“Our freedoms, our comforts, our prosperity are all the products of fossil carbon, whose combustion creates the gas carbon dioxide, which is primarily responsible for global warming. Ours are the most fortunate generations that ever lived.”
George Monbiot, Heat
Recently, my editor asked me to save the world. Well, he asked me to look into it.
So I read books by an ex-politician, an environmentalist, and an economist, and was delighted and surprised: in each case, no shrill rhetoric, just reasoned, calmly convincing testimony about the climate crisis, what we can do about it, and how we can pay for it.
The “man who used to be the next president of the United States”, Al Gore, has written a glossy companion for the film of the same name, An Inconvenient Truth.
For such a grim subject, this is a gorgeous book. Super production values make it a dazzling creature, whose looks in no way detract from the substance within. Many of these handsome pages began life as slides in Gore’s climate change roadshow, which became his movie. And although a coffee table book about climate change science seems as unlikely as a movie that is basically an Al Gore lecture and power point presentation on climate change, both are important and engaging.
An Inconvenient Truth, the book, will be a great resource for those whose interest was ignited by the film, and who’d like to revisit any of the overwhelming number of examples of climate change presented in Gore’s slide show.
Gore offers a convincing, indeed undeniable, case for the reality of climate change. Chock-full of scary evidence, it’s an accessible starting point for those unfamiliar with environmentalism, adults and children alike, to face some horrific stuff.
The horrors begin with comparison pictures of the world’s shrinking glaciers. Some have nearly disappeared after only a few decades. Crazy weather patterns, sick oceans, dying coral, graphic representations of trends heading toward hell: Gore presents vile details in digestible nuggets, interspersed with a little Gore family history which distracts from, rather than enhances, the main message.
Higher temperatures globally are leading to polar melting. This threatens the existence of polar bears in the Arctic as they drown, having to swim greater distances before finding ice for rest. In Antarctica, the Emperor penguin is threatened. If the West Antarctic Ice Shelf melted or broke up and slipped into the sea, ocean levels could be raised by 20 feet world wide. That drowns a lot of cities. Like Beijing: 20 million people displaced. Or Calcutta and Bangladesh: 60 million homeless. Entire low-lying nations (like the Maldives or Tuvalu) gone.
On top of this polar melting,Greenland’s ice is being affected in ways not seen before. This may even result in a complete shutdown of the current generated in the north Atlantic, as salt water is diluted by fresh, cooling the warmGulf Stream and resulting in a European Ice Age.
And this is all pretty much because of carbon. Carbon dioxide emissions are directly responsible for the “greenhouse effect”, and they’re increasing. In order to check global warming and arrest climate change, we need to curb emissions.
An Inconvenient Truth shows a few methods for doing this, mainly at an individual level. However, its chief role is as introduction to this depressing crisis. Put it on your coffee table. Buy it for your kids. It’s an Important Book.
How we fix things requires deeper analysis.
Environmentalist George Monbiot heads directly to policy and politics for climate change solutions. In Heat, he argues that we must reduce out emissions substantially, to a life-changing degree. And backs his testimony with lots and lots of numbers.
In addition to an increasing amount of carbon dioxide emissions, the total capacity of the biosphere to absorb carbon is decreasing (from the current 4 billion tonnes to 2.7 billion). So, in order to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2% – a critical figure – global carbon output must decrease by 60% by 2030 – a critical date. If people in both developing and developed nations were to have the same entitlement (that is, to be fair), rich countries must reduce their output by more: an average cut of around 90%. (In fact carbon-addictedAustralia needs to cut emissions by 94%. Hard work, when our government won’t ratifyKyoto’s target of a 5.2% cut by 2012.)
Monbiot sees the need for government regulation. A preferable means of reducing our carbon consumption is rationing, effectively providing a carbon economy alongside the financial. He believes this is fairer than adding a carbon tax to everything, which would benefit the rich.
Monbiot believes that many in government feel that if they adopt a position based on science rather than politics, no one would take them seriously, but as people “begin to wake up to what the science is saying, climate-change denial will look as stupid as Holocaust denial”. He offers a judicious analysis of the “denial industry”, and merrily debunks anti-climate change allegations made in the press, linking the source of much data to organisations funded by Exxon Mobil.
Heat is a regimented manifesto for the environment movement.
To survive, we are going to have to make many changes. Although reducing energy consumption will reduce carbon burnt, this is not about efficient appliances. Monbiot considers the energy consumption of our homes, and the rather depressing concept (the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate) that efficiency could actually increase energy use: freeing up the money you would have spent on energy to spend on something else, which would probably also involve a “carbon cost”. The Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, if true, has a dire conclusion for the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (something that Australia and the US put together at the beginning of this year as an alternative to Kyoto, which relies on energy saving technological development reduction targets): it would not work.
Monbiot critically considers the wasteful energy habits of major shopping centres, and ponders cement and concrete. He takes a strict look at the transport system in the UK, with a damning view on biofuels, and a depressing analysis of the airline industry. It seems that if we are to survive, our flying days are over.
Carbon-offset accounting measures are rejected out of hand: “accurate accountancy for many carbon-offset projects … is simply impossible.” For example, planting trees means not planting – or not leaving – something else on the same land, or it may kill trees elsewhere. Or the forest may burn.
Monbiot provides a slight discussion on nuclear power, concluding that “I will provisionally place nuclear power second from last in my list of preferences, just above generation using coal from open-cast mines.” Carbon capture and storage is only a partial solution.
Analysis of renewable power leads to the possibility of offshore wind farms connected by high voltage direct current cables. “Micro power stations”, favoured by some environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, may be only a partial solution. Hydrogen power, also cited by Gore, is another possibility. Monbiot critically and thoroughly assesses the requirements of theUKgrid and provides a theoretical solution combining energy sources.
Thorough and packed with figures, Heat lacks a discussion in less quantifiable areas, such as overpopulation and deforestation. The environmental movement suffers when its supporters indulge in name calling and hypocrisy-spotting. In Heat, other environmentalists are outed for not being perfect. Coldplay’s Chris Martin cops Monbiot’s ire, for speaking out in favour of the environment while flying often and by private jet. Hypocrite Chris.
Overall, Monbiot’s dense manifesto demonstrates that, though difficult, it is possible to make the necessary technical and economical reductions to save the planet. The challenge lies in whether it’s politically possible.
One of the world’s most famous economists, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, states: “There will be grave problems ahead if everybody emits greenhouse gases at the rate at which Americans have been doing so. The good news is that this is, by now, almost universally recognized, except in some quarters inWashington.”
Stiglitz, former chairman at the World Bank and Chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, argues for a global system of emissions trading as part of his solutions presented in Making Globalization Work. Barriers to trade for polluters could be erected.
Stiglitz wishes to reform globalisation to make it universally fairer. Reform of global institutions is necessary to make trade equitable, assist developing countries, and save the planet.
Developing nations should be compensated for maintaining forests: carbon offset payments could provide resources and incentive to stop illegal logging. Polluters need to be discouraged, but he notes “it’s not surprising that the world’s worst polluter, theUnited States, which adds almost 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, pretends that it does not believe the evidence that there is a need to curtail its greenhouse gas emissions.”
Making Globalization Work discusses concepts in a manner that makes sense to lay readers. Stiglitz argues for fair trade. Trade liberalisation has been unsuccessful, and there must be greater opening of all markets. Poorly designed intellectual property regimes reduce access to medicine. “The lock on knowledge resulting from the granting of a patent might well impede follow-on research, or even applications.”
Both debt and unfair trade cripple developing nations, but Stiglitz explains that it’s the global reserve system that also hobbles many countries. Countries retain reserves (virtually all in $US) to manage various risks.
Taking into account costs like insurance and differences in interest rates, the actual cost of these reserves to developing nations is huge: more than $300 billion a year. By financing these loans in $US, the US is the major beneficiary here, but financing all these reserves also means that the US takes on (cheap) debt from poorer countries.
Stiglitz proposes a solution originally proposed by John Maynard Keynes: a new form of global currency for reserves. This currency could also be used for global public goods (i.e. health, or the environment) and “could demonstrate the global community’s commitment to global social justice” through distribution where needed. Carbon emissions could be accounted for in this currency.
We should save the world for many reasons. It makes moral sense to help the developing world. Stiglitz also puts forward a selfish case to do so.
“The advanced industrial countries have long benefited from the raw materials they get from the developing world. More recently, their consumers have benefited enormously from low-cost manufactured goods of increasingly high quality. But they have also been affected by illegal immigration, terrorism, and even diseases that move easily across borders. For many, helping those in the developing world, those who are poorer, is a moral issue. But increasingly, those in the advanced industrial countries are recognizing that such help is also a matter of self-interest. With stagnation, the threats of disorder from the disillusioned facing despair will increase; without growth, the flood of immigration will be difficult to stem; with prosperity, the developing countries will provide a robust market for the goods and services of the advanced industrial countries.”
In seeking global solutions across a range of issues, Stiglitz presents a more moderate tilt at reversing climate change than Monbiot, and in a tight, sometimes revolutionary, economic package. This, too, is an Important Book, even without the production values.
extract from An Inconvenient Truth
“There is a misconception that the scientific community is in a state of disagreement about whether global warming is real, whether human beings are the principal cause, and whether its consequences are so dangerous as to warrant immediate action. In fact, there is virtually no serious disagreement remaining on any of these central points that make up the consensus view of the world scientific community.
According to Jim Baker, when he was head of NOAA, the scientific agency responsible for most of the measurements related to global warming, ‘There is a better scientific consensus on this issue than any other … with the ppossible exception ofNewton’s Law of Dynamics.’ Donald Kennedy summarized this point when he said of the consensus on global warming: ‘Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science.’
Number of peer-reviewed articles dealing with ‘climate change’ published in scientific journals during the previous 10 years: 928
Percentage of articles in doubt as to the cause of global warming: 0%
Number of articles in the popular press about global warming during the previous 10 years: 636
Percentage of articles in doubt as to the cause of global warming: 53%
The misconception that there is serious disagreement among scientists about global warming is actually an illusion that has been deliberately fostered by a relatively small but extremely well-funded cadre of special interests, including Exxon Mobil and a few other oil, coal, and utilities companies. These companies want to prevent any new policies that would interfere with their current business plans that rely on the massive unrestrained dumping of global warming pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere every hour of every day.”