Climate Optimism: Do the Data Trends Point Toward Hope?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Apocalypse Never" by Michael Shellenberger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Where are climate trends headed? Should we be concerned or encouraged?

Many scientists and activists believe that the climate has already passed a tipping point and that environmental catastrophe is inevitable. Michael Shellenberger believes that environmental alarmists overstate their claims and that there’s a reason for hope for our planet’s future.

Keep reading to learn Shellenberger’s argument for climate optimism.

Reasons for Climate Optimism

Despite the widespread message that environmental disaster is just over the horizon, there are many trends in current climate data that give us solid reasons for climate optimism. Shellenberger highlights some encouraging climate trends and suggests an environmentally conscious way forward that makes human well-being a part of the solution instead of the problem.

To begin with, over the last 10 years, carbon emissions have gone down in the developed world, and credit can’t be given to recent environmental policies—for much of Europe, emissions started going down 50 years ago in tandem with the switch to nuclear power. Also in wealthy nations, the amount of land used for farming is shrinking, which is allowing forests to grow back. Even if damage from disasters is getting worse, the death toll from disasters has dropped 90% over the last hundred years, thanks in large part to technological advances that have greatly improved infrastructure, transportation, food distribution, and disaster response.

(Shortform note: Shellenberger presents what’s referred to in economics and philosophy as the Cornucopian view that technological progress will keep up with the demands of a growing global population. In The End of Doom, Ronald Bailey points to prior predictions of worldwide famine that did not come to pass thanks to advances in technology. Bailey and others who share his beliefs don’t argue that unlimited population growth is sustainable, but that technological and social progress can create the economic conditions for population numbers to stabilize and slowly decline, as they already have in many wealthy countries.)

Shellenberger says that, to solve the climate crisis, we should do what we can to accelerate these trends, which means bringing the advances of wealthy nations into the developing world. In place of nihilistic, apocalyptic scare tactics, the environmentalist movement should embrace humanism, the belief that human lives are of primary importance and that elevating people out of poverty and oppression will serve the greater good of all. Shellenberger argues that sharing the benefits of industry and technology can achieve the goal of restoring the planet, though not in ways that the current environmental movement would conceive of.

(Shortform note: Shellenberger’s “humanity first” interpretation of humanism clashes somewhat with more common definitions. The American Humanist Association says humanism is a rational philosophy that promotes ethical and compassionate behavior without relying on belief in God. Shellenberger’s views play into charges that humanism gives way to speciesism, a denial of the concept of animal rights. However, prominent humanists such as Peter Singer and comedian Ricky Gervais assert that humanist compassion for all sentient life extends to care for the natural world, especially in light of evidence that animals feel emotion as strongly as we do.)

Climate Optimism: Do the Data Trends Point Toward Hope?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Shellenberger's "Apocalypse Never" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Apocalypse Never summary:

  • An assessment of the climate crisis from a rational perspective
  • How climate change alarmists are doing more harm than good
  • The problems with renewable energy and why we should switch to nuclear

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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