Q&A: Michael Shellenberger plans major energy and education reforms if elected governor

May 27, 2022, 12:09 a.m.

On Monday, The Daily sat down with California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger. A decades-long champion of environmentalism and clean energy, Shellenberger now runs as an independent on a platform of thorough citizen-assembly based education reform and implementation of nuclear energy.

Having run as a Democrat in the 2018 California gubernatorial primaries and placing ninth out of 27, Shellenberger will face his second gubernatorial primary on June 7. Shellenberger and the incumbent Governor Gavin Newsom will face 13 Republicans, two Democrats, two members of the Green Party and seven other contenders unaffiliated with a party for a chance to advance to the general election — an opportunity reserved for the two greatest voter-getters.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: You have a very transformative education plan — would you mind describing it in detail and explaining why?

Michael Shellenberger [MS]: We’re in a total crisis in terms of public education. On average, less than a third of our public school students are proficient in math and less than half are proficient in reading. And student performance continues to worsen overtime.

The response from the governor has been to attempt to basically dumb down education for everybody which is grossly inappropriate and unfair to everybody. It’s also bad for society. We need educated people to be globally competitive, to be prosperous, to maintain our society and our civilization.

What I’m proposing is a citizens jury — which is a process of creating a randomly selected representative sample of the electorate — to deliberate the future of education in public and a series of townhall meetings for nine months. It would be done in multiple cities, and at the end of that process, those recommendations would go back to the legislature. Then the legislature will have its own hearings.

The problem in California has mostly been political. The teachers union has opposed greater school choice. But while teachers are important stakeholders in our schools, they should not be in charge of schools. Schools are the responsibility of the whole society.

TSD: As someone who once identified with the Democratic Party but walked away from it, what do you think your relationship could be with the legislature — which is dominated by the Democratic Party?

MS: One of mutual respect and open disagreement, I suspect. There may be a possibility of going to ballot initiatives.

The history of California over the last 50 years has heavily depended on direct voter ballot referendums. It’s more expensive to do it that way, it’s very high stakes and it doesn’t allow the deliberation that the legislative process allows.

We’d rather see things done through the legislature than through direct ballot initiatives. But when the legislature is captured by special interests, going directly to voters is often the only way to enact change.

TSD: On the topic of changes, you are a very large proponent of nuclear energy. How do you think that you will be able to implement it in California — where there is very strong resistance?

MS: There was very strong resistance when I started advocating for Diablo Canyon to remain open in 2016. We now see that there’s a plurality of voters support for keeping the application open. So we have seen a very significant shift in opinion on nuclear power in a very short period of time. 

I’m very proud of the role that I’ve played in that through my TED talks, my writings and my advocacy. As Governor, I’ll continue to play what I hope is a positive and educational role in getting nuclear greater acceptance. 

It also helps that we’re in the worst energy crisis and 50 years facing blackouts for the fourth season in a row. Those blackouts are a direct result of Gavin Newsom’s failure as a governor to build enough power plants. When things go wrong as a result of Gavin Newsom’s policies, he looks around for somebody to blame. And when he can’t find anybody to blame, he blames climate change. But of course, we’ve known about climate change since the late 1980s. Newsom epitomizes the irresponsible attitude towards governance in California, which is why we’re in simultaneous crises on homelessness, crime, energy and water. 

When used safely, nuclear is the safest way to make electricity. That may seem paradoxical, but the reality is that because nuclear power produces no air or water pollution, it has far fewer impacts on human health than fossil fuels do. It’s also far more concentrated than renewables, as solar and wind require 300-400 times more land than nuclear. We’ve been killing desert tortoises, the state reptile and a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

We wouldn’t do more solar in California. We have this beautifully operated and well maintained plant in Diablo Canyon that’s consistently classified by the US nuclear regulatory commission as one of the highest performing nuclear plants in the country. So not only will we keep Diablo Canyon operating, we will also explore whether we can build the first meltdown proof nuclear plant at Santa Onofre. There’s every reason that California should be a leader and innovation leader when it comes to nuclear rather than a laggard. 

TSD: You’ve done this a little bit, but how would you describe Gavin Newsom as a governor?

MS: Total failure. He’s failing the California people because he’s never cared about people beyond whether they can help him achieve his next office. When he was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he wanted to be mayor. When he was mayor, he wanted to be governor. When it was clear he couldn’t become governor, he accepted lieutenant governor. But then all he could focus on was being governor. Now all he cares about is becoming president either in 2024 or 2028. 

He is the worst of the Machiavellian politicians; he treats people as a means to an end rather than as an end. He kept our kids out of public schools in classroom instruction, even though he sent his own kids to classroom instruction or private schools. He’s not somebody of the people. He’s an elitist snob who never worked a day in his life for anything beyond the things that were given to him. His wealth was inherited, his power was inherited. He’s a legacy of the aristocratic class in California. Just look at his attitude. He wouldn’t wear masks while making little kids wear masks. 

A real leader will follow his own rules. And a real leader will impose sacrifices on himself before he imposes them on others. He does the opposite. Every time there’s a crisis, he looks for somebody else to blame. When he can’t find anybody to blame, he blames climate change. He epitomizes everything that’s wrong in California. He’s a product of good times. Good times create weak leaders, and weak leaders trade bad times. We’re in the midst of bad times, and we need a strong leader.

Jed Ngalande '23 is the politics and government beat reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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