Why We Create The Apocalypse We Fear
My conversation with the Wall Street Journal's Gerard Baker
I spoke last week with Gerard Baker of The Wall Street Journal about why progressives undermine the civilization they claim to be saving. This is an edited version of the transcript of our conversation. You can listen to the conversation here.
Baker: Where are we at with climate policy?
Shellenberger: I think we're in a really interesting moment. Democrats basically got everything they wanted. Some are going to complain about not getting more money for transmission lines, and the ability to control state electrical grids. But I think the real issue is what is the future of American energy policy?
In the post-Cold War period of the last 30 years, the view of Republicans was basically “all of the above.” For Democrats, it's been 100% renewables. But now we're in the worst energy crisis in 50 years. The United States is in a unique position to be able to export oil and gas to our Asian and European allies. We should be doing a lot more of that.
I think a vision of energy abundance is the right direction. If we do it right, and we take a page from what Putin did, we’d expand nuclear power, replace the coal and gas we're using for electricity, and export a bunch of the gas to Asia and Europe, so they can survive Putin's stranglehold over energy, which extends to the whole global energy market now. We're now seeing Putin influencing OPEC members, including Saudi Arabia.
Energy security is what’s worked historically to reduce emissions. The big build-out of nuclear in the West was mostly just to create greater energy security. In the United States we also wanted to redeem ourselves for having created such a terrible weapon. But the government investments in fracking R&D came after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.
I think, in an energy security and energy abundance vision, you can see a solution to reducing carbon emissions, but climate concerns need to be put in their place.
Baker: If you listen to the people who dominate the debate, we shouldn't be flying. We should all be in electric vehicles, if in any vehicles at all. We should all stop eating meat. Do we really have to wear the hair shirt here and transform our lives in the way that the extremists seem to want us to?
Shellenberger: Well, quite the contrary. We've had energy scarcity for the last year and a half and we are reverting back to burning more coal. In a situation of great energy abundance, which is the situation the United States had been in really over the last 12 years, thanks to the fracking revolution, energy prices came down, because natural gas was so abundant, and carbon emissions came down, too.
This is not a surprising pattern at all. We made the transition from wood to coal by making coal more abundant and plentiful and cheaper. Doing so allowed us to reduce the indoor air smoke from burning wood and dung. That same pattern occurs around the world. That's why I say the people who are out there screaming about the end of the world from climate change are prosecuting a religious agenda, which has to do with historical guilt and fear of the apocalypse. They want engage in a kind of asceticism, of self-flagellation. They're after something very different from what actually is required to reduce carbon emissions.
Baker: What role do you see for renewables?
Shellenberger: Around the world we're in a crisis of too much renewables. Germany had too much renewables; its electricity is now the most expensive in Europe. It became too dependent on Russia for fuels, mostly natural gas, precisely because it needed gas to balance out weather-dependent renewables.
In the Western parts of the United States and now increasingly in the Midwest, we're running into potential electricity shortages. That's a consequence of becoming overly reliant on weather-dependent renewables.
The response in some situations has been positive. The Governor of California has effectively decided to keep our last nuclear plant operating because we are facing blackouts due to over-reliance on renewables.
Elevated natural gas prices will be good for nuclear in the short to medium term. Longer term it raises real questions about what kind of an electric grid we trying to create with all this unreliable, weather-dependent energy because you always have to have backup sources of power. It's really one-to-one, in terms of solar and wind. So you end up basically creating a layer of renewables on top of a reliable power grid. It just makes energy much more expensive and difficult to manage.
Baker: Do you think at a political level we might be changing and coming around more to your view. Is the energy crisis changing the debate?
Shellenberger: Definitely. You see it most dramatically in Germany right now. A large majority of Germans are now in support of nuclear power. This was a country that my pro-nuclear allies had tried to persuade me to give up on just a few years ago because Germans were so dogmatically opposed to nuclear power. And it’s happening in California, my home state, where the anti-nuclear movement began in the 1960s. Attitudes have become more pro-nuclear. We're seeing people wake up to the limitations of solar and wind due to their weather-dependent nature. I think we're at a high point of the renewables mania. We’re seeing greater appreciation of natural gas and much greater appreciation of nuclear.
I think the ball is in the court of Republicans, and to some extent moderate Democrats, to move beyond this “all of the above” free market view. Governments around the world have, through subsidy and regulation, taken control of the electricity sector. And the world is reverting back to nationalism. We are seeing China and Russia growing closer as Russia sends more of its fuel towards China rather than towards Europe. And Asia and Europe are looking increasingly to the United States as a supplier of last resort for natural gas and oil.
I think we're going to see a kind of repolarization between the West and the East. And I think that is going to mean that we're going to need to double down on nuclear and natural gas, if only to be competitive globally with Russia and China.
It’s Not the End of the World
Baker: Michael, what's your sense of actually how significant the climate threat is?