Book Review

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning by George Monbiot

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning by George Monbiot

This is an extract from the Preface of George Monbiot's Heat: How we can stop the planet burning (reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher) In addition, below we also produce the Introduction to the book.

You might have expected me to welcome the Stern report, because in important respects it appears to chime with the message of this book. I did, at first. But the more I have thought about it, the less I like it. The biggest problem is this: that the calculations Stern uses are nonsensical. On one side of the equation are the costs of investing in new technologies (or not investing in old ones) in order to prevent emissions from rising above his chosen level. On the other side are the costs of climate change. Some of these are financial - food prices could rise, for example; sea walls will need to be built. But most of them take the form of costs which have hitherto been regarded as incalculable: the destruction of ecosystems and human communities; the displacement of people from their homes; disease and death. All these costs are thrown together by Sir Nicholas with a formula he calls "equivalent to a reduction in consumption", to which he then attaches a price.

Stern explains that this "consumption" involves not just the consumption of goods we might buy from the supermarket, but also the consumption of "education, health and the environment." He admits that this formula "raises profound difficulties", especially the "challenge of expressing health (including mortality) and environmental quality in terms of income". But then he uses it anyway. The global disaster unleashed by a 5-6° rise in temperature is "equivalent to a reduction in consumption" of 5-20%.

In what way is it equivalent? It is true that as people begin to starve they will consume less, in both the broad and narrow senses. It is also true that when they die they cease to consume altogether. I can accept that a unit of measurement, which allows us to compare the human costs of different spending decisions, might be necessary. But Stern's unit (a reduction in consumption) incorporates everything from the price of eggs to the pain of bereavement. He then translates it into a "social cost of carbon", measured in dollars. He has, in other words, put a price on human life. Worse still, he has ensured that this price is lost among the other prices: when we read that the "social cost of carbon" is $30 a tonne, we don't know - unless we read the whole report - how much of this is made of human lives.

This then leads to a disastrous consequence of Stern's methodology, unintended but surely obvious. Stern's report shows that the dollar losses of failing to prevent a high degree of global warming outweigh the dollar savings arising from not taking action. It therefore makes economic sense to try to prevent runaway climate change. But what if the result had been different? What if he had discovered that the profits accruing from burning more fossil fuels exceeded the social cost of carbon? We would then find that it makes economic sense to kill people.

That sounds ridiculous. But it was, in effect, the conclusion of another report commissioned by the British government, and written by the former chief executive of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington. Sir Rod was asked to advise the government on the links between transport and the UK’s economic growth. He found that even when the costs of climate change, as calculated by Sir Nicholas, are taken into account, the total costs of expanding the UK's airports and road networks are lower than the amount of money to be made. Though he never spelt it out in these terms (I can find no evidence in his report that he has even understood the implications), Eddington discovered that it makes economic sense for people to die in order that we can travel more.

Those who will feel most of the costs of climate change do not live in the United Kingdom. The people of the tropics will be hit hardest, particularly the people living in habitats that are already marginal in terms of food production. Hardly any of the benefits of improving the UK's transport networks accrue to the Ethiopians or the Malawians. They suffer only the costs. Eddington has decided that it makes economic sense for other people to die, in order that we can travel more freely. I do not believe we have the right to make that decision.


The Failure of Good Intentions

The god thou servest is thine own appetite.
Doctor Faustus, Act II, Scene 11

Two things prompted me to write this book. The first was something that happened in May 2005, in a lecture hall in London. I had given a talk about climate change, during which I had argued that there was little chance of preventing runaway global warming unless greenhouse gases were cut by 80 per cent. The third question stumped me.

'When you get your 80 per cent cut, what will this country look like?"

I hadn't thought about it. Nor could I think of a good reason why I hadn't thought about it. But a few rows from the front sat one of the environmentalists I admire and fear most, a man called Mayer Hillman. I admire him because he says what he believes to be true and doesn't care about the consequences. I fear him because his life is a mirror in which the rest of us see our hypocrisy.

"That's such an easy question I'll ask Mayer to answer it."

He stood up. He is 75, but looks about 50, perhaps because he goes everywhere by bicycle. He is small and thin and fit-looking, and he throws his chest out and holds his arms to his sides when he speaks, as if standing to attention. He was smiling. I could see he was going to say something outrageous.

"A very poor third-world country."

At about the same time I was reading Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. Henry Perowne comes home from his game of squash and steps into the shower.

When this civilisation falls, when the Romans, whoever they are this time round, have finally left and the new dark ages begin, this will be one of the first luxuries to go. The old folk crouching by their peat fires will tell their disbelieving grandchildren of standing naked midwinter under jet streams of hot clean water, of lozenges of scented soaps and of viscous amber and vermilion liquids they rubbed into their hair to make it glossy and more voluminous than it really was, and of thick white towels as big as togas, waiting on warming racks.

Was I really campaigning for an end to all this? To ditch the comforts Perowne celebrates and which I – like all middle-class people in the rich world – now take for granted?

There are aspects of this civilization I regret. I hate the lies and the political corruption, the inequality, the export of injustice, the military adventures, the destruction of wild places, the noise, the waste. But in the rich nations most people, most of the time, live as all prior generations have dreamt of living. Most of us have a choice of work. We have time for leisure, and endless diversions with which to fill it. We may vote for any number of indistinguishable men in suits. We may think and say what we want, and though we might not be heeded, nor are we jailed for it. We may travel where we will. We may indulge ourselves 'up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics'. We are, if we choose to be, well-nourished. Women – some women at any rate – have been released from domestic servitude. We expect effective healthcare. Our children are educated. We are warm, secure, replete, at peace.

For the first two million years of the history of the genus Homo, we lived according to circumstance. Our lives were ruled by the vicissitudes of ecology. We existed, as all animals do, in fear of hunger, predation, weather and disease.

For the following few thousand years, after we had developed a rudimentary idea of agriculture and crop storage, we enjoyed greater food security, and soon destroyed most of our non-human predators. But our lives were ruled by the sword and the spear. We fought, above all, for land. We needed it not just to grow our crops but also to provide power – grazing for our horses and bullocks, wood for our fires.

Then we began to discover some of the opportunities afforded by fossil fuels. No longer were we constrained by the need to live on ambient energy; we could support ourselves by means of the sunlight stored – in the form of carbon – over the preceding 350 million years. The new fuels permitted the economy to grow – to grow sufficiently to absorb some of the people dispossessed by the previous era's land disputes. Industry and cities boomed. Forced together within the workplace and the warren, the dispossessed could start to organize. The despots empowered by the seizure of land were forced to loosen their grip.

Fossil fuels helped us to fight wars of a horror never contemplated before, but they also reduced the need for war. For the first time in human history – indeed for the first time in biological history – there was a surplus of available energy. We could survive without having to fight someone for the resources we needed. 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 have ever lived. Ours might also be the most fortunate generations that ever will. We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe.

Oh, those distant, sunny days of May 2005, when I believed this problem could be solved with a mere 80 per cent cut! After my talk, a man called Colin Forrest wrote to me. I had failed, he explained, to take note of the latest projections. He sent me a paper he had written whose argument (which I will explain at greater length in the next chapter) I could not fault.

If in the year 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today, the likely result is two degrees centigrade of warming (above pre-industrial levels). Two degrees is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it. Beyond this point, in other words, climate change is out of our hands: it will accelerate without our help. The only means, Forrest argues, by which we can ensure that there is a high chance that the temperature does not rise to this point is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by 2030. This is the task whose feasibility Heat attempts to demonstrate.

Heat is both a manifesto for action and a thought experiment. Its experimental subject is a medium-sized industrial nation: the United Kingdom. It seeks to show how a modern economy can be de-carbonized while remaining a modern economy. Though the proposals in this book will need to be adjusted in countries with different climates and of greater size, I believe the model is generally applicable: if the necessary cut can be made here, it can be made by similar means almost anywhere.

-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 19/06/2007

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0141026626
ISBN-13: 9780141026626
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication Date: 07/06/2007
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 320

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