You are currently viewing Book reviews: Apocalypse Never (Michael Shellenberger) and Unsettled (Steven E. Koonin)

Book reviews: Apocalypse Never (Michael Shellenberger) and Unsettled (Steven E. Koonin)

So I’ve gone back to my old habit of binge reading on mostly unrelated topics to my main work in the genetics-social science cluster. Climate science is a long running interest of mine, why not read some more of it!

Of the two, Koonin’s book will teach you a lot more about the data. It has a lot of figures, such as this one:

All of his plots are well made and teaches you something important. Above, warming is far from equal in every place. As a scientist, I enjoyed the Koonin book a lot more. It walks the reader through important concepts such as black body radiation and albedo, as well as looks at the various computer models in climate science. They aren’t very good at predicting stuff, it’s kinda embarrassing. Predictions are better made using simpler time series analysis models on the longest running data series. Some interesting quotes. On lying to the public ‘for a good cause’:

Although Schneider later spent many words trying to explain his statement about the “double ethical bind,” I believe the underlying premise is dangerously wrong. There should be no question about “what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” It is the height of hubris for a scientist even to consider deliberately misinforming policy discussions in service of what they believe to be ethical. This would seem obvious in other contexts: imagine the outcry if it were discovered that scientists were misrepresenting data on birth control because of their religious beliefs, for instance.

This kind of lying is actively defended by some. Curiously, it is always in the context of their own favorite political beliefs (Nathan Cofnas has written on this at length), which is a big red flag that something like this is never ever a good idea. On having too many plots:

One of the advantages of writing a book as opposed to an Op-Ed is that it allows not only a deeper discussion, but also the more liberal use of graphs. Please take them in stride. Graphs are the language of data and data is central to both the science and how it is communicated.

On the media circus:

It’s clear that media, politicians, and often the assessment reports themselves blatantly misrepresent what the science says about climate and catastrophes. Those failures indict the scientists who write and too-casually review the reports, the reporters who uncritically repeat them, the editors who allow that to happen, the activists and their organizations
who fan the fires of alarm, and the experts whose public silence endorses the deception. The constant repetition of these and many other climate fallacies turns them into accepted “truths.”

I think this stuff is mainly about controlling the public perception of science. I think the proper solution so this is simple: do a lot of anonymous surveys of scientists. Do them often to see any changes in views over time. Right now, the practice is simply to declare any convenient position to be the scientific consensus. If one shames opponents too much, few will speak up, and those who do, can easily be branded as cranks or loners. Surveys make this an impossibility. We should fund a lot more surveys of scientists on pretty much every topic. Science is not decided by majority vote, but perception of scientific opinion is often decided by majority vote in the media. This is a way to attack back.

Koonin’s background is pretty interesting combination of fossil fuel consulting and Obama politics:

About a year later, I understood the science and the societal challenges well enough to see that a straightforward synthesis of a handful of basic facts led directly to the conclusion that even stabilizing human influences was so difficult as to be essentially impossible. Saying that directly and publicly while I was working for BP (and later the Obama Department of Energy) would probably have gotten me fired. But I was able to reconcile my organizational responsibilities with my scientific integrity by simply organizing and presenting the data and letting others follow the arrows for themselves.

Humans have been inadvertently increasing the earth’s albedo for almost two centuries, as the burning of sulphur-laden coal produces tiny particles (aerosols) in the lower atmosphere that enhance the planet’s reflectivity. One of my first calculations upon joining BP in 2004 had to do with that aerosol cooling. The company was embarking on a campaign to brand natural gas as “a bridge to a low-carbon future,” as it produces only half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy as coal. However, I quickly estimated, literally on the back of an envelope, that a sizable portion of that CO 2 reduction would be negated by the loss of aerosol cooling from the coal. BP management was not pleased when I pointed that out.

Koonin’s book is lighter on the politics. Shellenberger’s book is the opposite. It is heavy on the history and politics, and features no plots at all, even when talking about quantitative topics. This is a major weakness in my opinion. Nevertheless, it teaches a lot of interesting things. Some quotes:

Nuclear is thus the safest way to make reliable electricity.22 In fact, nuclear has saved more than two million lives to date by preventing the deadly air pollution that shortens the lives of seven million people per year.23

For that reason, replacing nuclear energy with fossil fuels costs lives. A study published in late 2019 found that Germany’s nuclear phase-out is costing its citizens $12 billion per year, with more than 70 percent of the cost resulting from 1,100 excess deaths from “local air pollution emitted by the coal-fired power plants operating in place of the shutdown nuclear plants.”24

The safety of nuclear was recently promoted very well by Kurzgesagt:

The 24 study is:

  • Stephen Jarvis, Olivier Deschenes, and Akshaya Jha, “The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out” Working Paper 26598, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Cambridge, MA, December 2019,

Many countries have phased out nuclear electricity production in response to concerns about nuclear waste and the risk of nuclear accidents. This paper examines the impact of the shutdown of roughly half of the nuclear production capacity in Germany after the Fukushima accident in 2011. We use hourly data on power plant operations and a novel machine learning framework to estimate how plants would have operated differently if the phase-out had not occurred. We find that the lost nuclear electricity production due to the phase-out was replaced primarily by coal-fired production and net electricity imports. The social cost of this shift from nuclear to coal is approximately 12 billion dollars per year. Over 70% of this cost comes from the increased mortality risk associated with exposure to the local air pollution emitted when burning fossil fuels. Even the largest estimates of the reduction in the costs associated with nuclear accident risk and waste disposal due to the phase-out are far smaller than 12 billion dollars.

This stuff isn’t news in general. Similarly, Fukushima radiophobia resulted in pointless and harmful evacuations for no reason:

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in modern-day Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) was the worst nuclear energy accident in history. Plant operators lost control of an unauthorized experiment that caused a reactor to catch fire. There was no containment dome, and radioactive particulate matter escaped.

Gerry went to Belarus and Ukraine and kept going back regularly to study patients who developed thyroid cancer. She eventually created the Chernobyl Tissue Bank to preserve removed thyroid glands and make them widely available to researchers seeking to understand radiation’s impact.

According to the United Nations, twenty-eight firefighters died after putting out the Chernobyl fire, and nineteen first responders died in the next twenty-five years because of “various reasons” including tuberculosis, cirrhosis of the liver, heart attacks, and trauma.8 The U.N. concluded that “the assignment of radiation as the cause of death has become less clear.”

While the death of any firefighter is tragic, it’s worth putting that number in perspective. Eighty-four firefighters died in the United States in 2018, and 343 died during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.9

Gerry points out that the only public health impact from Chernobyl beyond the deaths of the first responders were twenty thousand documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under eighteen at the time of the accident. In 2017, the U.N. concluded that only 25 percent, five thousand, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation.10 In earlier studies, the U.N. estimated there could be up to sixteen thousand cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation by 2065, while to date there have been five thousand.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of only 1 percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be just 50 to 160 over an eighty-year lifespan.11

“Thyroid cancer is not what most people think of as a cancer,” said Gerry, “because it has such a low mortality rate when treated properly. Suddenly it becomes something you shouldn’t be so scared of. It’s not a death sentence. It shouldn’t reduce a patient’s life. The key is replacement hormones, and that wasn’t an issue because thyroxine is dirt cheap.”

What about non-thyroid cancers? The 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl claimed there was “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus.”12 That assertion is false: residents of those two countries were “exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). If there are additional cancer deaths they will be “about 0.6 percent of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes.”13

The WHO claims on its website that Chernobyl could result in the premature deaths of four thousand liquidators, but, says Gerry, that number is based on a disproven methodology. “That WHO number is based on LNT,” she explained, using the acronym for the linear no-threshold method of extrapolating deaths from radiation.

LNT assumes that there is no threshold below which radiation is safe, but people who live in places with higher background radiation, like my home state of Colorado, do not suffer elevated rates of cancer. In fact, residents of Colorado, where radiation is higher due to its altitude and its elevated soil concentration of uranium, enjoy some of the lowest cancer rates in the United States.14

In Fukushima, Thomas says, nobody will die from radiation they were exposed to because of the nuclear accident. The Japanese government awarded a financial settlement to a Fukushima worker’s family, after he claimed the accident caused his cancer. But the worker’s cancer was highly unlikely to have come from Fukushima, Gerry says, because the level of radiation that workers were exposed to was simply too low.

The problem started with the over-evacuation of Fukushima prefecture. About 150,000 people were evacuated but more than 20,000 have yet to be allowed to return home. While some amount of temporary evacuation might have been justified, there was simply never any reason for such a large and long-term evacuation. More than one thousand people died from the evacuation, while others who were displaced suffered from alcoholism, depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety.112

“With hindsight, we can say the evacuation was a mistake,” said Philip Thomas (unrelated to Gerry Thomas), a professor of risk management at the University of Bristol, who in 2018 led a major research project on nuclear accidents. “We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated.”113

The Colorado plateau is more naturally radioactive than most of Fukushima was after the accident.114 “There are areas of the world that are more radioactive than Colorado and the inhabitants there do not show increased rates of cancer,” said Gerry. And whereas radiation levels at Fukushima declined rapidly, “those [other] areas stay high over a lifetime, since the radiation is not the result of contamination but of natural background radiation.”

Even residents living in areas of Fukushima with the highest levels of soil contamination were unaffected by the radiation, according to a major study of nearly eight thousand residents in the three years since the accident.115

And so on. But innumerate people are in power, so these kind of considerations are swept aside in favor of posting fake but scary looking plots of radiation.

While critics of nuclear usually attack it on phony grounds, sometimes some of them are more honest. Nuclear power is simply too good:

The clash resolved itself when Malthusians including Ehrlich accepted a redistributive agenda of rich nations assisting poor nations with development aid so long as that money went to charity and not things like infrastructure. This was the seed of what the UN would christen “sustainable development.”79

Lovins, for his part, married the demand for energy scarcity to a romantic vision of a “soft energy” future that rejected the infrastructure of the rich world. In 1976, Foreign Affairs published a thirteen-thousand-word essay by Lovins making the case for small-scale energy production instead of large-scale power plants.80

Where electricity from large power stations had been viewed in the New Deal era and before as progressive—liberating people from such tasks as washing clothes by hand and providing a clean alternative to wood-burning stoves—Lovins viewed electricity as authoritarian, disempowering, and alienating. “In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you,” he wrote.81

The Malthusians significantly modified Malthus. Where Malthus warned that overpopulation would result in a scarcity of food, Malthusians in the 1960s and 1970s warned that energy abundance would result in overpopulation, environmental destruction, and societal collapse.

Ehrlich and Lovins said they opposed nuclear energy because it was abundant. “Even if nuclear power were clean, safe, economic, assured of ample fuel, and socially benign,” Lovins said, “it would still be unattractive because of the political implications of the kind of energy economy it would lock us into.”82

Behind advocacy ostensibly motivated by concerns for the environment lay a very dark view of human beings. “It’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy,” said Lovins, “because of what we would do with it.”83 Ehrlich agreed. “In fact, giving society cheap, abundant energy at this point would be the moral equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”84

Ehrlich types are essentially eco-fascists like Unabomber. The goal is retvrn to nature. What better way to do this than to remove the drivers of technological process, efficient energy production?

Here again I will reiterate my nuclear shilling. In fact, I had previously published a not very well written study showing that higher intelligence is associated with more support for nuclear power, as one would expect from a technocratic perspective. It would be interesting to re-do this study with better measures of scientific knowledge and overall politics. Nuclear power benefits in a nutshell:

  • Reliable energy production.
  • Very effective in W/m².
  • Very effective in fuel use.
  • Cheap, adjusted for pointless regulations.
  • Very safe (very low deaths/KWh) even including all the worst disasters, and especially considering years of life lost calculations and improvements in cancer treatments.
  • Fringe benefit of radioactive materials for the medical sector.
  • Avoidance of reliance on Islamic oil countries. In fact, one can extract fuel from seawater if need be, avoiding any reliance on any foreign country as this can be done in international waters if desired.
  • Produces bomb materials for safety purposes: MAD is a very successful military strategy that any developed country should use.