Thanks to Michael Shellenberger, a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment”
The Climate Coalition has been applauding and supporting the efforts of environmental iconoclast and climate activist Michael Shellenberger for as long as we can remember. We were first introduced to Michael’s vibrant and penetrating thinking when he published his prescient 2004 essay, co-authored with Ted Nordhaus, entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.“ While the title sounds harsh, it was highly effective in directing attention to the fact that the same kind of “feel good” environmentalism that worked well as a mechanism for protesting bad stuff like acid rain and smog, is utterly ill-equipped to deal with a challenge as complicated and interwoven into the fabric of society as global warming. Shellenberger and Nordhaus recognized what has now been proven: mankind cannot just say “no” to energy usage. While some individuals might choose to bravely attempt to live off-grid, human society as whole will not tolerate their lights dimming or their heat failing, even if it threatens our very future on the planet.
So, rather than vilifying energy usage along with our centralized energy utilities as environmentalists have proceeded to do, Shellenberger argued that what is really needed is a new way of thinking about the human footprint on the world as a whole, and smartly leveraging technology to decrease our impact on natural systems in order to harmonize human society with nature. Ten years later, Michael was right back front and center announcing the birth of a new type of environmentalism, with the publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto in 2015. This manifesto, co-authored by 18 visionaries, offered an affirmative and optimistic vision for a future with universal human development, social justice between developed and undeveloped nations (where energy poverty is still rampant), as well as more abundant and healthier nature—through smarter technological and social modernization that increasingly decouples human development from natural resource use.
We know that mankind’s most environmentally damaging resource habit is that of burning of fossil fuels. What is less well understood is that mankind’s most promising technological breakthrough for decoupling our energy needs from resource use is through nuclear fission, which releases between one and 30 million times more power per fissioned molecule than through fossil-based chemical combustion. Recognizing that the original “Atoms for Peace” vision of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy—that saw nuclear power freeing mankind from the scourge of fossil fuels—was being undermined by self-interested and/or misinformed forces. Michael realized that his own vision of bringing mankind into harmony with nature by decoupling energy from natural resources, was also being threatened by opposition that was not standing down, in the face of climate change, because there were very few standing up to take nuclear’s side against its well-funded opposition. Thus, shortly after the Ecomodernist Manifesto’s release, for Michael to decide it was time to leave the relative safety of the Breakthrough Institute’s ivory tower world and launch into bolder action in support of nuclear power.
In 2016, Michael left Breakthrough and launched Environmental Progress, a group that provides education, research and advocacy and even direct action campaigns on behalf of existing nuclear power plants around the world. No shrinking violets, Shellenberger and his supporters quickly leapt into action in defense of Diablo Canyon, California’s sole remaining operating nuclear power plant and largest source of clean energy, which Governor Jerry Brown (whose family privately controls a gas franchise in California) and a cabal of fossil fuel and environmental leaders secretly agreed to close, without guarantees that its clean generation would be replaced with other clean generation.
Environmental Progress organized a three-day rally and protest in support of Diablo Canyon and nuclear power, which may well have been the first of its kind, but was not the last. Shellenberger also took his campaign on the road and dove into similar battles to save nuclear plants in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Korea, the U.K. and elsewhere. With piercing analyses, bold graphics, well-written letters signed by a pile of experts and a willingness to recruit world-renowned climate scientists to travel with him to where the action is happening, Shellenberger helped protect nuclear power in most all of these cases. California’s battle to save Diablo Canyon has not ended and is likely to continue, especially now that California passed SB100, requiring that California utilities deliver 100% clean energy by 2045, opening the door for the generation from Diablo Canyon to be valued for its Zero Emissions power. In all of these cases, Michael deserves a lot of the credit for having shifted the political dialogue, bringing attention to the benefits we get from nuclear energy and focusing on the prejudicial and often corrupt reasons why nuclear is targeted by those who see markets expanded for natural gas and renewables. Michael has elevated the public discourse about the climate importance and carbon-reducing value of protecting our existing investments in nuclear power time after time.
In 2017, believing that California’s anti-nuclear biased energy politics were contributing to a host of social issues, including runaway energy prices, Michael decided to jump into the primary race for California Governor. He opted to run as a Democrat against a well-funded and long-established party favorite deliberately to create a bigger spotlight for higher-level debates on energy, housing and transportation issues. Michael did not win the primary but he did gain a considerable number of ardent followers and earned himself a berth at Forbes where he writes about energy policies, ecomodernism and our continuing battle to allow nuclear energy to provide the reliable, cost-effective baseload power that would unshackled our clean energy grid from the ravages of fossil fuels. We are pleased to have merited a mention in the article Michael published this week, entitled “Top Climate Scientists Warn Governments of “Blatant Anti-Nuclear Bias” in Latest IPCC Climate Report.”