by Geoff Olson
George Monbiot’s incendiary new book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, opens with a dedication to his newborn daughter Hanna: “May this be a fit world for you to inhabit.” The next line, from the preface to the Canadian edition of Heat, hits closer to home. “In the court of international opinion, Canada has been let off lightly,” the author begins. “You think of yourselves as a liberal and enlightened people, but you could scarcely do more to destroy the biosphere if you tried.”
Monbiot tears into the Harper government for swallowing the Bush administration’s line on carbon emissions, and for taking a made- in-the-USA approach to climate change. Our nation is becoming as much a pariah on the world stage as the US. “Nice and well intentioned as you are, you do as much to drown Bangladesh, or starve the people of the Horn of Africa as the most obdurate throwbacks in the shrinking state of Bushistan.”
British journalist George Monbiot is highly regarded for his penetrating columns in the Guardian. An indefatigable researcher with a good grasp of science, Monbiot was among the first journalists to uncover the corporate endowments to “grassroots” organizations and think tanks, which in turn subsidize the climate change skeptics.
In Heat, he details the absurdist involvement of tobacco company Philip Morris in sowing confusion. The corporation, one step of deniability away from the oil companies, funded front groups that subsidized attacks on so-called “junk science.” These included studies of second-hand smoke risks and global warming from industrial emissions. The idea was to perpetuate the fallacy that there is a lack of scientific consensus on a range of profit-threatening issues.
But Heat is more than a polemic against co-opted politicians and their corporate taskmasters, who consistently torpedo any efforts to seriously address climate change. It’s an alarm call that this may be our last chance to avoid a one-way trip to a planetary inferno. Monbiot shows how this is still possible. In the opening chapters, the author cites a line from Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus – “The god thou servest is thine own appetite” – and deconstructs the shadowy historical figure whose name inspired stories of a man who traded his soul to the devil. An “immoderate and foolish braggart” mentioned by Renaissance writers apparently became the model for Marlowe’s wizard.
Monbiot follows a later version of the story by the poet Goethe, in which Satan will acquire the doctor’s soul only if the latter “... stops striving and succumbs to smug complacency.” Faust can avoid Hell by struggling to the end to put his technical knowledge to the best ends. Monbiot shows the relevance of this fable to modern times: if we work ceaselessly and selflessly, we may, like Faust, avoid a Hellish fate marked by high temperatures.
Monbiot’s activist sensibility on climate change puts him in the optimist camp. Many research scientists and ecologists, former NASA consultant James Lovelock, for example, believe we’ve already crossed the Rubicon; billions will die from the damage we’ve already done to the biosphere with carbon emissions. The author agrees that the future does indeed look bleak. Where he differs with some of his more resigned colleagues on a heat worse than death is that it’s a done deal only if the industrialized world shrugs and accepts a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Monbiot is good with scientific data and primary sources, and convincingly argues that beyond a two degree celsius temperature increase, there is a good chance the world’s climate will go “nonlinear” in a big way. This means climate change feedback loops that spiral out of control, such as the permafrost completely melting and releasing huge volumes of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than C02, in turn feeding further temperature increases. Some climatologists are now talking of a global temperature increase as much as three degrees or more above Monbiot’s critical threshold of two degrees, which is essentially a death knell for coastal cities and probably most of civilization.
And here’s the rub. To keep us under the critical threshold of a two- degree temperature rise, Monbiot argues that carbon emissions will have to be cut not by five, 20 or even 50 percent. The entire globe must achieve cuts in carbon emissions of 60 percent by 2030. The industrialized world, which is responsible for the bulk of emissions, will require a per capita cut of 90 percent over the same period.
This will involve a massive change in the way we think and live, a Manhattan Project in reverse for our fossil-fuelish lifestyles. Citing an impressive range of data, Monbiot shows how this may be achieved without forcing us into a global depression. Yet all the blue boxing in the world is not enough for us to navigate the shoals of temperature increase and economic breakdown. A monumental effort will have to come from all levels of society, with real leadership from politicians and policy makers.
Given the current inertia of our corporate and political world on any given matter, Monbiot’s recommendations may seem to some
like a snowball from Hell fantasy. With the current regime of denial in Ottawa and Washington – not to mention the reluctance of energy hungry nations India and China to take advice from the First World – it seems a fool’s errand to seek out a planetary consensus. It wasn’t till halfway through the book that I stopped shaking my head, muttering “It’ll never happen.”
With the examination of how it is possible to warm and cool homes with zero energy input, and the huge potential of wind turbine technology, Heat started to read less like a wet-dream for policy wonks than a roadmap to a better world. To give just one example, Monbiot states that a frequently cited figure – alternative energy sources will satisfy only 20 to 30 percent of our energy needs – is the result of governments commissioning studies requiring solutions up to that.
Some things will have to go entirely, among them, airline travel for the masses. Monbiot insists there’s simply no way around the significant contribution of jet travel to the degradation of the biosphere, other than to ban it outright for holidaying flyers. A world we can live with doesn’t include a yearly trip to Cancun.
Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, the author sweeps a deluge of facts and figures toward the reader. The middle section of the book is dense with scientific information. In the final chapter, Monbiot drops the technical talk and movingly cites his personal stake in this, or rather the stake of his newborn daughter Hanna.
“This baby, this strange little creature, closer to the ecosystem than a fully grown human being, part pixie, part frog, part small furry animal, now 16 days old and curled up on my lap like a bean waiting to sprout, changes everything. I am no longer writing about what might happen to ‘people’ in this country in 30 years time. I am writing about her. As she trembles on the threshold of life, the evidence of her mortality is undeniable. It seems far more real than mine.”
Most of us recognize the emotional truth of this – parents know it viscerally – but it seems we won’t snap out of our collective trance until we bridge the mental divide between our way of life and the threat it poses to a great many species on this planet, including the pixie/frogs dozing on adult laps.
If there’s a single image that sticks with me from reading Heat, it’s of a baby carriage balancing on a knife edge. All the more maddening to see our grinning prime minister, a climate-change denier of the first order, forever smiling with infants in photo ops.