Review of George Monbiot’s Heat

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13 Nov 2006

There follows a review by me of George Monbiot’s Heat (Allen Lane 2006) from the 13 November issue of Fund Strategy magazine. James Heartfield also did a particularly astute review of the book for spiked.

It is almost possible to feel sorry for George Monbiot. The government’s Stern report on the economics of climate change has overshadowed the climate campaigner and Guardian columnist’s book on the same topic. The report is more thoroughly grounded in mainstream science and certainly more rigorous in its economics.

Nevertheless, there are reasons why it is worth reading Monbiot’s book, Heat, alongside Stern. Whereas Sir Nicholas Stern is constrained by diplomatic considerations – he has to be guarded in what he says as his is a government report – Monbiot can be blunt.

Arguably Monbiot is more honest about the impact of a strategy based on curbing energy demand than Stern. Both Stern and Monbiot argue a broadly similar line, although the details and some of the conclusions they draw are different.

Monbiot’s starting point is the incorrect assumption that there is a trade-off between popular prosperity and curbing climate change’s impact. His premise leads to the conclusion that austerity and authoritarianism are needed to deal with global warming:

“For the campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. It is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves” (p215).

If humanity’s survival depended on accepting austerity and dictatorship, perhaps these twin evils could be justified. But any such case would have to be incredibly strong since the strategy proposed by Monbiot, apart from anything else, would leave much of the world in dire poverty.

It should not be forgotten that, according to World Bank figures, a billion people still live on less than one dollar a day and 2.7 billion live on less than two dollars. Such poverty has terrible consequences for the health, longevity and well-being of the bulk of the world’s population. In addition, rationing and curbing democracy are objectionable in principle.

As it happens, Monbiot’s science is rather ropey. His argument that by 2030 the rich countries need to cut carbon emissions by 90% seems to be based on calculations by Colin Forrest, “who is not a professional climate scientist but appears to have done his homework” (p15-16). Monbiot does not say who Forrest is but, judging from a search on Google, he appears to be a member of Friends of the Earth in Scotland.

But even if the 90% figure is correct, it does not follow that Monbiot’s strategy is right. Imposing austerity means, by definition, making the world poorer. But the reality is that the richer we are, the better a position we will be in to tackle climate change.

Monbiot is wrong to argue that global warming should be seen as a priority above all others. It is not an isolated challenge but linked to the more general struggle for social progress. Mass affluence is good in its own right, while also enabling humanity to have greater control over nature.

The need for more prosperity is particularly acute in the developing world. Not only would the abolition of poverty be good in itself but it would also put such societies in a better position to tackle global warming. They would have more resources at their disposal and more diversified economies.

But Monbiot uses the poor as an argument for austerity in the West. “By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning other people to death. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these acts without passion or intent” (p22). Such moralising is unhelpful and off-putting.

Contrary to Monbiot’s argument, it is both possible and desirable to promote prosperity and tackle climate change at the same time. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked.

The key challenge is to find ways of substantially bolstering energy supplies while controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, such technologies already exist. Although no doubt they could be considerably improved, it is already possible to supply far more power with existing technology. Scientists and engineers are in the best position to identify the best mix of technologies, but an outline of possibilities is already feasible.

Nuclear power is likely to play a role. Although care must be taken when disposing of the waste, it has the potential to provide huge amounts of electricity without greenhouse emissions.

Further into the future, it might be possible to generate power from nuclear fusion (fusing together atoms) rather than fission (splitting atoms apart). Fusion’s advantage is that its waste is water, not heavy radioactive materials.

Hydroelectric power is another existing form of energy that does not emit greenhouse gases. It has lost popularity in recent years as environmentalists have campaigned against it. But in many places it can provide abundant electricity.

Even fossil fuels can be made more green. Carbon capture and storage means emissions can be removed from power stations that use fossil fuels. They can then be stored underground or under the sea bed.

More prosperity would also provide the resources to help humanity adapt to climate change’s effects. For example, Bangladesh could have modern flood defences similar to those already used in the Netherlands. Human settlements could be moved to higher ground if threatened by flooding in their present locations.

Monbiot’s misanthropic outlook means he either downplays these possibilities or ignores them completely. He has a dim view of human beings and their capacity to use ingenuity to transform their environment for the better.

Rather than seeing the promotion of mass affluence and tackling climate change as contradictory, they should be viewed as part of the same challenge. The drive for popular prosperity puts humanity in a better position to deal with environmental problems.

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