George Monbiot Turns Up the Heat

"I am not writing this book to confirm what you believe is true As always, I seem destined to offend everyone."

These are the words of British journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, recently described by the Observer newspaper as "the most astute political and environmental cartographer of his time." The opening quote was taken from the introduction to his new book Heat — How to Stop the Planet Burning, which is now available in the shops. It looks set to become an important work in the growing literature on climate change. The author challenges the facts and figures promoted by both the oil industry and the environmental lobbies, waging war on deliberate deceit and well-meaning woolly thinking alike. Monbiot claims that even the most ambitious targets for emissions cuts, such as the UK government's promise of a 60% reduction by 2050, are way below what is needed. He argues that cuts in the magnitude of 90% are vital by 2030 in order to avoid climate change slipping out of our control.
Controversially, for many environmentalists at least, Monbiot believes that campaigning for self-enforced abstinence is a waste of time: "Why bother installing an energy-efficient lightbulb when a man in Lanarkshire boasts of attaching 1.2 million Christmas lights to his house?" Regulation, he argues, is the only way to achieve the level of reduction that is necessary. He claims that many environmentalists, including himself, are hypocrites. He cites examples of friends who campaign against climate change, yet holiday in the Pacific, or work to protect biodiversity, yet serve tuna to their guests. The kinds of changes that are needed, according to Monbiot, can only be achieved with constraints that "apply to everyone, rather than to everyone else Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade government to force us to change the way we live."

Whilst such massive cuts may, at first, seem unrealistic, Monbiot then sets out to show the means by which he believes they can be achieved. He claims to have succeeded, albeit "by the skin of his teeth". In fact, he argues, cuts can be achieved in almost every sector of society without significant loss of material comfort or alteration to our way of life. The one exception to this, he believes, is aviation. No amount of innovation or change in the aviation industry is likely to offset it's projected growth and, he claims, the only option is to significantly curtail our "right to fly". He accepts that this may well be hard to swallow, but points out that it is only a real hardship for a small, relatively wealthy minority of the world's population.

Many of the solutions that Monbiot advocates will be familiar to environmentalists — renewable energy, greater efficiency, electric cars etc. However, he is also ruthless in picking apart ideas that he believes won't work. Building-integrated micro wind turbines are dismissed as "a waste of time and money", biofuel imports may "accelerate rather than ameliorate climate change", and carbon offsets are like "pushing your food around your plate to give the impression you've eaten it." Whilst many of Monbiot's assertions will surprise environmentalists, including myself, there is no doubt that he backs up his arguments with extensive facts and figures. I have not had time, nor am I really qualified, to work out whether these figures add up, but Monbiot's relentless questioning of, as he puts it, "both friend and foe" is admirable. We need rigorous debate and constant self-reflection if we are to come up with a viable vision for the future. There is no point in promoting solutions that do not work.

The book is accompanied by a new website that seeks to expose the false environmental claims made by industry, celebrities, politicians and the environmental lobby. Targets so far have included Richard Branson, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and the leader of the UK Conservative Party David Cameron. Monbiot is indeed, it seems, destined to offend everyone. Yet in so doing, he sets out a challenge to all of us — namely that our professed environmental beliefs must be backed up by action that actually works, and we must force our politicians to take note. The alternatives are too horrible to consider. I'll leave you with my favourite quote so far, on why critics who argue that combating climate change costs too much, and would be better spent on foreign aid, are presenting us with a false choice:

" it becomes clear that this is not a choice between state spending on climate change or state spending on foreign aid and essential public services. It is a choice between state spending on climate change or state spending on coal, oil, roads, farm subsidies, environmental destruction and unprovoked wars."

[Written by: Sami Grover]