My spat with George Monbiot

In: Uncategorized

18 Dec 2006

George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner, has taken offence at my review of his book Heat in Fund Strategy (reproduced in my 13 November entry). I have published a letter to the editor which I have reproduced below. There follows my response along with an additional comment.

Dear Sir

Daniel Ben-Ami’s review of my book Heat contains a number of outrageous misrepresentations. He claims that I call for “dictatorship” and “authoritarianism”. This is untrue. In the introduction, I write the following:

“A 90% cut in our emissions of carbon dioxide is, I admit, an inherently narrow constraint. I did not invent it – it is what the science appears to demand. But within that constraint, we should be free to live as we wish. The need to tackle climate change must not become an excuse for central planning. The role of government must be to establish the limits of action, but to guarantee the maximum of freedom within those limits. And it must help us by ensuring that even within those constraints, life remains as easy as possible.”

He goes on to suggest that I oppose projects such as carbon capture and storage. In fact I have devoted half a chapter to this technology, which I recommend. He chides me for not accepting a line now wholly discredited, by the Stern review and other reports: that efforts to prevent climate change will hurt the poor, while adapting to it, for example by moving human settlements “to higher ground”, is both cheaper and more progressive.

He plainly has not read or understood the Stern review, with which he seeks to contrast my book. And I can’t help wondering whether he has really read Heat.

Yours sincerely

George Monbiot

My response follows below:

It is George Monbiot who misrepresents or fails to understand my arguments.

Monbiot objects to my point that his views are authoritarian yet my review quotes his book’s conclusion explicitly calling for curbs on freedom. He says the campaign against climate change “is a campaign not for more freedom but for less”. It is also hard to see how the imposition of mass austerity that he sees as necessary could be achieved by voluntary means.

Contrary to what Monbiot asserts I do not say he opposes carbon capture and storage. Rather my point is that new forms of technology should allow society to become more prosperous while tackling climate change at the same time. My central argument is that Monbiot is wrong to claim there is a trade-off between prosperity and improving the environment. I note that he does not take up my substantial point in his letter.

Nor do I argue that efforts to prevent climate change necessarily hurt the poor. My point is that becoming richer puts humanity in a better position to mould the environment to its advantage. Moreover even the Stern review, for all its flaws, sees a key role for adaptation in tackling climate change.

As for whether I have read or understood Stern, readers can read my cover story in last week’s Fund Strategy and judge for themselves.

Daniel Ben-Ami

If I had more space I would have taken up Monbiot’s Orwellian notion of freedom with constraints imposed by natural science. To me this, more than anything else, opens the way for the authoritarian measures that he proposes.

It should also be noted that and the need for austerity and curbs on democracy are recurring themes in his work. See my review of his The Age of Consent – there is a link on the bar on the left of this site.