Skip to main content

Hanley Sustainability Institute

Brecha book review: Shellenberger’s 'Apocalypse Never' doesn’t offer constructive proposals for solutions

By Robert Brecha

Note: University of Dayton professor Robert Brecha, who has been a member of UD’s Department of Physics since 1993, taught sustainability courses before a sabbatical and then a two-year appointment as a European Union Marie Curie fellow with Berlin-based Climate Analytics. He is returning to campus in Fall 2021 as a tenured professor of sustainability for the Hanley Sustainability Institute.

Should we be speaking of a climate emergency, or is all of the global concern about climate change and other environmental issues just an extremist-driven campaign to make (in particular) young people panicky about their future?

Michael Shellenberger clearly comes down on the side of the latter in his recent book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, and makes his arguments not from the point of view of purveyors of disinformation and self-interested ideologies, but as someone who has been a self-proclaimed environmentalist for most of his life.

Shellenberger rightly points out that the claims of some activists and politicians that the planet will be destroyed if we do not act against climate change by 2030 do not hold up to scrutiny. One can question as well a strategy on the part of climate change activists that call for a state of panic – although more measured responses may actually be less rational.

Apocalypse Never would like to convince us there are more serious problems than climate change, such as global poverty eradication, and that more trade, economic growth and industrialization where it has not yet occurred will be the best solutions to global challenges. Why two centuries of fossil-fueled economic growth (in some areas) has not solved this problem is not addressed, except to blame environmentalists and social justice campaigners for their current efforts.

It is also true that environmentalists of all stripes should be thinking in terms of complex systems that involve many interactions, some that are foreseeable and others that arise unexpectedly. This is already an important part of international efforts, for example in the form of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, which recognize synergies and tradeoffs between targets for fighting poverty and for mitigating climate change. Having said that, Shellenberger does a remarkably poor job of connecting the various threads of his argumentation.

A red flag went up for me at the beginning when Shellenberger wrote, “Every fact, claim, and argument in this book is based on the best-available science … Apocalypse Never defends mainstream science from those who deny it on the political Right and Left.” (AN, p. xiii) The stated goal is laudable, but as proved in the book itself, one that is impossible to uphold, and also serves as a smokescreen since there simply is not such a clear-cut way to make a work as polemical as his conform to this ideal. Climate and sustainability science and discussions about energy system transformations rely on a solid scientific basis, but inevitably require value judgements and broader societal discussions.

One critique of Shellenberger’s approach is that he uses as evidence the individual stories of people he has met over the course of his work and travels. On one hand, this can be an effective technique for presenting arguments and humanizing otherwise abstract ideas. But doing so to support his case flies in the face of the claim about working only with the “best available science,” however compelling the stories may be. One particular thread illustrates this point, as well as demonstrating the increasingly polemical tone he uses as the book progresses.

In discussing problems with the food system globally, Shellenberger seems to hold a particular grudge against environmentalism’s “sister religion vegetarianism.” While rightly pointing out that raising cattle in confined operations with special feeds can be more “efficient” and even lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions than pasture-raised beef, he seems to consider only extremes.

Cutting meat consumption without becoming a militant vegan? Switching from beef to pork, fish or chicken, which results in at least five to 10 times lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein as well as ten times lower land use? Using more vegetal protein, thereby also reducing emissions and land use dramatically? If chicken, pork and fish can help, and at the same time cut emissions by 75-90 percent, that’s a pretty good start. And then we also can be thinking along the way about how we treat animals and start having serious conversations about that.

Shellenberger would rather just bash vegetarians and vegans as a homogeneous extremist group. Or is his real complaint that those he accuses of religious environmental vegetarian zealotry are not zealous and have to be 100 percent pure to be believable? Vegans and vegetarians often have to justify their dietary choices, while at the same time being suspected of proselytizing when they simply respond to questions from others about their motives.

In the end, he cites himself and Temple Grandin - a scientist at Colorado State University and proponent of humane treatment of livestock - as examples of people who simply cannot function well without animal protein. “During the decade I was a vegetarian, I grew tired most afternoons after eating carb-heavy lunch, no matter how much sleep I got the night before. It was only after eating meat again that I could work through the afternoon without feeling sleepy.” His body was digesting food, and carbohydrates may have made him somewhat more tired than he might have otherwise felt after a leisurely half-pound steak at lunch – one way or the other, it has little to do with whether vegetarianism is good, bad or a religious obsession.

Shellenberger is a strong supporter of nuclear energy, and his dismissal of renewable energy (or anyone who criticizes nuclear power) is at least as strong as his disdain for vegetarians and one of the main threads of the book. To be clear, nuclear power will play a role in energy systems going forward. There are relatively few models and projections of how to achieve the Paris Agreement 1.5°C temperature goal without including nuclear energy. However, even the International Energy Agency (IEA), created as an independent entity to assist wealthy countries in energy system planning after the oil crises of the 1970s, and hardly to be considered as a radical agency, only expects nuclear to make up about 10% of electricity by mid-century in a scenario with nearly zero emissions globally.

For Shellenberger, such an outcome is inconceivable from the point of view of his favorite technology. We can leave out of the discussion for now issues of nuclear weapons proliferation (a non-danger from his point of view) and issues of nuclear waste disposal (also easily solvable, he believes). However, in spite of arguments he makes to the contrary, nuclear power is expensive and has demonstrated a tendency to increase in complexity and cost over time.

This is in marked contrast with solar photovoltaic, wind and battery technologies, for which costs have decreased dramatically in the past decade or two, with costs dropping by about 20% for each doubling of installed capacity. Although Shellenberger considers it to have been only “a gradual decrease” the cost of batteries has dropped by almost 90% in the past decade. The cost of new utility-scale solar and wind systems is now often as cheap as operating existing coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, per kilowatt-hour generated. That is, it would be cheaper (if not always the best strategy) to simply shut down fossil-fuel generation and replace it with renewables.

There are clearly challenges to rebuilding entire energy systems in wealthy countries, but also opportunities, and opportunities as well for building new systems with an eye to the renewable energy future in the many parts of the world with inadequate access to energy. Unfortunately, Shellenberger, although he repeatedly professes to have the best interests of the world’s poorest in mind, simplistically equates “renewable energy” with backwards, unreliable, insufficient energy supplies (unless talking about the Grand Inga power plant on the Congo River). He makes valid and important points about the absolutely critical need to make electricity available to the billion or more people in the world without any or minimal access to electricity.

Although there are domestic coal and natural gas resources available in some of these countries, production of fossil fuels has a sordid history that has to date operated to the great advantage of multinational or state-owned corporations in wealthier countries, or for the benefit of a tiny elite in the country itself. (Examples from the oil industry here, here, here and here.) Shellenberger has a seemingly naïve belief that these dynamics will change, although he does grudgingly accept the fact that it has been difficult to date to make oil companies act responsibly towards sensitive ecological areas.

Using outdated results, Shellenberger points out that some integrated assessment models estimate that it might cost the world only a few percentage points of a much larger gross domestic product to adapt to climate change of 4°C. Those models, which rely on evaluating marginal changes, whereas such an average temperature rise would be far greater than has been seen on earth even millions of years before our species existed, cannot really say much about such an out-of-bounds realm. Those same models indicate, however, that actions to limit temperature rise to a much more stringent 1.5°C or 2°C would result in an even smaller overall cost to the global growing economy.

Are renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines bad because they kill birds and bats (thousands of times fewer birds than are killed by cats, buildings, cars and power lines)? Are these technologies irreparably harmful, or can they be built so other environmental goals are met, such as biodiversity protection? How do we minimize use of materials and to what extent is a decoupling of economic growth and negative environmental impacts possible? Clearly we need to plan systems with these thoughts in mind. There has to be a balance between environmental and other societal goals.

One of the strange features of Shellenberger’s book is that he presents a very static view of technological progress. He mostly ignores on one hand the experience in the past decade of remarkable progress in making renewable energy quickly and inexpensively available to more of the world’s population. On the other hand, except for large centralized power systems, he seemingly discounts the ability of scientists and engineers to ever solve some of the thorny questions of sustainability involving wind turbines, batteries and solar panels.

These challenges are real, as is the fact that we cannot expect technology alone to solve climate change and other challenges – real behavioral patterns and different attitudes toward the less fortunate of the world are crucial parts of the puzzle.

From all we know about climate change at this point, not acting to mitigate the worst impacts, as countries have pledged to do with the Paris Agreement and the 1.5°C goal, would be the most dangerous course of action. For the most part, the UN Sustainable Development Goals mentioned above demonstrate positive synergies – meeting a given goal helps rather than hinders meeting other goals. It will not be easy or perhaps even possible to meet all goals and targets without fundamental conflicts.

But that’s not what seems to concern Shellenberger. Apocalypse Never is much more concerned with setting up strawmen based on the most exaggerated arguments about sustainability issues and tearing these down, but not offering constructive proposals for solutions, beyond the somewhat trite call for more love, and the stubborn implication that only nuclear power is a reasonable path to follow.

Previous Post

Brecha book review: Gates’ 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster' a worthy offering, but overlooks the power of renewables

Bill Gates' book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, gives some insights into the climate change issue but he doesn't give enough emphasis to the need for dramatic changes to consumption patterns in wealthy countries, writes the University of Dayton's Robert Brecha.
Read More
Next Post

EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy at UD in September; applications being accepted

Applications are being accepted for Ohio’s first Environmental Justice Academy, a training program developed for emerging community, non-profit and environmental leaders to help cultivate skills and address environmental challenges. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission (MVRPC) are hosting the event Sept. 10-11 at the University of Dayton.

Applications (two per entity only) must be submitted by July 7 to Participants must be based in Darke, Preble, Montgomery, Miami, Greene or northern Warren counties. More information is available at

Read More