Monbiot on Global Warming

George Monbiot - Heat

I have just finished reading George Monbiot’s “Heat”, and I have to recommend it fully. It is a thoroughly researched, brilliant book on global warming and the actions we must take to mitigate its consequences. Monbiot starts by voicing the same frustration I’ve often experienced:

What is the point of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks? By refusing to own a car, I have simply given up my road space to someone who drives a hungrier model than I would have bought. Why pay for double-glazing windows when the supermarkets are heating the pavement with the hot air blowers above their doors? Why bother installing an energy-efficient lightbulb when a man in Lanarkshire boasts of attaching 1.2 million Christmas lights to his house?

He does something far more beneficial than just installing an energy-efficient lightbulb: he presents the global warming problem in plain terms, proceeds to calculate what needs to be done to tackle the problem (a seemingly impossible 90% carbon emissions cut), and finalizes making the argument that such a solution is not only necessary, but feasible. His scheme –a sort of carbon rationing– does not rely on technological miracles, but it does require a critical mass of global citizens that demand their governments to take this problem seriously (and he does mean seriously, as in “this is the biggest problem facing humankind today” seriously). Monbiot believes, and I agree with him, that our governments have caught on to the idea that we want them to look serious on climate change, but that we don’t want them to demand real sacrifices from us:

They know that inside their electors there is a small but insistent voice asking them both to try and to fail. They know that if they had the misfortune to succeed, our lives would have to change. They know that we can contemplate a transformation of anyone’s existence but our own.

So they play to the script which we have all ghost-written. They will make frowning speeches about the threat to the planet and the need for action. They will announce that this issue is of such importance that it transcends the usual political differences and requires a cross-party consensus. They will urge everyone to pull together and confront the enormity of the threat. Then they will discover, to their great disappointment, that progress has not been made, that it is in fact very difficult to make, and the decision about what should be done will yet again have to be deferred.

Heat has three virtues I particularly liked. First, it is clear: Monbiot’s writing is crisp, and solidly backed-up by science. Second, it is brave: it has no patience for environmentalist wishful thinking, and demonstrates the severe weaknesses of solar, wind, and other clean energy, while discussing nuclear power with a cool mind. And third, it is bold: as opposed to Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Monbiot shows that what is required from us is an effort greater than just praying and riding a bike –we may not like it, but, as he points out, anybody is welcome to formulate less painful solutions him/herself.

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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2 Responses to Monbiot on Global Warming

  1. mcyclops says:

    I wrote about two topics related to the issue: First, that some changes need to be forced using economic law, like my biking not because I care about pollution but because I cannot afford to pay parking anymore. Second, that some changes are no more that wishful thinking, like having a low energy consumption where the source of power is hydro, hence no greenhouse gases are produced, or when Downtown’s buildings are all lit up. I can bet that when people start facing real life changing (all the environmentalist who bike because they do not have a valid license or cannot afford a car but still lecture us) are going to be less enthusiastic.

  2. Jorge says:

    mcyclops,

    As you’ve pointed out in your blog, long-term economic concerns call for tackling the global warming problem. But short-term economic concerns do not, and since corporations (and individuals!) are notoriously focused on the short term, they have little incentive to invest in the long run when no one else is doing it.

    It’s a case of the tragedy of the commons: my individual optimal strategy is to ignore societal needs, but if every individual follows this strategy we will all suffer for it. There is historic precedent that shows that some societies have self-destroyed following this behaviour –Jared Diamond discusses them in “Collapse”. To avoid the problem, we delegate part of our authority to another organism –the State– whose role is to ensure that not only I behave in accordance to society’s needs, but that everyone else will, too.

    Part of the problem is that those with the money and the ability to do something about global warming (and that’s all of us in developed countries) are not the ones who will suffer the most from its consequences, so they have even less incentive to act swiftly.

    You’re right in that, if we are forced to change our lifestyles because of this problem, we as a society will take a far less enthusiastic approach to environmentalism. As Monbiot puts it, it’s a strange social movement, in which we’re demanding the State to take away some of our liberties. But if you believe this is enough reason not to push for change, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the consequences of inaction shown by climate change science.

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