Excerpt: Heat
How to Stop the Planet From Burning
“We are the most fortunate generation that has ever lived. And we are the most fortunate generation that ever will.”
—George Monbiot

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.”


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 warming unless greenhouse gases were cut by 80%[ref]. One of the questions stumped me.

“When you get your 80% 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 back 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 latest novel, Saturday. The hero, Henry Perowne, comes home from a 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 mid-winter 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 it my responsibility to campaign for an end to all this? To truncate the luxuries Perowne celebrates and which I - like all middle-class people in the rich world – now take for granted?

There are aspects of this civilisation I regret. I hate the lies and the political corruption, the inequality, the export of injustice, the military adventures, the roads, 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 three 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 grasped the rudiments 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. The primary struggle was 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 discovered the potential of fossil fuels, and everything changed. No longer were we constrained by the need to live on ambient energy; we could support ourselves by means of the sunlight stored over the preceding 350 million years. The new sources of power permitted the economy to grow – to grow sufficiently to absorb some of the people expelled by the previous era’s land disputes. Fossil fuels helped both industry and cities to expand, which in turn helped the workers to organise and to force the despots to loosen their grip.

Fossil fuels helped us 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 energy we needed. Our freedoms, our comforts, our prosperity are all the products of fossil fuel, whose combustion is also responsible for climate change. 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 we believed we could solve this problem with a mere 80% cut! After my talk a man called Colin Forrest wrote to me. I had failed, he explained, to take account of the latest science. 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 carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels reaches a certain concentration in the atmosphere – 430 parts per million parts of air – the likely result is two degrees of warming. Two degrees centigrade is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it. This means that 2° inevitably leads to 3°. This in turn triggers further collapses, releasing more carbon and pushing the temperature 4-5° above pre-industrial levels: a point at which the survival of certain human populations is called into question. Beyond 2° of warming, in other words, climate change is out of our hands: there is nothing we can do to prevent it from accelarating. The only means, Forrest argues, by which we can be fairly certain that the temperature does not rise to this point is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2030. This is the task whose feasibility Heat attempts to demonstrate.

So is this a manifesto for the destruction of civilisation? Am I attempting to reduce our lives to those of “a very poor third world country”? No. This book seeks to devise the least painful means possible of achieving this preposterous cut. It attempts to reconcile our demand for comfort, prosperity and peace with the restraint required to prevent us from destroying the comfort, prosperity and peace of other people. And though I began the search for these solutions in the spirit of profound pessimism, I now believe it can be done.

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-carbonised 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 concentrate on the rich nations for this reason: until we have demonstrated that we are serious about cutting our own emissions, we are in no position to preach restraint to the poorer countries. The rich world’s most common excuse for inaction can be expressed in one word: China. It is true that China’s emissions per person have been rising by around 2% a year. But they are still small by comparison to our own. A citizen of China produces, on average, 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. A citizen of the United Kingdom emits 9.5, and of the United States, 20.0. To blame the Chinese for the problem, and to claim that their rapacious appetites render our efforts futile is not just hypocritical. It is, I believe, another manifestation of our ancient hysteria about the Yellow Peril. 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 principle 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 would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past 40 years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time.

What is the point of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks? By refusing to own a car, I have simply given up my road space to someone who drives a hungrier model than I would have bought. Why pay for double-glazing when the supermarkets are heating the pavement with the hot air blowers above their doors? Why bother installing an energy-efficient lightbulb when a man in Lanarkshire boasts of attaching 1.2 million Christmas lights to his house? (Mr Danny Meikle told journalists that he needs two industrial meters to measure the electricity he uses. One year his display melted the power cable supplying his village. The name of the village - which proves, I think, that there is a God - is Coalburn.) ….
Publisher: Anchor Canada