John Kane-Berman’s latest foray into environmental issues smacks more than somewhat of desperation. Having failed in any of his previous pieces to come up with any remotely credible scientific sources to back his opinions on what is clearly a scientific issue, he has resorted, “at last”, to referencing an article written by an erstwhile climate activist named Michael Shellenberger. Whenever I am referred to articles by people I have never heard of on subjects I am interested in, I have a process which I go through. Let me use this case as an example.
I start, even before reading the article concerned, by trying to find out what I can about the author. As far as formal qualifications are concerned, Mr Shellenberger has a masters degree in cultural anthropology. Since his teens he has been an activist on a number of fronts, which have been mainly environmental over the last couple of decades. I have found no reference to any professional activity other than activism. He has apparently never been involved in any kind of formal environmental research.
From there I read the actual article referred to by Mr Kane-Berman. It was immediately clear that the purpose of the article is not to be a source of environmental information, but is rather to promote Mr Shellenberger’s recently published book “Apocalypse Never – why environmental alarmism hurts us all”. Promoting a book one has written is not only a very valid and sensible undertaking, but is probably even a precondition in order for the publishers to accept the book.
The tactics used to promote the book include making controversial statements which, one assumes, will be explained and substantiated if one purchases it. As Mr Kane-Berman points out, creating controversy should boost sales of his book. These statements, some described as “facts few people know”, others as “highlights from the book”, include some of a technical nature and clearly relevant to environmental issues.
An example is Mr Shellenberger’s assertion that climate change is not making natural disasters worse. I am unqualified to judge the veracity of such statements, and look to other sources in order to form a judgement as to their accuracy. Others are obviously true, but of obscure relevance.
It is undeniable that, as Mr Shellenberger points out, Netherlands is a wealthy country despite much of it being below sea level, but so what? And others are just a mystery. He states, without explanation, that a colonialist approach to gorilla conservation in the Congo may have resulted in the killing of 250 elephants. Where does that fit in a book on environmental science? Leaving such questions hovering in the air is a valid ruse to arouse interest in order to enhance sales, but in and of itself does little to enhance understanding.
In order not to rely solely on Mr Kane-Berman’s assessment of the article I sought the opinions of people I would deem competent to pass judgement. I found a source in the form of a review of the article at the address given in the reference below. This review included overall comments from climate scientists working at institutions such as UCLA and MIT, followed by more detailed comments on particular sections of the article.
Without getting into any of the extensive detail, the overall conclusion was that the article is of low scientific credibility. It also casts doubt upon Mr Shellenberger’s claim to have been invited as an expert reviewer of the IPCC report – anyone can apply to become a reviewer. It is only fair to point out that this review has in turn been criticised, but only by people who do not have a background in climate science, as far as I can see. One of them is an “independent scholar with a keen interest in political theology”. I’m serious!
At this stage I would like to emphasise two points. Firstly, I would like to be clear that what is under discussion is not Mr Shellenberger’s book, but is rather the article promoting it which Mr Kane-Berman referenced in his own article. The book itself might well be a thoroughly worthwhile read and make clear and reasonable arguments about the claims the author makes, although early critiques of it suggest that this seems unlikely. I have not read the book, and it would seem from his article that neither has Mr Kane-Berman.
Secondly, as the subtitle of Mr Shellenberger’s book indicates, a general theme of Mr Shellenberger’s is that environmental activists have been overly sensationalist and alarmist in expressing their views.
With this I definitely agree. In my ideal world sensationalism would be limited to the society and entertainment pages of the media. Weighty matters affecting the wellbeing of humankind and the world in general should be handled in a factual and dispassionate manner.
Sadly, of course, in our current society any media house reporting in such a manner would go out of business in short order, and activists of all convictions take advantage of this to gain attention for their causes by, in some cases, outrageous claims and behaviours. I really believe that Mr Kane-Berman and I could find common ground on this issue, but it is misleading to conflate the behaviour of activists with the validity of their cause.
So there we have it. To summarise the approach I recommend for those interested in Mr Kane-Berman’s article, first read the Shellenberger article itself, then Mr Kane-Berman’s take on it, and then look for the views of people whose judgement about the immensely complex issues involved in environmental science you trust.
Then be your own judge as to whether you agree with Mr Kane-Berman that an article written by an individual ex-activist promoting a book he has written forms a sound basis to rubbish the work of thousands of climate scientists spread across the globe, or agree with me that Mr Kane-Berman using the Shellenberger article as support for his views on climate science seems very much like a drowning man clutching at a rather waterlogged straw.
The Shellenberger article has been widely spread across the web. For example, it can be found here.
The critical review referenced can be found here.