Extinction Rebellion fact checks pro-nuclear front groups

The following is a statement from Extinction Rebellion, UK, in light of misrepresentations of their movement by a former team member now working for a pro-nuclear front group. It alleges that Environmental Progress, its new employee, Zion Lights, its founder, Michael Shellenberger, and the group’s predecessor, Breakthrough Institute (still operating as well) have ties to big corporations and to climate denial.

There have been a number of stories in the press in the last few weeks with criticisms about Extinction Rebellion by Zion Lights, UK director of the pro-nuclear lobby group Environmental Progress. It appears that Lights is engaged in a deliberate PR campaign to discredit Extinction Rebellion. 

For any editors who might be considering platforming Lights, we would like to make you aware of some information about the organisation she works for and her employer, Michael Shellenberger


Environmental Progress is a pro-nuclear energy lobby group. While the group itself was only established in 2016, its backers and affiliates have a long and well-documented history of denying human-caused climate change and/or attempting to delay action on the climate crisis. A quick look at groups currently promoting Zion Lights through their social media channels include climate deniers and industry lobbyists such as The Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Genetic Literacy Project (formerly funded by Monsanto).* 

Michael Shellenberger, at a TED Talk, “has a record of spreading misinformation around climate change,” says XR. (Photo: TED/Wikimedia Commons)

The founder of Environmental Progress, Michael Shellenberger, has a record of spreading misinformation around climate change and using marketing techniques to distort the narrative around climate science. He has a reputation for downplaying the severity of the climate crisis and promoting aggressive economic growth and green technocapitalist solutions.

Shellenberger appeared on the Tucker Carlson Show on Fox News just last week to say that the forest fires currently raging in California are due to “more people and more electrical wires that they’ve failed to maintain because we’ve focused on other things like building renewables” and we’ve been “so focused on renewables, so focused on climate change.”

In his recent book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts us All, Shellenberger argues that there are no limits to growth and that environmental problems can be solved by everyone getting richer. The book has been widely criticised by many respected scientists both for its central premise and its misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misuse of the facts. (See here and here.)

His stance on fundamental and vitally important points of scientific consensus around the climate crisis is flat out wrong. In his essay promoting his book published in June of this year on the Environmental Progress website and The Australian – ‘On behalf of environmentalists, I apologise for the climate scare’ – he claims that “climate change is not making natural disasters worse” and that “Humans are not causing a ‘sixth mass extinction”. He also argues that “fires have declined 25% around the world since 2003,” and, “The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California.” These claims contradict reports from the IPCC and misrepresent the discussion taking place in the scientific community

One science advisor with Environmental Progress, respected MIT climate expert Professor Kerry Emanuel, spoke publicly about being “very concerned” about the essay, and felt unsure whether he would remain involved with the organisation. 

The article was published in Forbes, before being pulled offline the same day for violating its code of ethics around self-promotion. 

The Extinction Rebellion is urging media to research the facts before giving headlines to representatives from pro-nuclear lobby groups. (Photo: John Englart/Creative Commons)

A key tactic from the climate delayer playbook used in the essay is that of the repentant environmentalist, according to investigative journalist, Paul Thacker. After gaining credibility by aligning themselves with a section of the environmental movement, the repentant environmentalist then performs a volte face and attacks their former position. 

This tactic has also been used by Zion Lights, who first overstated her role within Extinction Rebellion (she was a member of the media team, not ‘co-lead’ as stated on the Environmental Progress website) and then denounced the movement following an apparent change of heart.


Shellenberger is co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a lobbying group masquerading as a “think tank”. The Breakthrough Institute has “a clear history as a contrarian outlet for information on climate change [which] regularly criticises environmental groups”, according to Paul Thacker. Breakthrough has also been described as a “program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune.” 

Shellenberger co-founded the Breakthrough Institute with Ted Nordhaus, nephew of economist, William Nordhuas. William Nordhaus features in Merchants of Doubt – Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s examination of the PR strategies used both by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. His interventions in the 1990s helped set back essential action on climate change by decades. 

Other figures associated with Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute include:

  • Owen Paterson, one of the UK’s most prominent climate deniers who helped with the UK launch of the group’s Ecomodernist manifesto in 2015.
  • Matt Ridley, coal mine owner, once hereditary Conservative Peer and famous climate delayer / ‘lukewarmist’ who spoke at the UK launch event.


In an interview for BBC’s Hard Talk last year, one of Extinction Rebellion’s co-founders, Roger Hallam, said that “6 billion people will die” from climate breakdown. The figure was understandably questioned at the time and Zion Lights and others have used this repeatedly to try to undermine Extinction Rebellion’s credibility. 

Roger Hallam, who, unlike Zion Lights’s claims about her former XR status, IS a leader of Extinction Rebellion. (Photo: Steve Eason/WikimediaCommons)

However, during his Hard Talk appearance, Roger was referring to an interview that Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, printed in the Guardian. Rockström was quoted as saying that in a 4°C-warmer world, “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that… There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world.” Rockström is one of the world’s leading researchers on climate “tipping points” and “safe boundaries” for humanity.  

After Hard Talk was broadcast, Rockström approached the Guardian for a correction. The journalist had misheard ‘8’ for ‘a’, he said and the quote was changed to, “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate eight billion people or maybe even half of that.” Even by Rockström’s own amendment, he still finds it hard to believe even half of the current population would be able to survive 4 degrees of warming. Whether the loss of life is in the order of one billion or six billion, the prospect is nonetheless horrifying.

You can find a note on the amendment at the bottom of the article.

Our agriculture and our civilisation developed in a stable world. As we move into an increasingly unstable one – with temperatures on track to rise hundreds of times faster than at any period in the last 65 million years – we are entering uncharted territory.

Our climate and our human systems –  the flow of people, goods, money, and information, as well as our ability to grow food and water, and generate energy –  are all interdependent. How this complex human web will respond to climate and ecological breakdown is impossible to model precisely, but we know that even minor changes in similarly complex systems can cause nonlinear – I.e. major/disproportionate – change.There is a real risk that should multiple climate/ecological shocks hit at once, entire systems could fail or be heavily disrupted, causing ‘synchronous failure’ whose devastating effects would be felt across the world. 

Our lack of scientific understanding about how and when this ‘synchronous failure’ could play out is profound and terrifying, given how rapidly we’re entering the unknown.

Nonetheless, leading scientists (including Sir David King, Kevin Anderson, Will Steffen and Aled Jones) are also warning of catastrophic consequences if we continue on our current path.

Extinction Rebellion is highlighting this risk, not to scaremonger but because leading scientists are doing so in peer-reviewed academic journals and media outlets. A group of scientists in Extinction Rebellion have now published an extensive document which has been vigorously peer reviewed. You can read it here.  

Zion Lights, Michael Shellenberger, the Breakthrough Institute and their associated deniers and delayers are intentionally spreading doubt about the severity of the crisis and the action needed to respond to it. 

We hope that any editors considering offering a platform to Lights, Shellenberger or others associated with the Breakthrough Institute, will first perform journalistic due diligence and interrogate their motivations and credibility.

If you have insider knowledge about efforts to cover-up the true scale of the climate and ecological crisis, visit

*This statement has been amended to remove a line which categorised Mark Lynas under the term “climate denier/delayer” because of his association with the Breakthrough Institute, co-authoring of the Ecomodernist manifesto, and criticism of misrepresentation of the science around GMOs.

Extinction Rebellion UK, released this statement as a press release on September 16, 2020.

Headline photo by Lorie Shaull/Creative Commons.

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