May 29, 2007

George Monbiot: Heat

Posted in Monbiot George at 5:14 pm by John Self

George Monbiot – Guardian columnist, environmentalist – is probably not the man to persuade the doubters of the existence, and emergency, of global warming.  But then, anyone not persuaded by now – when the governments of even the most carbon-puffing countries recognise the importance of taking action immediately – simply doesn’t want to be.  Perhaps this is why Penguin have issued the paperback of Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning in a jaunty, cheesy, eye-catching cover, which looks more like an advert for a book than a book itself.

And although Monbiot’s main case is to show how we can reasonably and relatively painlessly make a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 – the figure he calculates is needed to prevent significant climatic catastrophe – he does use the first two chapters to hammer home the argument for action once again.  All the old deniers’ myths – atmospheric cooling, advancing glaciers, mini ice ages – are exploded, and Monbiot sums the position up as follows:

If you reject this explanation for planetary warming, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1.  Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide?

2.  Does atmospheric carbon dioxide raise the average global temperature?

3.  Will this influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide?

4.  Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide?

If you are able to answer ‘no’ to any of them, you should put yourself forward for a Nobel prize.  You will have turned science on its head.

He also reminds us that the link between manmade carbon emissions and global warming is as well established as the links between smoking and cancer, and HIV and Aids, and we learn that the former is relevant, as it was the tobacco industry in the early 1990s, seeking to disguise its funding of ‘junk science’ organisations by broadening their scope, which was in the vanguard of climate change denial.

But the majority of the book is a number-crunching attempt to evaluate which, if any, alternatives to our current lifestyle choices will best meet his target of 90% carbon reduction.  The fields he covers (and his general conclusions) are:

  • Home energy (jerry-builders bad, passivhauses good, but while we’re waiting for them, pay attention to energy ratings)
  • Electricity generation (offshore wind good, domestic turbines pointless – are you listening, David Cameron? – and a qualified approval for gas-fuelled power stations provided they use carbon capture and storage technology)
  • Transport (luxury coaches like on-road Tube trains approved, biodiesel bad, hydrogen fuel cells nice idea but not anytime soon: the essence of the problem is that “When you drive, society becomes an obstacle”)
  • Air travel (a lot of flailing around – “Becoming rather desperate now, I have looked into airships…” – before concluding that there is no simple answer.  We must simply stop flying “unless you believe that these activities are worth the sacrifice of the biosphere and the lives of the poor.  But I urge you to remember that these privations affect a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you”)
  • Retail waste (online shopping, combined with local produce, reduces packaging and the need for brightly lit and vigorously heated/refrigerated superstores)
  • Organisation and activism: www.stopclimatechaos.org, www.coinet.org.uk, www.campaigncc.org and other better known environmental groups

Monbiot is not wide-eyed with innocence, and never hesitates to dismiss an otherwise attractive scheme when he encounters problems with it.  And the book is furiously researched, with over 1,000 references in the 200 or so pages of the body of the text.

Nonetheless there are moments of either oversight or doubtful intention, such as his reliance on per-capita emissions where elsewhere he derides others who use relative measurements, insisting that absolute figures are the only appropriate ones to use.  Still, if this isn’t the most enjoyable or aesthetically thrilling book you read all year, it might well be the most important.  “For,” as Monbiot concludes, “the campaign against climate change is an odd one.  Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity.  It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less.  Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.”

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5 Comments »

  1. Nick said,

    John – A subject dear to my heart. Will make proper comment as and when broadband / internet cafes permit.

  2. Alan said,

    Good review, but one small point: per-capita emissions are not relative.

  3. John Self said,

    Um. OK. You might have to explain that to me, Alan. Or it might help if I expand on where my problem with Monbiot’s use of such measures lies. He says that China’s per capita emissions are one-twentieth (say) of the USA’s. This implies that the USA is many times worse than China in terms of emissions, and therefore that the US needs to get its house in order much more than China does (this is his point in the book). But China’s population is (say) four times that of the USA, so its total emissions are actually much closer to the USA’s than his per-capita figures suggest.

    Actually in today’s Guardian I see that the official figures are that per annum, the USA releases 5.9bn tonnes of CO2, and China 4.7bn tonnes. So the US is 1.25 times more polluting than China. But using populations of 1.3bn for China and 300m for the US, we see that the per-capita emissions would be 20 tons for the USA and 3.5 tons for China, thus making the US seem to be five times more polluting than China. I may have been wrong to describe this as a relative measure, but I do think it’s sloppy of Monbiot at best and misleading at worst.

  4. Nick said,

    Yes, we have to accept the idea of global warming – the evidence is overwhelming. My problem is how the 90% carbon reduction can be achieved by ad hoc, individual efforts rather than a global strategy by national governments. Particularly when consumption of just about everything – oil, electricity, water, cars, planes, gadgets – goes relentlessly up. Even the most prodigious measures by Mr and Mrs Worried are just whistling in the dark unless the whole “bigger and better” mentality is halted.

  5. Painless Reduction in Carbon by 80%

    (Another Inconvenient Truth ©)

    We have now produced a section in the Internet Public Library on the “Painless Reduction in Carbon by 80%”.

    This explains in fairly plain terms how this (painless 80% reduction) can easily and quickly be achieved.

    We are trying to promote some joined up thinking between the different energy camps including Government.

    The link to the page is…

    http://www.internet-public-library.org/carbon-reduction/painless-carbon-reduction.htm

    Please circulate.


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