen. And until 2005 or so, it didn’t seem likely that solar PV and wind would be low cost competitors. So, my ranking of options was energy efficiency and reduced energy use first, followed by nuclear. But, as soon as the facts changed in favor of renewables, I changed my mind.

  7. Here’s what I wrote in 2005

    It would be foolish to foreclose any options, but a return to nuclear power looks premature at this stage. There are lots of conservation options, and alternative strategies such as tree planting, that could yield savings in emissions at significantly lower cost. Only when these options are exhausted would an expansion of nuclear power make sense.

    In the meantime, it would be helpful if advocates of nuclear power could clarify their own position regarding climate change. While many are happy to score points against environmentalists by pointing to nuclear power as a solution to climate change, a surprisingly large number simultaneously push the claims of the handful of scientists (mostly not experts in the field, and many with glaring conflicts of interest) who deny the reality of human-caused climate change.

    Not only does this undermine the case for re-examining the nuclear option, it undermines the credibility of its advocates. If an individual or lobby group disregards the massive body of evidence on climate change, often on the basis of a predetermined political or interest-group agenda, what reliance can be based on their claims about the safety and cost-efficiency of nuclear power?

  8. I have stumbled upon a very good site for the Limits to Growth Paradigm (which ties in to renewable energy and sustainable economies of course).

    There appear to be quite a few good papers available for public reading (not paywalled).

    I am currently reading “Limits to the growth paradigm” by Robert U. Ayres, where he begins:

    “… I have changed my view radically on several important issues, notably economic growth, trade, social progress and equity. Today I have deep misgivings about economic growth per se. This is partly because the evidence is growing that economic growth (such as it is) in the western world today is benefiting only the richest people alive now, at the expense of nearly everybody else, especially the poor and the powerless in this and future generations.”

  9. I’ve never heard of Michael Shellenberger. Perhaps I should have, but I haven’t. Is he influential? Why should we care what he says?

  10. Paul Norton – “If, as I was, you were involved in the Left in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s, being uncompromisingly anti-nuclear and anti-uranium was a shibboleth. You had to be there to understand the passions around the issue.”

    I saw a softening of that opposition in response to the climate problem – not so much with those directly involved in Left/Green politics but more broadly, including within their support base. That came in the later 1990’s and early 2000’s as global warming became an issue. But the mainstream Right did not strike whilst the iron was hot, instead they doubled down on denial whilst the mainstream Left seemed more inclined to appeasing gestures – gestures that tended to reinforce perceptions of the issue as Green and Fringe – like subsidies for solar and wind that were not expected to make any difference. Then came Fukushima, then wind and solar costs made them real options rather than empty gestures.

    I think nuclear could still overcome populist opposition – but it will take the LNP (and the Right of other nations) facing up to the climate problem with eyes open, like it really is as serious as 3 decades of expert advice says it is. It will take the LNP arguing for it, not The Greens. And on the basis of how extremely serious global warming is. And then the LNP has to actually examine their beliefs about nuclear as the best and most cost effective option rather than it being the shibboleth that I think it is for them.

    I think the pathway for the nuclear powered future Shellenberger and others favour (usually climate science deniers like him but there are some who are genuine about climate) has never really been well articulated – it being the simplest and most direct solution to global warming is a shibboleth, in this case a shibboleth of Doubt, Deny, Delay politickers. It is not being used to advance nuclear to fix the problem but to protect fossil fuels from being sacrificed to fix it.

  11. “But the mainstream Right did not strike whilst the iron was hot, instead they doubled down on denial….”
    These things come in waves. the opportunity will come up again and it looks like sentiment can be changing. The audience seemed quite open to what Shellenberger was saying three years ago. But it might be that some of the audience came to see him specifically, so it might not be a good sample audience.
    Not all nuclear is equal. There are new models that are such that the only hazard is to the people actually working in the factory when something goes wrong. The main problem with traditional nuclear is that it brought three hazards together in an inherently dangerous way. 1. Radioactive materials 2. Super powerful Heat and 3. Water that is hotter than 100 degrees celsius, but kept in liquid form only by way of compression.

    To me number three is the most scary. Water phase change is still the most powerful force known that we can verify.

    Even for a knee-jerk pro-nuclear type, thats three things that ought never have been in proximity with each-other. So if the rest of you are saying that traditional nuclear was inherently wrong; well you know, its hard to disagree. But it doesn’t have to be that way any more. And it could be time for a change of heart.

  12. CRS – I think new nuclear for a transition to low emissions absolutely needs the political right to commit to fixing the emissions/energy/climate problem but what comes with that is that the shibboleth of nuclear – as the simple and direct plug and play replacement for fossil fuels that will be cheaper and easier than RE – stops being a barely examined assumption of people motivated by protecting fossil fuels.

    I expect and hope we will see RE pushed a lot further yet, including by any hypothetical future LNP that takes climate change as seriously as it takes pandemics, before their related fossil fuel serving shibboleth – that RE must fail to provide sufficient and reliable power when significant amounts fossil fuel generation are withdrawn – is either confirmed or shown false. For the vision of globally abundant nuclear energy now needs for RE to fail in fact rather than it be a politically preferred assumption that it must; hobbling RE through political and regulatory spoiling actions does not count.

  13. As far as I understand it, baseload is a furhpy anyway. Perhaps that’s why John put it in quotes. We only need baseload if we have power sources that take along time to go online and offline, that is coal and nuclear. So it’s not even needed for renewables. Shellenberger may be talking about stability of the grid but that is almost certainly doable without coal, nuclear, or other large power stations – its ‘just control theory’. Well a hard control theory problem and if we need to model client behavior then it may not be doable via control theory, but I still think as doable as for coal or nuclear.
    I haven’t read Shellenburger’s report, but if he is claiming a need for actual baseload or for stability he should not be taken seriously.

  14. That should be ‘a long time’ not ‘along time’. Can never see my typos still straight after submitting them.

  15. South Australia has no power plants that operate in a baseload manner. It also doesn’t constantly import electricity. (The state is now a net exporter of electricity.) So imports don’t act as a baseload power station either.

    Just to be clear, technically baseload power is the minimum amount of grid power supplied in the past 24 hours. South Australia still has that. It has no power stations that operate in a baseload mode — that is continuously except for repairs and maintenance.

  16. Here is the wikipedia page on baseload: which backs up my claim. And of course Ronald’s above response pretty much proves it by itself.
    Let me repeat that if Shellenburger is making claims based on the assumption we need baseload, he should not be taken at all seriously.

  17. MartinK. From the same Wikipedia page right at the end:
    According to National Grid plc chief executive officer Steve Holliday in 2015, baseload is “outdated”, as microgrids would become the primary means of production, and large powerplants relegated to supply the remainder.[17]”
    I have been trying to get people to understand these simple facts for many years now and it is nice to see that some people at least are paying attention.
    On the other hand, I am sure that so-called “journalists” like Chris Ullman will keep telling us that “we need synchronous generation, which renewables cannot supply”. I won’t go into the meaninglessness of that statement, but it seems to work wonders in the mass-media.

  18. No baseload isn’t a furphy and nuclear isn’t a shibboleth. What you are engaging in is mindless name-calling. What is messing our energy future up is a failure to assume that energy sources are complements. Not competitors.

    Sane thought about energy is not to do with choosing the one best source. Its instead about eventually making as many energy sources cost-effective within their own niches as time goes on. So much mischief is caused by one crowd of simplistic fanatics landing on solar alone, and another crowd acting like oil is all there is, and other saying that only nuclear will be the future.

    While baseload is no furphy still it may be helpful if we thought of every energy source as being a niche energy source, without prejudice as to what percentage they ought to fulfill any given decade. Too rigid a focus on baseload can lead to us ignoring our desperate need to disaggregate our energy production. What I mean by that is that our grid is way too centralised. So much so the Israelis could send a nuke into the Hunter Valley and bring the entire grid down then blame China. We are paper tiger if we are so reliant on coal electricity from one location.

    So we’ve got to change our mentality here. Get out of our bubbles. And maybe start respecting energy economics as a somewhat separate field of study from economics proper.

    If there is one supreme energy source it would be the productivity of energy. Productivity of energy at its best would imply a great many canals and a great many 5 story buildings close to those canals. Here I oversimplify of course. Just to present a much neglected aspect of this problem.

    Productivity of energy starts with the humble swale. But it doesn’t end there. The swale can lead to the canals, if done right. I shall remain somewhat cryptic on this story.

    “According to National Grid plc chief executive officer Steve Holliday in 2015, baseload is “outdated”, as microgrids would become the primary means of production, and large powerplants relegated to supply the remainder.[17]”

    This I like very much. This is the way forward. Since without this approach we cannot protect ourselves from either outside attack or natural disasters.

  19. Shellenberger’s observation that nukes could take 200 years to prevail sorta implies that nukes are 200 years behind fossil fuels, which are now being replaced by renewables.

    With the current pace of technology 200 years is like infinity.

  20. No its not like that. Shellenberger probably has a better understanding of energy economics than you do. What is characteristic of energy economics is that substitution rates away from the major energy source are notoriously slow. Usually they can budge no greater than 1% per year. And this general rule turns out to make a mockery of any perceived rate-of-change in technology. So all these attempts to fast-track favoured technologies have failed, have become an energy sink, and have been bleeding mountains of red ink. But what these efforts have not done is alter traditional substitution rates from the main source.

    What you spooks, sent to keep a key intellectual on the fringe, do not realise is that rationality in energy economics isn’t a situation where you emphasise being a retrograde soothsayer, in the hope that your dreary prophecies will be self-fulfilling. Rationality in energy economics is where you try and nudge all energy sources, or as many as feasible, into being cost-effective in their own niches.

    All of you are Yoko Ono. Sent by the Foreign Office to see to it that John Lennon stays on the fringe. Because he would become a threat to your overlords as soon as he got off the fringe and came to the bright side of the road. I will not fault the oligarchy when it comes to their capacity to spot talent.

  21. Dont get this one: My reading is that the guy loves nuclear, but then the counterexamples are Belgium with 51% nuclear and Sweden witth 41%. The third Austria has a very favourable geography for storage water powerstations and is surrounded by nuclear powerplants on three borders all connected to their grid on top of that.

  22. @Classic Radio Stories

    “All of you are Yoko Ono”

    But what if some of us are in shining streams of silence, with no NPD disorder?

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