The current orthodoxy on climate change—that it is an existential threat to global civilization—was challenged on June 15 during the 2021 ANS Virtual Annual Meeting's President’s Special Session, which featured two prominent dissenters from that view, Michael Shellenberger and Mark P. Mills.
In her session’s opening remarks, ANS President Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar questioned the accuracy of current climate models, stating, “I have to wonder that if these models were subjected to the rigor of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission review of, let’s say, a safety analysis report, that any would make the grade.”
While stressing that she did not mean to “cast aspersions on climate science,” Dunzik-Gougar said that she felt it is important to point out that governments are making far-reaching policy decisions likely to have significant effects on the world economy and the quality of life “based on what I suspect is far less scrutiny than is required for something like a power plant uprate application.”
According to Dunzik-Gougar, the data show that having an adequate supply of energy is directly related to the quality of human life and improves the ability to withstand or recover from environmental assaults, that more than 10 percent of the world’s population has no access to electricity, and that the Industrial Revolution made possible by the shift from low-energy density biofuels to higher density fossil fuels resulted in an overall increase in human health and created a more hospitable environment.
“So, rather than a net-zero emission goal, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be affordable, reliable energy to all humankind?” she asked. “Nuclear achieves this goal.”
Shellenberger: The first presenter to take the screen was Shellenberger, president of the research and policy organization Environmental Progress and author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. He acknowledged upfront that the earth is warming and that the main cause is anthropogenic. “It’s mostly from fossil fuels, but also from land use changes,” he added.
Shellenberger also acknowledged the rise in sea levels, which is occurring about twice as fast as during pre-industrial periods. “It’s certainly something we’ll need to adapt to, but we have a long time,” he said. “It’s a very slow-moving process. Anybody who’s been to the Netherlands knows that humans are capable of living seven meters below sea level. The Netherlands became a wealthy country as it adapted to life below sea level. In fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s a wealthy country because it is so technologically sophisticated that it could adapt to life below sea level. And now the Dutch are working with people in Bangladesh to make sure that they can adapt to climate change and rising sea levels.”
The warming of the planet and its effect on sea levels are “not the end of the story,” Shellenberger insisted. “And it’s important for us to consider different facts as we consider the future before us. The first is that the United States is now the global climate leader. The United States saw the largest decline in energy-related CO2 emissions on a per country basis in 2019. This is a radical change from just 15 or 20 years ago, when the United States was considered the global climate villain.”
Further, according to Shellenberger, the world is not seeing an increase in droughts, despite the reality of global warming. Instead, agricultural yields continue to rise, as “energy inputs, particularly fertilizer, irrigation, and the use of tractors and roads increases.” Shellenberger pointed to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finding that these inputs greatly outweigh any anticipated impact of climate change.
Plus, extreme poverty has declined from 44 percent to 10 percent over the past 40 years, Shellenberger said, calling the drop “one of humankind’s greatest achievements.” He also denied that the world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, noting that less than 1 percent of all species measured have gone extinct over the past 500 years. “You would need to have 75 percent or more of our species at risk of extinction, whereas just 6 percent are,” he said. “And, in fact, we’ve done a really great job in increasing the number of protected areas around the world since 1962.”
Other positives highlighted by Shellenberger include a 90 percent decline in deaths from natural disasters over the past 100 years, as well as some less-than-apocalyptic information regarding hurricanes. “We do not see an increase in economic damage from hurricanes when you account for the greater economic development,” he said. “The raw increase in damage is due simply to more economic wealth, more property in harm’s way. We also don’t see any increase in landfalling hurricanes in the United States.”
Regarding forest fires, Shellenberger bemoaned what he termed “irresponsible” and “politicized” media coverage. The main cause of high-intensity fires, he said, is bad forest management. “Climate dries the wood fuel out and extends the fire season, but the main cause of high-intensity fires is the suppression of the smaller fires, which are healthy to forests,” Shellenberger said. “Suppression allows the accumulation of wood fuel.” Climate change, he added, is “neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of high-intensity fires,” whereas “poor forest management is both necessary and sufficient.”
A strong nuclear advocate, Shellenberger also noted that “when you look at the share of electricity that nations generate from carbon-free power sources, it’s those nations with a lot of nuclear that have the most carbon-free generation.
In closing, Shellenberger said that while ANS is “a very technically oriented, very engineering oriented” organization, he hoped it would remain “cognizant of what I think is the more transcendent purpose of nuclear, which is that it’s the only form of energy that can lift everybody out of poverty while reducing humankind’s negative environmental impact.”
Mills: Comments from Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and strategic partner at Montrose Lane, centered not on climate change but rather on the idea that the world is about to rapidly transition to new, renewable energy sources—a notion with which he takes issue.
“It’s rhetorically silly, frankly—there’s no other word for it,” Mills said. “Every debate, every discussion, all the plans are focused not on nuclear, not on biofuels, not on switchgrass, not on ethanol, but on wind and solar and batteries. This is the monomaniacal obsession—batteries for storing grid power and for cars, of course, and wind and solar to make the electricity for the cars and for everything else. That is what is being proposed. And not just proposed. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on this strategy. Hundreds of billions have already been spent, and we get a few percent of the world’s energy from wind and solar so far. That’s not exactly a fast transition.”
On the subject of electrifying the transportation sector, Mills sees no evidence that the number of electric vehicles will increase to that forecast by the International Energy Agency—100 million on the road by 2030. More important, he said, even if that number is achieved, the impact on global oil demand will be minor, lowering global oil demand by only about 5 percent.
Where a rapid transition to electric vehicles would have a major impact, however, is on the global mining of minerals, according to Mills. “It is an astonishing switch in the world’s energy systems in terms of the total fuel cycle to go from liquids and gases to batteries and wind and solar,” he said. “The quantities of specific critical minerals required per automobile increase 300 to 600 percent when you go from a gas-powered car to an electric car. It’s not just in the battery. It takes three times more copper to make an electric car than it does to make an internal combustion engine vehicle. It takes more aluminum because you have to lighten the weight of the car because of the heavy weight of the battery.”
More important, Mills added, “It takes more of the critical energy minerals—things like nickel, molybdenum, lithium, cobalt, manganese, all that class of minerals. That has consequence in the mining sector. If you calculate the tons of materials that have to be mined and moved to produce batteries for the electric car world, and if you get to the year 2030 where only about 12 or 14 percent of all vehicles are electric, based on the International Energy Agency’s optimistic forecast, then you’re removing 50 million tons of materials per day.”
Putting that number in context, Mills noted that, currently, all of the world’s transportation is fueled with 5 million tons of oil per day. “This would be an astonishing, environmentally significant, economically significant increase in primary material movement,” he said. “It has energy implications, environmental implications, and geopolitical implications.”
Critical minerals will also be needed to construct wind and solar installations, Mills noted. “All told, if we were to meet the aspirations being proposed, world demand for these critical minerals will rise more than at any time in history,” he said. “It will be the largest increase in mining demand ever seen. It will increase demand for many of these critical minerals from 300 to 3,000 percent. None of these demands are made on the conventional energy system.”
In addition, Mills said that building what he termed “the green machines” will require at least 10 times the amount of concrete, steel, and glass needed for a natural gas or nuclear plant, in order to produce the same unit of energy.