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How to Stop the Planet From Burning

We know that climate change is happening. But can it be stopped? George Monbiot's book "Heat" shows how it can.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from George Monbiot's Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning (South End Press, 2007).

All over Washington, you can hear the giant scraping sound of officials and legislators frantically back-tracking. After years of obfuscation, denial, and lies about climate change, all but the most hardened recidivists are rebranding themselves as friends of the earth.

In February, two senior White House officials published an open letter seeking to correct inaccurate stories in the press "that the President's concern about climate change is new. In fact," they reported, "climate change has been a top priority since the President's first year in office." To prove it, they had found 37 words Bush said about the subject in 2001; 46 words in 2002; and 32 words in January 2007. In January 2007 he had even managed to say "climate change." This demonstrated, they claimed, that he has shown "continued leadership on the issue."

Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are falling over themselves to show how they have sought to save the world. The Senate's vote in 1997-95 to zero-to sink the Kyoto Protocol before it was signed has been forgotten. Joe Barton's congressional Inquisition, in which scientists who refused to alter their results to suit the oil companies were questioned as if they were members of Al Qaeda, never happened. Even Larry Craig, once one of the Senate's most outspoken climate change deniers, now claims that he has been helping to lead the world "toward cleaner technologies." Only Senator James Inhofe, last of the dinosaurs, still maintains that efforts to prevent climate change amount to nothing more than "profiteering" and "chicanery." After the war, almost everyone becomes a member of the Resistance.

George Bush's government has sought to sabotage every effective international effort to prevent global warming. It recruited China and India to an "alternative Kyoto" (the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development), without targets or sanctions, in order to prevent them from signing a binding treaty.

Then it has announced that as India and China haven't signed a binding treaty, neither can the United States. It has all but wrecked the talks attempting to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. But the inconvenient truth we seek to forget is that the Clinton-Gore administration did even greater damage.

Bush might have pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, but the Clinton administration destroyed the Protocol as an effective instrument-for everyone. It insisted on measures which allow countries to trade hot air and launder fake cuts. It encouraged other countries to reduce their targets (and thereby allow a higher level of emissions).

In his speech to the Kyoto conference in December 1997, Al Gore used the same mendacious formula George Bush now employs, claiming that limiting carbon emissions the US might otherwise have produced in a hypothetical future equates to real cuts in actual emissions. It was one of the most disgraceful moments in the Clinton presidency, and is impossible to reconcile with the subsequent career of the former next president of the United States.

Clinton failed to submit the protocol to the Senate, Bush refused to do so. There is little practical difference. Beyond avoiding responsibility, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have argued that the US is actually saving the world by investing billions in developing new, low carbon technologies. It is true that many of the most exciting developments have come from the United States.

But tackling climate change, like dieting, is as much about what you don't do as what you do. Developing low carbon technologies without cutting your emissions is like eating two Big Macs, four donuts and an ice cream sundae and then, to be healthy, also eating a salad. Unless the new technologies replace fossil fuel burning-rather than simply supplementing it-they cannot reduce a nation's emissions.

Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning 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.

I realize that my proposal that the US reduces its output of carbon dioxide by over 90 percent by 2030 must look quixotic. But Bush, and Gore in his previous incarnation, are not America. All over the US, state and municipal governments are seeking to salvage the nation's global reputation. At the time of writing, five bills are being debated in the Senate, all of which attempt to cap the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Some have more merit than others, but the very existence of these bills was unimaginable 10 years ago, when the Byrd-Hagel Resolution torpedoed the Kyoto Protocol.

Ten states are suing the EPA over its failure to regulate carbon dioxide pollution. The state of California recently passed, and is currently fighting off challenges to, its Global Warming Solutions Act, which proposes to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In these plans and others lurk plenty of false promises. California's act, for example, relies heavily on carbon storage by agriculture and forestry: strategies which are far from proven and pretty close to disproven, especially when recent findings about the effects of tree cover in temperate regions on the planet's reflectivity are considered.

But there are also bold proposals to cut emissions from cars and power stations, and to invest massively in renewable energy. As we saw in 1941, if any country can turn its economy around in an instant, it is the United States. I have mentioned that one of the gifts fossil fuels have granted us is freedom: freedom to choose how we should live, to go where we wish, to buy what we want.

A 90 percent cut in our emissions of carbon dioxide is, I admit, an inherently narrow constraint. I did not invent it -- it is what the science appears to demand. But within that constraint, we should be free to live as we wish. The need to tackle climate change must not become an excuse for central planning. The role of government must be to establish the limits of action, but to guarantee the maximum of freedom within those limits. And it must help us by ensuring that even within those constraints, life remains as easy as possible.

After looking at what the impacts of unrestrained climate change might be, and at why we have been so slow to respond to the threat, I begin my search for solutions within my own home. I show how years of terrible building, feeble regulations and political cowardice have left us with houses scarcely able to perform their principal function, which is keeping the weather out. I look at the means by which our existing homes could be redeemed and better ones could be built, and discover what the physical and economic limits of energy efficiency might be.

I then seek to determine how best their energy might be supplied. Before I began my research on that subject, I thought it would be quite easy to cover: I would need only decide whether we should use wind, waves or solar power, or nuclear energy, or biomass, or a means of stripping carbon dioxide from the exhausts of power stations. But the more I read, the more difficult and contradictory the questions became.

The three chapters dealing with this issue are the most technically complex in the book. I believe -- though by the skin of my teeth -- that I might have found a workable solution. Next I show how a new system for land transport could cut carbon emissions by 90 percent with scarcely any reduction in our mobility. But when I come to examine aviation, I discover that there are simply no effective technological solutions: in this chapter I have failed in my attempt to reconcile the luxuries we enjoy with the survival of the biosphere, and I am forced to conclude that the only possible answer is a massive reduction in flights.

Then I look at two industrial sectors -- retailing and cement manufacture, both of which produce disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide -- and propose some radical means by which shops can stay in business and houses can be built without melting the ice caps. I have tried throughout the account to identify the methods that are cheapest, that have been shown to work, and that are most compatible with the lives we lead already.

The really inconvenient truth, which no legislator or former legislator will publicly acknowledge, is that to even attempt to reconcile the American way of life with the sustainability of the planet will require decisive action and dramatic change. At every turn both state and federal legislators-even those with the best intentions -- will seek to avoid environmental measures which might interfere with the luxury of heating or cooling your homes or driving or flying whenever and however you wish, and substitute measures, like biofuels, which transfer the cost onto less powerful people.

But in this respect I have to concede that your politicians are no different than anyone else's. I admit that the United States is a big country with a wide variety of climates. Crossing the US requires a great deal more fossil fuels than crossing Britain. But the climate doesn't care. It accepts no excuse.

Every ton of carbon you produce, however necessary you believe it to be, has the same impact on the climate as a ton emitted by anyone else. I have sought in Heat to show that -- thanks to new technologies and a few cunning applications -- the necessary cut in carbon emissions are compatible with the survival of an advanced industrial civilization.

I am not writing to confirm what you believe to be true. Many of the things I say will disturb and upset people who have taken an interest in this subject. As always, I seem destined to offend everyone. But I am sorry to report that an extraordinary amount of rubbish has been written by well-meaning people about tackling climate change. It is hard to see how it helps us to pretend that certain measures work when they do not.

I have one purpose in writing Heat: to persuade you that climate change is worth fighting. I hope I have been able to demonstrate that it is not -- as some people (notably the geophysiologist James Lovelock) have claimed -- too late.

In doing so I aim to encourage people not only to change the way they live but also to force their governments to make such changes easier. No one can make all the necessary changes by themselves: you can't switch to public transportation, for example, if the public transportation system has been dismantled. Nor, for that matter, can a government act unless its citizens are demanding that it do so: more loudly and more effectively than those who demand that nothing change.

My purpose is to equip you with the political tools you need-the arguments, technologies, and ideas for implementing them-to turn one of the most polluting nations on Earth into a place which commands the rest of the world's respect. The rest of the world cannot solve this problem without the United States, and the United States cannot solve it without the rest of the world. We could tear each other to pieces over what has happened in the recent past, but climate change is too important for that.

Perhaps we should allow the legislators to forget what they once were, in the hope that they can become the people they now believe themselves to be. I hope to prompt you not to lament our governments' failures to introduce the measures required to tackle it, but to force them to reverse their policies, by joining what must become the world's most powerful political movement.

George Monbiot is also the author of "Poisoned Arrows' and 'No Man's Land" (Green Books). Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com.

 
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