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.
Phoebe Connelly, a former managing editor at In These Times, is Web Editor at The American Prospect.