Today a new episode of The Joe Rogan Experience drops featuring climate delay grifter extraordinaire Michael Shellenberger, who apparently is now running for governor. The phrase "high on his own supply" comes to mind.
At any rate, it reminded me of a piece I commissioned for Drilled over a year ago from investigative journalist Paul Thacker on Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute he co-founded, and why the media continuously gives both unearned credit. Niether Shellenberger nor his co-founder Ted Nordhaus would talk to Paul because he'd written pieces that were critical of them in the past, but I didn't think we could ethically run the story without speaking to them both, so I did. Spent about two hours on each conversation and came away feeling like Shellenberger was unstable and Nordhaus was nowhere near as smart as he clearly thought he was. At the time, I opted not to run the piece. Neither Shellenberger nor BTI seemed that powerful, so it felt more like gossip than like information the public needed to hear.
Now the math has changed. If Shellenberger was on Rogan for three hours spouting his particular brand of cherry-picked data and debate-me bro nonsense as part of his campaign for governor, I think the public—and Californians in particular—need to know what they're dealing with here. The piece is below, and there will be a bonus podcast episode tomorrow with my interview with Shellenberger for subscribers. You can upgrade to a paid subscription via the button below if you're not already.
The New Denial Is Delay
How an attempt to revolutionize the environmental movement became a push to delay action on climate change.
By Paul D. Thacker
In October 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of a scrappy Bay Area think tank called The Breakthrough Institute, published “The Death of Environmentalism,” an essay that argued the environmental movement had failed. To knock back critics, the duo constantly underlined their environmental credentials and years of experience providing public relations advice to green groups like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Seeking to define themselves as different from run-of-the-mill climate skeptics, Shellenberger told a reporter around that time, “We’re not like Bjorn Lomborg or whatever.” Lomborg, of course, is the Danish climate contrarian best known for the fact-challenged book Cool It and, more recently, False Alarm.
A few years after seeking to differentiate the Breakthrough Institute from Lomborg, Shellenberger joined the Danish writer on a panel at Brown University, where both urged more tempered rhetoric on climate change. As reported by the Brown Daily Herald, Shellenberger argued that climate change experts dismissed him and Lomborg because policy experts did not allow for their “alternative voices.”
More than a decade later, Shellenberger has left the Breakthrough Institute, but little else has changed. Both Shellenberger and Lomborg have released new books—as in the past, experts immediately savaged them. In a review at Yale 360, Pacific Institute emeritus president Peter Gleick wrote, “Bad science and bad arguments abound in 'Apocalypse Never' by Michael Shellenberger.” Taking a pickaxe to Lomborg’s book False Alarm, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in the New York Times, “This book proves the aphorism that a little knowledge is dangerous. It’s nominally about air pollution. It’s really about mind pollution.”
A decade after the Breakthrough Institute burst on the scene firing shots at Big Green, Shellenberger followed Sierra Club president Mike Brune onto the stage for Brainstorm Green, Fortune Magazine’s 2014 conference for environmental leaders. After opening remarks from Brune, dressed the part of an environmental nonprofit boss in boring suit and tie, Shellenberger stepped up to the podium in slacks and a fitted shirt—uniform-ready to host an inspiring Ted Talk.
He then proceeded to berate Brune for failing to offer real solutions to climate change.
By this point, Shellenberger no longer felt the need to namecheck his environmental roots before launching a missile at Big Green. He recounted how, in contrast to Brune and his ineffective Sierra Club, he and Breakthrough co-founder Ted Nordhaus had successfully lobbied for the New Apollo Project, a coalition advocating for cleantech and renewable energy. Shellenberger added that the New Apollo later convinced the Obama administration to put $150 billion into a stimulus bill.
After leaving the podium, Shellenberger sat down next to Brune to continue the debate. Brune then punched back, “We operate differently from your Breakthrough Institute. We are not a think tank; we are a group that gets results...on the ground.”
With a grin and a shrug, Shellenberger quipped, “We had pretty good results with the stimulus, actually.”
The sparring was vintage Breakthrough: tiny, Left Coast think tank smacks down Big Environment for sclerotic thinking and green solutions less palatable than last week’s stale, organic, whole grain muffins. Also standard: Shellenberger’s Apollo parable relied on a string of selective facts, loudly paraded onto stage for political theater.
Started in the early 2000s, the Apollo Alliance banded together dozens of labor unions and green groups in a coalition that advocated for federal funding to advance technologies and create jobs for clean energy. Members included everyone from the NAACP, SEIU, Greenpeace, Tides Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, and the AFL-CIO. Anyone who was anyone began adopting Apollo-like rhetoric, including Bill Clinton, and The Nation editor and publisher Katrina Vanden Heuvel. Not surprisingly, a founding board member of Apollo was the Sierra Club’s executive director, which makes it odd that Shellenberger would try to seize sole credit for the coalition’s purported success, let alone use it against Brune.
In reality, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were two of the many, many people that helped get the coalition off the ground. And in 2005, nearly a decade before that public spat with Brune, Shellenberger announced that he had left Apollo over disagreements with members. In a recent interview with Drilled, Shellenberger put it more bluntly: “I was shitcanned from Apollo over ‘Death of Environmentalism.’”
Despite that happening more than fifteen years ago, Shellenberger still references his time with the Apollo Alliance when plugging his tale as a hero to save the planet from climate change. In January 2020, for example, when he testified before the House Science Committee, Shellenberger noted “In 2003 I co-founded the Apollo Alliance to advocate for a Green New Deal, which we called a ‘New Apollo Project.’” He added that Obama’s stimulus (passed in 2009) funded many Apollo proposals for renewables, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles.
In speaking with Drilled, Shellenberger claimed to have had a hand in that stimulus as well, after meeting with Obama’s policy team. “And the Obama people, they got it right away,” Shellenberger said. “And then the rest is history. They basically were like, ‘Yeah, we want to do a big investment in clean energy.’ And that was the stimulus investment.”
A recently retired Hill staffer, who did not want his name in the media, said he worked for decades on appropriations for the House but never heard of the Breakthrough Institute. He wondered how Shellenberger—or anyone—could claim personal credit for passing billions of dollars in renewable energy policy with just one or two meetings, when the Hill is swarming with professional lobbyists working around the clock.
“He’s constantly reinventing his story to build the appearance of power and access,” said Kert Davies, who spent 13 years at Greenpeace examining energy policy, before founding the Climate Investigations Center in 2013. Davies said he first met Shellenberger in the early 2000s, when Shellenberger was vying to get a communications contract with Greenpeace. “He takes credit for things [that happened] years after he was boosted from the Apollo Alliance. He can say whatever he wants, and it’s all vapor because the organization is now gone.”
“They aren’t players up here on the Hill,” a Democratic Committee staffer said of The Breakthrough Institute. This staffer has spent almost two decades in Congress working on environmental and climate change policy but is not authorized to speak to the media. “They spend most of their time shooting spitballs at mainstream environmental organizations and that makes them a bright, shiny object to some journalists.”
Nonetheless, when Nordhaus and Shellenberger flew from California to Washington in 2009 to discuss climate policy, NPR interviewed them outside the Senate Dirksen Office Building, and reported their funder Peter Teague’s claims that President Obama had adopted Breakthrough’s “language and visionary rhetoric.”
Jockeying to position themselves as the smart, thoughtful adults on environmental policy is core to the Breakthrough model, and to Shellenberger's approach post-Breakthrough as well, along with constant bashing of “Big Environment.” In 2005, after Greenpeace created the website Exxon Secrets to track the oil company’s funding for climate change disinformation, Mother Jones published a sprawling investigation detailing how Exxon was throwing buckets of cash at forty organizations that attacked the scientific consensus on climate.
Senators then sent Exxon a letter demanding that they cease paying for the “effective climate change denial myth” and Britain’s Royal Society called on Exxon to stop financing American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change.”
In response, Nordhaus and Shellenberger penned a 2007 op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Look who's in denial about global warming now”) that belittled Mother Jones for investigating Exxon’s finances and Greenpeace for creating Exxon Secrets. “The truth is that global warming deniers have had little impact on public attitudes,” the duo wrote.
Eight years after this Nordhaus-Shellenberger op-ed, Inside Climate News, The Los Angeles Times, and The Columbia School of Journalism published another large-scale investigation of what Exxon knew about climate change and the company’s subsequent deception. Once again Shellenberger defended Exxon.
Shellenberger’s denial that Exxon suppressed or spun what it knew about climate change back in the 1970s was even referenced by mainstream climate denialists. In his climate denier bible, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change, CFACT communications director Marc Morano cites Michael Shellenberger as proof that Exxon in “many cases advocated for climate policy” and that if the company did spend on denial it was “a drop in the bucket compared to green money.”
From The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change
Both Shellenberger and Morano are lifelong comms experts who now claim to be reporting on these issues as “journalists.” In the documentary Purple Mountains, Morano says, “I come at these issues as an investigative journalist.” On the website of his new organization Environmental Progress, Shellenberger's bio reads, “Michael is a leading environmental journalist who has broken major stories.” These stories Shellenberger cites are posts at his Forbes blog, not pieces that go through the usual processes of reporting, editing, and fact-checking that constitute journalism.
In another troubling example of Breakthrough’s ties to climate denial, a member of their board is Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute. Four years back, 19 Senators took to the Senate floor in a week-long event to denounce the Manhattan Institute and other fossil fuel-funded groups that deny climate science and stymie legislation. Today, the Manhattan Institute still lobbies against climate policy and spends much of its time putting out reports that poke holes in renewable energy technology.
According to Exxon Secrets, the Manhattan Institute has received $1.39 million from Exxon since 1992, with $75,000 donated in 2018, the last year for which records are available.
Beltway insiders may dismiss their influence on policy, but since launching the Breakthrough Institute in 2003, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have generated gigawatts of media buzz along with a pile of disapproval, taller than a West Virginia coal mountain. Scientists and environmentalists have noted the duo’s penchant for portraying the fossil fuel industry as a tiny corporate Goliath picked on by David, the environmental giant.
But Breakthrough’s comparisons of international green groups with oil companies and industry groups make for poor math, said Robert J. Brulle, a Visiting Professor of Environment and Society at Brown University. When Brulle looked at the money spent on lobbying for climate change in America for one year, he found that environmental groups made up only 3.30% of all funding, with various industry sectors spending the rest.
Their counterintuitive narratives, headlined with sparkly buzzwords and backfilled with selective facts, make sense when you remember that Nordhaus and Shellenberger forged their expertise in public relations.
In the tech-crazed, libertarian San Francisco of the early 2000s, Breakthrough’s ideology perhaps made sense to those who saw the environmental movement as stuck in the past, unwilling to embrace necessary technology, and too resistant to corporate solutions. This has caused a few moments of public embarrassment for Breakthrough such as promoting fracking as a “clean energy” alternative. Today, Breakthrough eagerly embraces nuclear and solar energy, and cheerleads for GMO agriculture, as preferred technologies to electrify and feed the world. Shellenberger, meanwhile, is all in on nuclear—part of the difference of opinion that drove him out of Breakthrough in the first place.
Over the years, Breakthrough also began defending oil companies and cozying up to climate contrarians. Denying that they traffic in climate denial, while constantly ending up in the same room with contrarians and climate denialists, is a common dilemma for the Breakthrough crowd, as are spine twisting arguments to soften human impacts on the planet and hype technology solutions. It’s a subtle, more modern version of denial and catnip to some journalists. When celebrated data cruncher Nate Silver relaunched his 538 website in 2014, for example, one of his first hires was Breakthrough Fellow Roger Pielke Jr.
A professor of science policy at the University of Colorado, Pielke Jr. has a long track record of contrarian writing on climate change and receiving invites to promote his views at congressional hearings from Republicans, who deny the science of climate change. The deceased, famed climate science policy scholar Stephen Schneider once referred to Pielke Jr. as a “self-aggrandizer who sets up straw men, knocks them down, and takes credit for being the honest broker to explain the mess.”
It only took Pielke Jr. a brief time as a 538 contributor to live up to Schneider’s claim. In a baffling article, Pielke Jr. diminished the effect climate change has on damages caused by hurricanes, blasting Silver with a category 5 level shit storm. When Silver then appeared on “The Daily Show” to discuss the new launch of 538, Jon Stewart jabbed, “You are taking a rash of shit in a week and a half like no one I've seen in a long time."
After Silver commissioned a response by an MIT scientist that largely debunked the analysis by Pielke Jr., he later left 538. Rushing to protect their Senior Fellow, the Breakthrough’s Alex Trembath then posted a blog arguing that the science actually agreed with Pielke Jr.
Since that event, scientists have now begun to cite climate change as the cause for specific natural disasters, and have published research explaining how climate change has likely increased hurricane wind speeds and the amount of rain hurricanes dump on cities. A few months ago, a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused global warming is making larger hurricanes more common.
But in his book Apocalypse Never, Shellenberger resurrects Pielke Jr’s old work to breathe new life into claims that climate change is not making natural disasters worse. In his classic debate-me-bro style, Shellenberger argues that the United Nation’s definition of “natural disaster” means that technically climate change is making extreme weather, not natural disasters, worse.
These Talmudic quibbles might be lost on Americans whose homes and possessions have been destroyed in climate fueled forest fires out West, or whose communities on the East coast have been drowned by hurricanes made more powerful by global warming.
Michael Shelleberger often relies on the debate-me-bro routine when called out for misstatements. As catastrophic fires began torching the West coast, media outlets began running stories that linked these fires with climate change. Nonetheless, Shellenberger hopped on Fox News to shout that “forest management,” not climate change was fanning the flames—a neat trick, and the same meme President Trump deployed at a Las Vegas campaign rally to shift the public’s attention from climate change. But to Shellenberger “because we’ve focused on other things like building renewables” the western United States is now going up in smoke.
When someone then tweeted that he was wrong, he challenged that person to a debate. Yes, seriously.
For both Shellenberger and Nordhaus, GMOs are part of the technology fix for climate. Nordhaus described Breakthrough’s take on ecomodernism as “you can either minimize the impact of humans on nature or harmonize human societies with nature—we don’t think you can do both, and we focus on the former.” Intensive agriculture, they agree, reduces the amount of land required to grow food, although Nordhaus is a bit more measured in his support.
“If you don't want to turn the entire planet into a gigantic farm, you're gonna have to continue to figure out how to produce food more intensively,” Nordhaus said. “But obviously I think some of the GMO stuff gets oversimplified by advocates, too.”
In 2015, before Shellenberger’s departure from the organization, Breakthrough released another sparkly, tectonic shifting declaration titled “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” that bedazzled reporters. To help generate buzz, they unveiled the declaration on a splashy website that documented coverage of the manifesto in multiple media outlets. In reality, the document rehashed arguments that as humans sculpt the planet, the Earth has entered a new era. But the manifesto also added some spicy Breakthrough reasoning: human impacts are a benefit, not a deficit.
The ideological binding of The Breakthrough Institute’s 2015 “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” started coming unglued within months, when Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger hopped a plane to England for an event on restoring science to environmentalism. Here, they planned to sell the declaration to British reporters. The press conference was hosted by conservative MP Owen Paterson, a UK climate denier who almost halved the UK’s climate preparedness budget when he was environmental secretary.
When announcing the press conference, Paterson called on the public to abandon the “relentless pessimism of the environmental movement” and warned in a Telegraph op-ed that “the Green Blob still infests the official bureaucracy with its influence.” Other conference panelists included Mark Lynas, a co-author of An Ecomodernist Manifesto, and Matt Ridley, a British science writer noted for climate denial screeds.
When critics argued that the event provided a platform for climate denialists, DesmogBlog reported that Shellenberger dismissed detractors with “Fuck you all, we’re going to go to the press conference.” Audience members still complained that Breakthrough had chosen to associate with climate denialists and anti-environmentalists.
Nordhaus explained this strategy as sort of a means to an end in a recent interview with Drilled . “I've given talks to groups of climate skeptics, climate deniers—you know, real climate deniers,” he said. “You can have a variety of viewpoints on this question without having to put a tin foil hat on. And the thing is, you get to the end of those talks and if you go, ‘OK, so who supports nuclear energy?’ Everybody in the room supports nuclear energy.”
In late 2015, Shellenberger left the Breakthrough Institute to start Environmental Progress, which focuses on nuclear energy. A video at the organization’s website shows Shellenberger clad in a yellow t-shirt giving a Ted Talk. The summer after starting his group, Shellenberger partnered with employees of the nuclear energy industry to lead the March for Environmental Hope, which was billed as the “first-ever pro-nuclear march.” Attendees—which included a half dozen Exelon employees, who flew in from jobs working at nuclear reactors scattered across the country—held protests outside the Bay area offices of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We support our employees’ efforts to advocate on environmental and climate-related issues that are important to them,” said a spokesperson from Exelon. “However, this was a voluntary employee activity and not part of an organized campaign. All participants attended voluntarily and were not asked to represent the company or its views.”
Months later, Shellenberger led a pro-nuclear march in Chicago that was said to be inspired by the Civil Rights March on Washington, the Stonewall Riots, and Gandhi’s Salt March. Counter protestors denounced Environmental Progress as “astroturf.”
When not writing for the Environmental Progress website, Shellenberger sometimes amplifies his views on Spiked, a British website funded in part by the Koch Brothers that trafficks in climate denial. He also runs a blog at Forbes where he ridicules climate policy while advocating for nuclear energy. In one example at Forbes, he cited studies by Ed Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as proof that fears of nuclear radiation are overblown. Shellenberger’s story picked up on a theme first introduced by the Breakthrough Institute where they interviewed Calabrese about his research.
As reported last year by The Los Angeles Times and HuffPost, Calabrese has long excited the tobacco, chemical, and nuclear industries with research called “hormesis” that argues tiny amounts of pollution and radiation are actually good for people. Public health experts have dismissed Calabrese’s hormesis studies as a type of religion, although Trump officials have shown interest.
“Shellenberger is a propagandist,” said Paul Dorfman, Founder and Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group and Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University College London. Dorfman said that while some experts can make a case for nuclear energy that he disagrees with, Shellenberger is not one of them. “He’s not a scientist. He just comes up with stuff.” Dismissing the hormesis theory as “quasi science” and “tosh” Dorfman said there is no safe dose of radiation. “This is a fact. And all the regulatory bodies know this.”
“My impression is that [Shellenberger] is sincere in his views that nuclear power needs to play a larger role in combating climate change,” said David Lochbaum, a former safety instructor at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who has retired from the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, Lochbaum noted by email: “Few technologies have a risk/reward scheme such that one bad day at one place can outweigh decades of good days.” He added that, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, “Japan is re-learning this lesson.”
To promote his book, Shellenberger added another piece to the canon of environmental apologist lit, a post on his Forbes blog entitled “On behalf of environmentalists, I apologize for the climate scare.” The post was removed a day or two later, which Shellenberger decried as censorship, and then used to promote his book. However, Forbes confirmed with Drilled that they pulled the post not because of any opinions Shellenberger espoused but because in blatantly trying to sell his book in the post, he had violated the site’s guidelines about self-promotion.
Nonetheless, blogging at Forbes remains critical to Shellenberger’s profile. They are the only stories he can point to when he describes himself as a “leading environmental journalist.”
“We flood the American public with a tsunami of crap every day in the media,” said Gary Schwitzer, an adjunct professor at U of Minnesota School of Public Health, and Publisher of Health News Review. He said Forbes is particularly terrible because it hosts fringe contributors with undeclared industry ties, and who write dreck. This is harmful, Schwitzer said, because it distracts the public from real news. “That’s what really pisses me off.”
“In some ways, it's just like a fabulous performance art piece that he's doing right now,” Nordhaus told Drilled of Shellenberger’s campaign to promote his book. “It’s like Andy Kaufman doing environmentalism in a way that environmentalists could sort of see how dogmatic it gets. How sort of shrill it gets, and how angry it gets. How kind of dark and conspiratorial it gets.”
Despite attempts to create space between themselves and Shellenberger, Breakthrough has also helped to prop him up. Penning a tepid analysis of the recent books by Shellenberger and Lomborg, Breakthrough’s Alex Trembath wrote that each author “wisely rejects some of the more outlandish environmental orthodoxies,” and added, “In place of catastrophism, each book offers optimism.” Trembath’s review appeared in National Review, long a venue for climate denial and disinformation.
“Breakthrough does not put out high quality work,” said Robert Brulle of Brown University. “In fact, they distort research. What they do is work the refs, which is the media. And the media needs to be more discriminating.”
“If there’s one thing these guys are good at, it is getting the media to move a story for them,” said Kert Davies of Climate Investigations. Complimenting Breakthrough’s skills in public relations, Davies said their counterintuitive “man bites dog” message gives Breakthrough an advantage over environmental organizations, which keep selling the same tired story.
“They are good at PR,” he said. “It’s where they came from. They’re good PR guys pretending to be experts.”
Emily Gertz edited this piece. Amy Westervelt contributed additional reporting.