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.”

Reading Guide

Discussion

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 in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes.” His point is that sacrifices are easier to bear when they are shared by all. How willing would you be to do what you think is right to fight climate change, even if your friends or neighbours did not? For example, would you consider not flying?

3. What do you think the world will look like in 2030?

4. Doing something about climate change is clearly going to cost money, but a massive shift in technology and lifestyle will also mean that a lot of people are going to make money. What looks like a good bet for the coming decades?

5. Monbiot has said “This is no longer a matter of moral choice. It is a matter of moral necessity.” In other words, if we don’t act now, we’re not just wrong, we’re guilty. How do you feel about accepting this burden of responsibility?

6. Monbiot points out that the wealthy countries got that way by exploiting fossil fuels. By this formula, demanding that developing countries not burn coal and oil is a lot like demanding that they not raise their standard of living, or at least not raise it as fast as they otherwise would. What are the ethical implications of asking someone else to live in poverty in order to save the world?

7. Though there are many, many exceptions to this, it seems that the younger you are, the more aware you are of climate change. What do you say to a parent or older relative who drives an SUV and flies a lot–and give no impression that he or she is aware of doing anything wrong?

8. The scale of the changes Monbiot proposes is massive. Do you think it is possible to achieve a 90% cut? What will be the easiest changes to make? What will be the hardest?

9. Canadian political parties are getting “greener” by the day. Which party is most convincingly serious about the environment? Will the environment be a decisive issue for you in the next election? Would you consider working on the campaign of the candidate you think it doing the best job for the environment?

10. What will be the first thing you do to diminish your carbon footprint?