There is no apocalypse. Why environmental alarmism hurts us all
The Rafael del Pino Foundation organised, on 11 March February 2021, the Master Lecture live on www.frdelpino.es entitled "There is no apocalypse. Why environmental alarmism harms us all" given by Michael Shellenberger on the occasion of the publication of his book of the same title published by Deusto.
Michael Shellenberger is an American environmental activist. He is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research organisation based in Berkeley, California, that fights for clean energy and energy justice. He has also written for more than two decades on energy and the environment for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal y Nature Energyamong other publications. The magazine Time named him an "Environmental Hero" in 2008.
On 11 March 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the keynote lecture "There is no apocalypse: why environmental alarmism hurts us all", given by Michael Shellenberger, environmental activist and founder and president of Environmental Progress on the occasion of the publication of his book of the same title.
Shellemberger began by listing the bad news. The world is warming, it has warmed more since pre-industrial times and this is due to human influence, through greenhouse gases, forest fires. Sea levels are rising because the polar ice caps are melting. The number of animal species has halved since 1970 and this has occurred in the tropics. What is driving the loss of wildlife is the decline of natural habitat and the direct consumption of wild animals. Humans use about half of the world's usable land, half of which is used for livestock.
We eat too much fish; a third of the world's fisheries are overfished and this has tripled since the 1970s. The amount of fish we eat is now doubling, so imagine what will happen when China and the rest of Asia have more money and therefore eat more fish. Only 15% of the Earth's surface and 8% of the oceans are protected. Plastic waste has a huge impact on wildlife.
We have seen a tremendous element, the pandemic. Whether Covid-19 is the result of a laboratory experiment will be another matter, but if everything has happened as it seems to have happened, the coronavirus moves from the bat to the pangolin and transmission to humans occurs on a farm or in a live animal market in China.
We now know that the limit is dangerous. We need to be separated from nature. Children fear climate change. In Britain, one in five children has nightmares. Half the world's population thinks the human race is going to become extinct because of climate change.
There is also good news. We can harness wind energy, solar energy. At the UN, the head of FAO forestry says we can use wood as an alternative energy source. We know that energy efficiency is going to reduce our energy consumption. If we go vegetarian there will be less carbon dioxide emissions. And we don't need nuclear power.
All of the above is true, but it is not the whole story. There is more. For example, the United States is now the world's climate leader, a great climate champion. Very few people know this. Ten years ago, it was considered the climate villain. Yet it has cut its emissions more than any other country in the world and is now doing better than it was supposed to under the Paris Agreement.
We are at the peak of carbon dioxide emissions and we did not foresee this. Emissions will continue to grow for a decade, but by mid-century we will see that the peak has been passed. This makes it unlikely that the global temperature will rise another three degrees.
Everyone wants to ban plastic straws, but they represent only 0.03% of the waste in the oceans. The big problem was that most of this waste was entering the oceans from Asia. This has changed and now much of it comes from rich countries. This is because we do not recycle 90% of plastic waste. Nor should we try to do so because plastic is not designed to be recycled. It should be incinerated or stored in landfills.
If we were vegetarian, carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced, but only by 2% or 3%, because the money saved by not buying meat is invested in producing other options that also generate emissions.
Forest fires have been reduced by 25% since 2003. Only 20% of the Amazon has been deforested. Half of it is already protected and the Yanomamo Indians already control a large part of it. The area they control is the size of Hungary, but there are ten million people in Hungary, while there are less than 20,000 Yanomamo. In other words, they are doing very well thanks to the Brazilian government and the defenders of indigenous peoples' rights.
At the moment, we are not in the great extinction either. Species are disappearing, but three quarters of them are not endangered. Only 6% are in great danger. We have hunted more polar bears than exist today, so if we want to save them, the thing to do is to stop hunting them. That is the threat to them, not the melting of the ice. Humpback whales are coming back, thanks to the huge success in protecting them. The same goes for sea turtles. It would be wrong to imply that this is not the case. As for plastic, in fact, it helped save hawksbill turtles, because it replaces tortoiseshell in products such as spectacles. We have saved the turtles' lives because we have been able to replace these natural bioplastics with alternatives derived from fossil fuels.
Shellenberger explained that he started in environmental activism in 1990. He cared about people and the environment. Since then he has dedicated himself to helping people overcome poverty and protect the environment. He lived in Brazil, in very poor areas, where he was struck by how difficult life is there. Children in these areas are not in school, but going to fetch water or wood. In Latin America they have achieved a lot in the last three decades, but there is still a lot of poverty.
World poverty has been reduced from 44% to 10% since 1980. Infant mortality has fallen from 43% to 4%. Life expectancy is now almost 80 years. We have fewer children, because we no longer need so many because we no longer live in the countryside. We produce too much food, too much food. We waste food. There are no famines. If people go hungry, it is because they are poor, not because there is a lack of food. From an energy efficiency point of view, the ratio of energy consumption to GDP is constant. Deaths related to natural disasters have been reduced by 90% in recent years. As for sea level rise, it is going very slowly and we are adapting well. In the Netherlands there are farms that are seven metres below sea level. And the greatest disaster risks are concentrated in war, disease, volcanoes, tsunamis and asteroids, not climate change. We have all understood with the coronavirus that disease remains one of the greatest threats. A threat to life, to civilisation.
Fires result from too much wood to burn in forests. When a high-intensity fire breaks out and reaches a well-managed forest, it goes down from the tree tops to the bottom and becomes a good fire, a fire that can be controlled. Europe is hypercritical of the Amazon, when Europe killed its forests because it wanted to grow and be modern. Its forest mass was reduced to an area equivalent to that of Portugal. But then its forests grew again. Since 1900 they have grown and now more than 40% of Europe is covered by forests because now we don't need as much land for agriculture and we no longer use wood as fuel. This is what happens when countries are prosperous, they become green through reforestation because former pasture land now becomes forest.
Regarding plastic waste, poverty is the problem. Also, that we send plastics to places where they cannot be recycled.
We also have good news with livestock. Land use is the most important environmental issue in the world. It always has been. The amount of land we use for livestock is enormous. It's the size of Alaska. But it's shrinking, which is good news because there will be more land for wildlife. We're seeing it all greening up. We see it in the temperate zones of the world, although not yet in the tropics, but we will certainly see it soon.
We produce more fish through aquaculture and we can do so even more by reducing the pressure on wild fish and leaving them for the whales. A 15% may not sound like it. We now have 25 times more protected areas in the world than we did in 1962. We have lost precious places, but we have also protected others. We see increases in biodiversity.
Let's take a look at how humans are saving nature, with the case of whales. We used to hunt them to use their oil for lighting. In Europe it was also used to make margarine and soap. But we stopped doing that thanks to, for example, the discovery of oil wells in Pennsylvania. In 1861 they knew that oil would save the whales, and it did. Those wells were going to produce in one day all the oil that could be extracted from whales for four years. We need abundant energy sources to save nature. Europe needed coal to stop using wood. It is the same kind of substitution. We have made progress even with coal, reducing air pollution.
We have reduced the amount of land we need for agriculture so dramatically that the total has been reduced by 8%, but the food population has soared by 300%. We are producing more meat and more milk using the same amount of land. Chickens are now bigger and we don't need as much land to feed them. In fact, we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions in livestock farming, even though production has increased by 50%.
The most important phenomenon is dematerialisation. Think of the mobile phone. You used to need a fax machine, a record player, speakers, a DVD, cameras, calculator, newspapers. We used to deforest and now we can use our phones. This process appears in all parts of the economy, dematerialisation. Cities, for example, are smaller, more crowded, denser, with the population density going up.
Of course, there are still endangered species, which need more land, more habitat. If these species are not to disappear, we will have to look at how to concentrate agricultural activity. In this respect, there is good news. Sub-Saharan farmers can increase their yields by almost 100 percent with water, fertiliser and machinery. If all countries did this, the results would be noticeable and production would increase by 50%. Land productivity would increase, putting less pressure on forests worldwide.
We seem to have reached the peak of wood consumption. We also seem to be reaching peak land use for agriculture. So, if we are at peak carbon emissions, peak land use, peak use of wood as an energy source, these are very important trends. We are on the right track. We are even using fertiliser much better. The Netherlands has been able to double its yields using the same amount of fertiliser. As for degraded land, it is in poor countries because they have no modern fertilisers, no modern farming methods. That is where the crises are.
Many of the green solutions do not work. Most people are not, and will not be, vegetarian. That's fine and we can adapt to that. You have to recycle glass or aluminium, but you don't have to recycle plastics. We try to recycle it and 90% of those plastics go to poor countries and into the oceans. Pasture farming is much less efficient than concentrated farming, which allows us to reduce emissions and land use.
Environmental experts sometimes oppose good technologies. They oppose, for example, eating genetically modified salmon. But this is a breeding technique and if you get the production, it's fantastic. The holy grail is tuna. Everybody wants it. If you get land-raised fish, we can all eat healthier, be better off, save these animals. Who are the opponents? Often environmentalists because they don't like the idea, even though it's good for nature.
Natural gas is good. When it replaces coal it reduces carbon emissions. That's why there are fewer emissions in the United States. The carbon footprint of gas is very low, so the transition from coal to gas is good. So we've been reducing the carbon intensity of energy use for 150 years.
To prosper, we have to use energy, because we don't want to be poor. The quality of energy also matters. Where does our clean energy come from? Sweden, France, Switzerland basically use nuclear and hydroelectric power. It's the same in Illinois, in Belgium. We have invested almost two trillion in nuclear and 2.3 trillion to generate solar and wind, the same amount of money, but much less efficient. What about France and Germany? France is very nuclear and Germany is moving away from nuclear, towards renewables. As a result, electricity in Germany is almost twice as expensive as in France. Germany produces ten times more carbon per unit of energy than France. Batteries are very expensive and nobody believes that they will save wind and solar. In California energy costs seven times more than in the US for wind and solar. If Germany had invested in nuclear what it has invested in renewables, it would be at 100 per cent by now.
Why have we got it so wrong? Because we think that natural is better, does it make sense, and why should a solar panel be more natural than a nuclear power plant? What we have to look at is intensity and concentration, because that is what really protects. When they say natural, what they mean is older. The newest plastics are the ones that saved the ivory tusks of elephants. The same goes for tortoiseshell. Solar panel waste is three hundred times more dangerous than nuclear waste because it contains lead and other heavy minerals. Solar installations need four hundred times more land. If we want to protect species, we cannot take their habitat, as happened in California. In Germany there are demonstrations against wind energy because of its environmental impact.
The criticism of economic growth by the world's richest since the 1970s is a Malthusian idea. It is the rich telling the poor that they cannot aspire to prosperity. The truth is that world population growth peaked in the 1960s and has been slowing ever since. We will probably reach nine or ten billion, but fear abounds. Panic, however, implies foolish behaviour.
The way to save nature is to go nuclear. We have to cooperate with each other because that is the way to save the rainforest. We have to distance ourselves from the romantic idea of natural products to save nature.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.