Heat by George Monbiot
At the heart of human society sit fossil fuels. The coal and gas burnt to generate electricity, the petrol that we use as millions of cars clog up city streets or the kerosene powering the aircraft that make thousands of daily international flights. The burning of these fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases – primarily Carbon Dioxide. The gases that humans have already emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution will lead to an almost certain temperature rise of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. This is the global warming that is rapidly becoming one of the great political issues of the new century.
Already the world is hotter – 2003 was the hottest year in Europe since 1500 and these temperature changes are already having catastrophic effects around the world: melting polar ice, shrinking glaciers and an increase in the number of hurricanes being amongst some of the most obvious of these. In the introduction to his new book, environmentalist George Monbiot wearily documents the tragedies already occurring as a result of climate change (quoting insurance company Munich Re as saying the "number of extreme weather events of all kinds appears to have quintupled since the 1950s") and sets himself the task of explaining how further rampant climate change can be prevented.
Monbiot shows how the human consequences of global warming (never mind those to fragile eco-systems around the world) have already been catastrophic. The suffering in New Orlean’s Superbowl may have been the most visible of these, but no less is the suffering of those facing crop failures and flooding elsewhere. Even a small increase beyond the inevitable 2 degrees warming will have dramatic consequences. Monbiot points out that one piece of research shows that rice yields drop by 15% for every degree temperature increase, and a 2.3 degree temperature rise will expose around 200 million new people to the threat of malaria.
It is in this context that Monbiot sets himself the task of showing how Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced at the same time as keeping those reductions compatible with "industrial civilisation". Monbiot has no time for those environmentalists who believe in returning to some form of pre-industrial society. He admits his task was difficult, but believes that the UK (and by extension) the US and other industrial nations can implement strategies to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions by 90%. This is a startling and frightening figure, but it is what we in the industrialised West need to implement if we are to have any hope of saving the planet. Doing this successfully is perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge over the next few years.
Monbiot starts controversially – he points out the hypocrisy and double standards of some who claim to lead green lifestyles, yet still regularly fly around the globe. But he will also upsets other Green apple carts: some of his research has led him to believe that previously accepted practices such as arguing for localised wind turbines on home roofs will have limited effect.
What Monbiot does offer are concrete strategies in a variety of areas – power generation, transport, housing and retail for example. He proves, though sometimes it is hard, that we could achieve a 90% cut. In some cases (like transport) this is easy – a rapid switch towards public transport in the UK would lead to an almost immediate 90% cut in emissions. Proper insulation of homes and offices would do similar. What he doesn’t prove is how we get it done. In my mind, such dramatic changes to energy, transport and housing policies will require government and state intervention - investment to make the technology a reality and legislation to force companies to make the changes. This is unlikely to happen if left to the politicians who have vacillated long enough, rather we need a political movement to force them to do it. Monbiot explicitly doesn’t attempt to describe his vision of that movement and this I think is the book's real weakness – the reader is left with a desire to save the planet, but with limited options (other than the campaign groups listed in the books appendixes) about how to do it.
I do believe we can build the political movements required and Monbiot’s book is a manifesto for the sort of strategies we need – to this end, every activist should read the book and take its themes and arguments into their Trade Union branchs, their community group and their environmental organisations. But it is also a book that will create other activists, inspire more campaigners and encourage new people to argue that if human society is to survive, we have to radically alter the way we organise major aspects of it.