Michael Shellenberger (Image: Wikimedia)

There’s nothing more powerful than a conversion narrative. And News Corp has found its latest convert in Michael Shellenberger, an American environmentalist who is apologising for “crying wolf” on climate.

“On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologise for the climate scare we created over the past 30 years,” Shellenberger writes in The Australian today.

Much of the piece involves cherrypicking useful factoids denying the link between climate change and last summer’s bushfires despite years of warnings from scientists. He also spends a lot of time trying to prove his progressive bona fides. 

Shellenberger says he isn’t a climate denier, just someone trying to cut through the bubble of hysteria and alarmism. But News Corp’s staunchest denialists seem to love him. He will appear on Sky News with Chris Kenny tonight.

When an article by Shellenberger about his climate conversion was removed from Forbes, it prompted howls of conspiratorial outrage from Andrew Bolt. Miranda Devine also sings his praises. 

Who is Michael Shellenberger?

Shellenberger, 49, isn’t a one-time clean energy crusader who saw the light. He’s got a long history of climate contrarianism and is a staunch advocate for ditching renewables in favour of nuclear energy.

He’s also not a climate scientist. He carefully describes himself as an “environmentalist” or “energy expert” but has no formal scientific qualifications. That hasn’t stopped him producing the kind of wonkish contrarianism that soaks up media attention. 

In 2004 he lobbed his first hand grenade at the green movement’s prevailing orthodoxy with his essay The Death of Environmentalism, co-written by Ted Nordhaus. Traditional environmentalists, they argued, were increasingly out-of-touch doomsdayers. The movement needed an injection of energy and pragmatism.

At the time Shellenberger and Nordhaus had recently founded the Breakthrough Institute, described by The New York Times as “a new organisation that advocates putting progressive values to work to solve problems”.

Calling themselves “ecomodernists”, the approach to climate was squarely in the neoliberal mould: market-oriented technocratic solutions to climate challenges that unleashed research power of corporate America. 

In 2016 Shellenberger founded Environmental Progress, a think tank which aimed to “lift humans out of poverty and save the natural environment”. Nobody in Environmental Progress’ leadership appears to have tertiary qualifications in climate science. 

Since then, much of Shellenberger’s work seems to have been committed to promoting nuclear energy while attacking renewables and Greenpeace.

In The Australian he argues the most important way to reduce emissions is to move towards uranium. He also argues “nuclear weapons make us peaceful” and that more poor countries should be allowed to have them.

He says Environmental Progress is not funded by the nuclear industry, but it certainly does a lot of work in its interests. 

With friends like these

Shellenberger claims he is still a committed environmentalist but it’s worth looking closely at who’s listening to him. His last appearance in the Australian media, a glowing write-up by The Australian’s Graham Lloyd, was when he came to spruik nuclear energy at the International Mining and Resources Conference in 2017. 

And aside from the Sky News set, his latest provocative piece has got some interesting attention. One Nation senator and climate denier Malcolm Roberts is a fan. So is the denialist lobby group Friends of Science.

And although in his most recent article he leans heavily on academic plaudits as a sign of support for his “new thinking”, most of those he cites are, like him, not climate scientists: Richard Rhodes is a historian who wrote a book about the atomic bomb; Steve McCormick has led the kind of environmental organisations that seem a little too chummy with the oil and gas industry. 

Shellenberger might at one point have been a genuine environmentalist but his recent associations, attacks on renewable energy, and muddying of the waters show he is a career contrarian.

Peter Fray

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