Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Tobis shellacs Shellenberger

Peeking out of my hutch momentarily (maybe longer) to highlight Michael Tobis' piece at RealClimate, taking apart Michael Shellenberger's twelve non-facts he's flacking in support of his non-nonfiction book.

I'll just add a few snarky stretches of my own responding to the nonfacts but read MT for the main discussion.

1) Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

Yes we are.

Moving on to Shell's other claims....Or does it deserve more response than that? I've never gotten around to blogging my own definition of the Anthropocene Epoch, but I think that some millions of years from now, whatever corresponds to paleontologists will begin the Anthropocene about 50-60k years BP, when the fossil record demonstrates that humans showed up in Australia and the Australian megafauna went away. Sixth extinction started then, sputtered along for a while, and flared up when humans showed up in the New World and the New World megafauna went away. Sputtered some more and then picked up the pace with invention of agriculture (and pastoralism), and then went to conflagration with the modern age. The mass extinction is well in hand looking at megafauna - maybe it'll take some time to see when counting marine molluscs, but that doesn't change the issue.

On top of that, the many species that aren't technically extinct, are functionally extinct in the wild. Shellenberger's claim is that these species aren't gone, but unless you posit a future where they replenish, then those future paleontologists millions of years down the line are unlikely to dig up the few animals that were hanging out in a zoo. If you are going to take off Shell's blinders and look at the future realistically though, then real extinction and real mass extinction are the likely short-term outcomes.

10) Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change 

Funny how Shell put his two biodiversity arguments nearly as far apart as possible from each other. Hunting and other direct killing are of little relevance to extinction for anything other than large fauna which I thought weren't important enough to Shell to count as a mass extinction (I'll concede overfishing is a big problem). Habitat loss - yes, nearly 10k years of habitat loss to farming combined with the last 200 years of massive population growth are more influential than climate change to date, but Shell is ignoring how climate change makes habitat loss much worse. Climate change makes existing habitat uninhabitable, and habitat loss makes it impossible for species to move to refugia, or eliminates the refugia. Pretty ridiculous for Shell to say something that makes a catastrophe 10% worse (and deteriorating) is somehow not so bad.

And btw, marine mollusc extinction is not as likely to affected by habitat loss and overharvesting as opposed to climate change.

3) Climate change is not making natural disasters worse

This old canard, originally from Roger Pielke Jr. Read MT for more, but it is in part a signal/noise thing, or better what I think James Annan described as detection/attribution, where we can appropriately attribute an increase in disaster impacts to climate change even if you can't hit 95% certainty on detection.

My other point that I made as far back as when I stupidly thought RPJr worth corresponding with is that an enormous amount of cost is built into preventing disaster, from seawalls to more expensive building standards, and that cost is ignored by his standard and is a cause that reduces his cost impact measurement. It's annoying, so I'm sure he'll continue it.

5) The amount of land we use for meat—humankind’s biggest use of land—has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska

Like MT says, more accurate than most of his points but of little relevance. Also I've read elsewhere that between some or all of the decrease in pastoral land is made up for by increased farmland, often to feed livestock (sorry, can't find the link). That's not a good exchange from an environmental perspective.

6) The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California

I've written an Op-Ed on this! Kind of like habitat loss and climate change - land use/abuse currently is more important, and climate change makes it worse, with a worsening trend.

9) We produce 25 percent more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter

I agree with MT that most of the world will be able to handle future food crises. Subsistence farmers will not. If it's possible to separate ethical and environmental impacts, then I think the greatest ethical impact from climate change will be malnutrition and death among the poorest people in the world due to changed weather, especially changed rainfall. The greatest environmental impact will be the effect on biodiversity because that will take millions of years for recovery, as opposed to merely tens of thousands of years for the atmosphere and oceans to recover. But Shell isn't worried about biodiversity.

The rest is silly, and again MT takes care of it.


Canman said...

Point 9:

"... most of the world will be able to handle future food crises. Subsistence farmers will not."

One of the major points of Shellenberger's book is that one of the best environmental goals is to make farming machinery, fertilizers and irrigation available to poor countries so that they no longer have to have subsistence farmers, which nobody, given a choice, wants to be. Grow more food on less land and you have more room for mountain gorillas and such.


"1) Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”

Yes we are."

No, Eli. Schellenberger lost t count

The sixth was the Neolithic megafauna wipe-out in the Americas and Austronesia

That makes the present Anthropocene unpleasantness # 7.
These things take time , like wriring worse sequels to bad books:

Ken Fabian said...

Curious that Shellenberger's greatest appeal is to people who don't care about global warming. Or nuclear for that matter - but why wouldn't it? The anti-environmentalist rhetoric runs deep; them being so unreasonable and alarmist for taking decades of top level expert advice on climate at face value, ie seriously AND unreasonable for not supporting the most unpopular and problematic clean energy option - nuclear - to fix this non problem. As if downplaying the seriousness of the climate problem were not antithetical to winning popular support for nuclear!

The Ecomodernist's preferred path forward appears to be to use fossil fuels without constraint until everyone is too wealthy to be harmed by global warming and until everyone agrees to shift to some more advanced kinds of nuclear - in some distant future. What is not for climate science denying opponents of climate responsibility not to like?

Barton Paul Levenson said...

And another take-down of Shellenberger:

Snape said...

Shellenberger is not worth reading. That said, I often wonder how many of the people who claim to be concerned about climate change actually care about the biology it threatens?

Case in point, hundreds of polar bears are killed every year by hunters. Hundreds of forests are leveled by chainsaws. Doesn’t even make the news. Had the same losses been the result of climate change? A big deal.

The term, ‘selective outrage’ comes to mind.

David B. Benson said...

Brian, the May 4/11 issue of The Nation has an article entitled The Extinction Crisis Comes Home to San Francisco by Jimmy Tobias. It's about the bay and estuary. Recommended.

Ken Fabian said...

Snape - I am sure that for most people, even those who are concerned about climate, the impacts on wildlife are all a bit academic. Environmentalists tend to feature highly amongst those that do have serious concerns, with species loss and deforestation high on the list - but whilst rhetoric like Shellenberger's insists these problems are not serious or that solutions proposed by Environmentalists - a very varied and non-uniform lot - are not good enough it looks to be all about making the issue about Environmentalism, not the environment or even sustainable economics.

I think that purely on the basis of how global warming will impact human prosperity and security, being an Environmentalist is not a requirement for taking the issue and potential solutions seriously; they have done as I would expect and made a huge fuss about the issue. But the people in positions of power, influence, responsibility and trust had to abrogate their responsibility in order to make it a fringe problem that is for Environmentalists to fix. Not so much from Shellenberger about the profound and enduring damage to nuclear-for-climate ambitions from entrenching climate science denial (what need to replace FF's?) as principle response, through Doubt, Deny, Delay politicking.

Environmentalist have lived up to and even exceeded my expectations but mainstream politics has failed - where it doesn't oppose it appeases with empty gestures. The successes of Renewables are almost the only real positives but they were successes in spite of beginning as empty gesturing.


Bay Area locovores should put their mouths where their money is, and revive sustainable quail shoots on Telegraph Hill.

David B. Benson said...

San Francisco is sinking:

Brian said...

Snape - hunting can be mismanaged but in the modern era it's not that big of a cause of ecological problems in the developed world. Always some exceptions though (wolf-hunting in Alaska). Logging remains a significant problem in the developed world, by contrast.

Climate Wars - the last quail died out in Golden Gate Park a few years ago, sadly. And California quail are actually pretty cute, I'd rather have them be common and unafraid of people. People should be hunting turkey and wild pigs.

Snape said...


Polar bear populations have recovered, but photos like this still bother me..


Really liked your wildfire op-ed.

Boldie said...

Not so long ago Shellenberger was just a propagandist for nuclear power. In that role he already was playing fast and loose with the facts on renewables: using outdated data on costs and EROEI, bait and switch between CdTe PV modules and all PV modules, etc.

So it does not really wonder me he has gone the way of Lomborg. He did not have much integrity to start with.

Canman said...

Supposed advances in "CdTe PV" are for all practical purposes irrelevant in comparing PV to nuclear. PV energy is hopelessly dilute and intermittent. There's no way EROEI calculations can be made general. There are too many dependent variables (how much PV you already have, how much neighboring states and countries have, how much more land is available and how close it is, ... and probably a bunch of stuff nobody even thought of yet). It looks to me like just about every one of those dependent variables makes additional PV more expensive, while additional nuclear should add things like experience and scale to make it cheaper. Germany and France provide examples that support Shellenberger on every point.

Most climate scientist that I have any respect for support nuclear -- James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel.

Boldie said...


By point was not to start a debate on nuclear vs renewables. It was to point out that Shellenberger did not show much integrity in dealing with the facts around renewables.

One of his claims was that PV panels contains heavy metals and rare earth metals. Cadmium is certainly a heavy metal, but Cadmium Telluride panels only cover a small part of the market. So to act if all PV panels are full of heavy metals is a bait and switch.

The cost per kWh is indeed dependent on the local climate, local bureaucracy and local installation cost, but the cost of the system components is determined by a global market. These costs have declined by roughly a factor then the last two decades so you can easily spot if somebody uses outdated cost data.

EROEI is the energy return on energy investment. It is the lifetime energy output determined by the energy investment in during manufacturing, installation and maintenance. The output part will depend on the local climate but the investment part is mainly determined by manufacturing. The system efficiency has doubled the last two decades and manufacturers learned to use less material and energy, with the results that the EROEI also improved tremendously. If somebody uses old date on EROEI s to disqualify PV they are not sincere or do not know what they talk about.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

C: PV energy is hopelessly dilute and intermittent.

BPL: As if anybody cares. "Dilute and intermittent" is a criticism made up by the fossil fuel industry and nuke freaks to have something, anything, they can throw at renewables.

Canman said...

Yes we're throwing facts at renewables:

Barton Paul Levenson said...

And Canman cites Youtube as a rebuttal. It is to laugh.

Canman said...

Boldie, Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) does not address intermittency. If a source only has a fraction of a capacity factor, it has to be built out multiple times. And that doesn't even include extra infrastructure and non-existent batteries.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

C: non-existent batteries.

BPL: I can assure you batteries are real. I've seen them!