Features » June 22, 2007
Two Degrees From Devastation
George Monbiot’s book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning argues that we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent
George Monbiot has a challenge for those concerned about global warming: Stop flying. Of all the harmful things you can do to the earth, it’s hard to top traveling on a plane. Flying from, say, New York to London emits more than one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger.
Consequently, his current book tour might be the British journalist’s last trip to the United States. He’s here to promote Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, which argues that the only way to stop the current climate crisis is to cut greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent, starting immediately. The rationale goes like this: If concentrations of carbon dioxide in 2030 remain as great as they are today, the world will likely experience two degrees centigrade of warming above pre-industrial levels. Two degrees is the point at which, he writes, “certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they release it. Beyond that point, in other words, climate change is out of our hands.” In Heat, he lays out the science behind this, as well as practicable suggestions for making these cuts.
Monbiot got his start as a journalist, working for a BBC on environmental programs in the late ’80s. That led to two investigative books about the environmental injustices he witnessed around the globe. In 1995, he was awarded a United Nations Global 500 Award for Outstanding Environmental Achievement. He writes a weekly column for the (U.K.) Guardian, and blogs at monbiot.com and turnuptheheat.org.You start each chapter of Heat with a quote from Faust. Why?
Ever since I first became interested in climate change 20 years ago, there was something nagging in the back of my mind. I’d heard this story before and I couldn’t pin it down; I just couldn’t. And then one night I was trying to get to sleep, but my brain was racing too fast, and it suddenly came to me. It was Faust. Both Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s version, and Faust in Goethe’s version could be metaphors for climate change.What’s the difference between the two?
In Marlowe’s version, Doctor Faustus strikes a deal with the devil that if he can have 24 years living in luxuriousness, the devil can then have his soul. He prepares himself for this by denying that hell exists, and at the end, he’s carried off.
Faust is humankind–always striving, curious, restless, never satisfied, wanting to discover more, to explore more, to consume more, create more, destroy more. He is all of us. And, indeed, Marlowe intended that he is all of us.
The years in which he can live in all voluptuousness are the years of extraordinary freedom that we have been granted by fossil fuels; to do things which previous generations have only dreamt of doing; to have magical powers very similar to Faust’s powers.
Now in Goethe’s version, Faust strikes his bargain with the devil, but it’s a slightly different bargain. He says, “You can have my soul after 24 years, but on one condition: only if I become complacent and smug, and stop striving and stop questioning.”
So he begins by living in all voluptuousness, getting everything he wants, the wine, the women, the amazing food and the power to astonish people. He enjoys all that for a few years, and he thinks, “I’m wasting these extraordinary diabolical powers that I have been granted. I ought use them for the good of human kind. I want to create better conditions for people to live in.” And he strives to use these powers–fossil fuels, in my reading–to create a world that didn’t require diabolical powers, in which everybody could be comfortable without having to call on the devil.What is your opinion of corporate-friendly environmental actions like carbon offsets?
There are several problems with them, but the most fundamental one is this: We have very, very little time to deal with this problem. Carbon cuts made today are much more valuable in terms of staving off this problem than a carbon cut made in the future. If you cut the carbon today, you’re less likely to have run-away climate change: climate change that causes more climate change.That is the “two degrees more” problem you discuss?
Two degrees above the pre-industrial level is when we’re really in the danger zone. Two degrees centigrade that is, so about 3.6 Fahrenheit. Beyond that point, the biosphere, the world’s natural system, stops being an absorber of greenhouse gases and starts to produce far more carbon dioxide and methane than it does today. What I mean is that if you get to two degrees, three degrees becomes an inevitability. Once you hit three degrees, then four degrees becomes an inevitability. Beyond two degrees, we wash our hands of the problem because it’s out of our hands, and we can’t do anything about it.Are there still scientists today debating the inevitability of two degrees? Or is there a consensus on this matter?
I’m glad you asked this because people are giving up on two degrees because they see it as too difficult now. They’re not giving up because there is a scientific reason to give up; they’re giving up because there are political reasons to give up. Lately it’s been, “Well, we hope that if we keep emissions down to this certain level, we won’t go beyond three degrees.” Wait a minute! Three degrees is a disaster! We cannot have three degrees! The EU, the British government and other governments have all been saying two degrees is the point beyond which we cannot go. And yet silently, they’ve all dropped that as a target. What I’ve done in my book is show this is realistic, that we can do this.
All this brings me back to the question of carbon offsets. Given that we have to make these cuts as quickly as possible, offsetting is an absolute disaster. If you pay an offset company to wash away your environmental sins and reabsorb that carbon by some other means, whether it’s by planting a tree or by changing light bulbs in Jamaica or altering waste compacting process in South Africa–whatever it might be–that will take years to mature.
So you’re swapping what could have been a carbon cut today, with a possible carbon cut in the future. That is a bad swap. When it comes to something like tree planting it can take 16 years.In the book you examine the problem with tree planting offsets.
Tree planting, anywhere other than the tropics, now turns out to actually be counterproductive.Don’t tell that to the school kids. They’re planting trees all over.
Don’t get me wrong–we should be planting trees! I love trees! But it’s not going to stop climate change. Not as a carbon offset. And the reason for this, unfortunately, is that trees are darker than other land–during the summer–they absorb more heat. They actually encourage further planetary warming. In the tropics, that’s not the case because of the hydrological cycling of the water.
It’s a similar effect to what we’re seeing in the Arctic with the disappearance of the ice. As the ice disappears, you have a white surface giving way to a dark surface, which is the sea, and it absorbs more heat, which is why the Arctic warms two or three times as fast as the rest of the planet. So, these tree planting schemes are just not going got work.You’ve sworn off air travel, but you have family that lives far away.
I have a sister that lives in Nairobi. And it’s tough because I’ve decided that I can’t go and visit her. She does come to Britain about twice a year. I’d like to see her much more than that, not least because we have a baby and they get along very well together. I’m very sorry about it, but I can’t reconcile it in my conscience.Do you think that traveling to see loved ones is is less reprehensible than business travel?
A little bit. I cannot say to people, “You cannot see your family.” Believe me, it’s an extraordinary paradox that the world could be destroyed by love. Of all the things! Hatred, greed, fear, it’s very easy to see how the world could be destroyed by those things. This is a problem of morality. We need a whole new morality, a morality that we’re completely unaccustomed to.Do you think we’ll actually manage to change course?
Yes. It’s remarkable how few people have been campaigning on climate change until now. It’s also interesting to see how people have gone from the position of being in total denial that anything needs to be done, to total despair that nothing can be done, with no in-between. You would have thought there would have been this evolution from, “It’s not happening,” to, “Oh my God, it’s happening, we need to do something.” It’s much tougher to say, “It’s not too late.” That means you’ve got to do something about it. And that’s a far tougher challenge than throwing up your hands in despair and tearing your hair out. Anyone can do that.Reading Heat, Naomi Klein says you have “a relentless faith in people.”
Yes, it’s sometimes taxing. But I’m always struck by the incredible diversity of human skills and human determination, and of the will to overcome adversity. It’s amazing what some people manage to do from the most unpromising beginnings. If we can tap into some of that collective genius of humanity there’s nothing we can’t do. We really can turn this around. But it’s going to be quite tough.
Phoebe Connelly, a former managing editor at In These Times, is Web Editor at The American Prospect.