How to Stop the Planet From Burning
What George Monbiot means by this is that our civilization has leveraged the awesome power of fossil energy to create a world that only a short time ago would have been nearly unimaginable. Our health, our wealth, our leisure, our freedom from tyranny and struggle, are all benefits bestowed upon us by harnessed energy of oil and coal.
But the price of these gifts has been a growing environmental crisis. Our atmosphere is filling up with carbon dioxide, which is released by the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, causing the temperature of our planet to rise. The reason why future generations are unlikely to be as fortunate as us is that fossil energy is just too good to be true. We cannot go on enjoying the benefits of this dirty energy. We must either address the problem, which will be a tough challenge involving many sacrifices, or ignore it, with unthinkable consequences.
George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning marks an important moment in our civilization’s thinking about global warming. The question is no longer whether climate change is actually happening. The question is what to do about it. Monbiot offers an ambitious and far-reaching program to cut our carbon dioxide emissions to the point where the environmental scales start tipping away from catastrophe. (But not before he devotes a chapter to unmasking the vested interests that have spent fortunes funding the specious science of the climate change deniers.)
He does not pretend it will be easy. The threshold for disaster, he argues, is a rise of two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Past two degrees, science tells us, the ability to control climate change passes out of our hands. At that point, the world’s forests will fall into decline, changing cloud formation patterns and releasing the billions of tons of carbon the trees store. Past two degrees, the permafrost begins to thaw, releasing billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas far more destructive than CO2. At the same point, the polar ice begins to melt, affecting ocean currents and water levels. This is called a “positive feedback loop,” and it means that once we’ve passed two degrees, nothing can be done to stop it rising to three. And once we hit three, four will follow.
Two degrees is also the point at which the globe slides towards increasing water scarcity and, eventually, food deficit.
And the fact is, we’re already seeing the consequences of climate change around the globe: collapsing ice shelves, the failure of the cyclical rains in Eastern Africa, drought in Australia, the spread of tropical diseases into new territory as temperatures rise, pollution of aquifers with salt water in Bangladesh. Global temperatures have already risen 0.6 of a degree, causing huge damage to the natural environment and inflicting suffering on vast numbers of people.
The only way to avoid further devastation, and forestall the catastrophe of positive feedback, Monbiot argues, is a 90% cut in CO2 emissions in the rich nations of the world by 2030. In other words, our response will have to be immediate, and it will have to be decisive.
But where to start?
Monbiot starts at home, where we have most control. Though he draws his examples from the UK, and commends Canadians for our superior building standards, he makes a damning case that the buildings we live and work in squander energy. Since our heat and electricity produce CO2, nearly every bit of heat and power we waste (like nearly every bit of heat and power we use) commits us to greenhouse gas emissions. Monbiot finds ways for us to build, and live, so much better that we can cut emissions at home by the required 90%.
He then looks at the source of our electricity, and evaluates the arguments for both local micro-generation (for example, solar photovoltaic panels and small wind turbines), and renewable energy for the grid. His research leads him to some unexpected discoveries, but he finds a way to trim our emissions by the necessary margin.
Another obvious source of CO2 emissions is our transportation – the cars we drive and the flights we take. A little ingenuity, he argues, will allow us to deal with the former. But the latter, he acknowledges, is shaping up to be the Achilles heel of all efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
A couple of less obvious major sources of CO2 are the retail and construction industries. Big box stores, with their inefficient designs, their racks of heaters, air conditioners, and blazing lights (to say nothing of the sprawling parking lots full of cars that drive back and forth on shopping trips), are simply inconsistent with a low-carbon future. But Monbiot has a thoughtful and surprisingly simple solution. Similarly, the concrete industry, that backbone of all new construction, emits millions of tons each year as a consequence of the immense heat and chemical processes involved in the manufacturing process. Though the solution here is not as ready to hand, it is still possible.
In short, the scale of the changes before us is staggering, as is the size of the problem. But Monbiot ends on a note of hope. We have shown ourselves to be capable of enormous ingenuity and great feats of cooperation and sacrifice when confronted with a serious threat. The Second World War provides countless examples of citizens and engineers doing the supposedly impossible in order to get the job done. Fighting climate change will not require young men to die in battle, but a failure to tackle the problem urgently and with all the determination we can muster will cost uncountable lives. There is no reason to think we will do less when faced with a threat to the sustainability of all life on the planet than we did when faced with a threat to our political and ethical values.
Monbiot argues there is no time to waste. As he has said himself, “we are the last generation that can make this happen, and this is the last possible moment at which we can make it happen.”
READ AN EXCERPT
1. Monbiot makes a powerful argument, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are still people who don’t believe in global warming, or don’t believe that our carbon dioxide emissions are to blame. How convinced are you that Monbiot is right?
2. Monbiot quotes George Orwell: “The lady...
“Each furious chapter in Heat throws out more intellectual challenges by the page than the Canadian media does in a year. . . . Uncompromising in its message, intelligence and honesty. Parents. . . should consider it required reading.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Heat is funny and fully aware of its own self-delusions. . . . [Monbiot] understands that any campaign for a renewable and sustainable energy future is really a campaign against ourselves and the ways we choose to live our lives.” —Boston Globe
“The great thing about this book is that, while it contains much useful information about the cowardice and futile gesture-making of our elected politicians, it doesn't paint a completely bleak picture. . . . [Monbiot] does this all in a most winning way. For a doom-and-gloom merchant (which he isn't unless you have vested interests), he has quite a perky sense of humour. This is more than just a pleasant stylistic filigree. It shows that he can sympathise with the ordinary human reaction.” —The Guardian
“Heat is a well-written and well-argued attack on pernicious corporations, governmental spin and individual complacency and shows that the only possible solution is a drastic reduction in our consumption of carbon-intensive products and services.” —Observer
“Heat is a solidly researched manifesto for change. . . . The combination of practical detail and creative thinking is immensely impressive.” — Guardian (UK)
“Heat is a comprehensive and compelling examination of the measures needed to deal with this, our most pressing environmental problem.” —The Scotsman
“A cogently argued book that is easily the best of the latest climate-change crop.” —Observer (UK)
“Monbiot’s research, complete with an up-to-date forward to the Canadian edition, is thorough, footnoted and detailed. This is not just another attempt to convince you global warming is happening and leave you there. In an engaging and accessible way, Monbiot outlines what can and should be done about it.” — Edmonton Journal
“A book that anyone who thinks they know what should be done about global warming must read.”
—John Gray, in The New Statesman
“I was hooked right away. It's by far the best single source on climate change that I've read: rigorously researched, honestly argued, and very well written.”
— Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress
“With a dazzling command of science and a relentless faith in people, George Monbiot writes about social change with his eyes wide open. I never miss reading him.”
— Naomi Klein, author of No Logo
“This book is a brilliant and terrifying critique of the crisis of human-induced climate change, and the prospects of stabilizing temperatures before catastrophic runaway warming ensues. George Monbiot brushes aside our rationalizations to maintain the status quo, shallow targets and mechanisms, and the empty promises of political rhetoric and corporate PR spin, to examine the real opportunities and what has to be done to achieve up to 90 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by the industrialized nations.”
“George Monbiot has written a stunning book. It could easily be titled The End of Hypocrisy, because Monbiot systematically unveils the denial, deceit, and self-delusion that are our common responses to the enormous challenge of global warming. . . . Then with a step-by-step plan grounded in the latest research he explains how we can achieve a 90 percent reduction–in our vehicles, factories, retail centres, and homes–without wrecking our standard of living. When it comes to global warming, it’s time to stop being hypocrites and get on with saving the planet, and this book shows us how.”
—Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down
“Monbiot is ahead of the pack. Instead of just warning us about climate change, he lays out clearly and engagingly what we can still do to stop it. This powerful book is for anyone serious about confronting what appears to be the most urgent crisis of our time.”
—Linda McQuaig, author of War, Big Oil, and the Fight for the Planet: It’s the Crude, Dude
"An engaging, lively, and sometimes fiery analysis of the possible technological and political responses to the crisis of climate change, that starts where so much of the debate remains stalled. To those who say that the requirements of the Kyoto protocol are impossible to meet, Monbiot responds not only that it is possible to hit far, far more ambitious targets, but that it is urgently imperative that we do so. And then he shows how.”
—David Chernushenko, deputy leader, Green Party of Canada, and climate change critic.
“Avoiding disastrous climate change is the central challenge of our time. George Monitor addresses it with wit, verve, and rigor. He shows that all of our excuses for inaction are just that — excuses. If you care about the future of the planet, you should read Heat, and then give a copy to a friend.”
—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Praise for George Monbiot’s work:
“George Monbiot knows not only that things ought to change, but also that they can change. . . . At last, the global movement has found a vision as expansive and planet-wide as that of the American neoconservatives.”
—Independent on Sunday
“As he well says, if we do not like his ideas, then think of better ones. He believes that leaving things as they are is not a serious option.”
“Monbiot is a writer of eloquence and passion. . . . The most astute political and ecological cartographer of his time.” —Observer
“Appealing, provocative and idealistic … shows that alternatives are possible.”
“We need people like Monbiot more than ever before.”
“Not only challenges us to question the status quo, but also inspires us to want to change it.”
“The originality of this thought makes him uniquely influential.”
—The Times (London)