Dec 06 2007
THIS IS A RE-BROADCAST
Most KPFK listeners know well the reality and danger of the warming of the planet, and that this global warming is happening as a direct result of human behavior through the burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Today we spend the hour, not as much discussing the scientific consensus over global warming or the political struggle over what to do about global warming. Instead, we’ll talk about exactly what goals need to be met to stop the planet from literally burning to death, and what all of us, individuals, organizations, and governments, can do to meet those goals. British journalist George Monbiot has just written a new book, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.” The book is a best seller in Europe and Canada but Monbiot could barely convince a publisher in the US to print it. Now, South End Press presents this new book, which I spent an hour discussing with George Monbiot on Friday afternoon.
George Monbiot has written books like Manifesto for a New World Order, which we covered in detail on Uprising. In 1995, Nelson Mandela presented Monbiot with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement. He has held visiting fellowships or professorships at the universities of Oxford, Bristol, Keele, and East London. He is currently a visiting professor of planning at Oxford Brookes University, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. George Monbiot’s website, www.monbiot.com, is listed by Yahoo as the most popular columnist’s site on earth, outside the US.
Special thanks to Mitch Jeserich and Michael G for help with recording this interview from WBAI, New York.
THIS IS A RE-BROADCAST
Sonali: George I want to begin where you began, making a very interesting analogy in your book with Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil. Why do you use this analogy to what the current actions are on global warming today?
Monbiot: Well, it is a remarkably close story to the story of climate change. Of course, Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlow’s version was written an awfully long time ago, about 1590, long before climate change seemed to be an issue, indeed long before fossil fuels were being extensively used, and yet it contains within it just about the whole story of climate change as we understand it today. Faust or Faustus is human kind, insatiable, curious, restless, always wanting more. He wants these extraordinary powers which he doesn’t have, and so he strikes a deal with the devil’s servant, Mephistopheles, and says if I can live in all voluptuousness, have what I want, do what I want, for twenty-four years, then you can have my soul. And Faust reassures himself by saying it’s not going to happen, these are just old wives tales, this story about the flames of hell is just not true, I can carry on living the way I’m going to live now. And he acquires these extraordinary powers from the devil, which allow him to perform what was then perceived to be magic. Among other things, he is able to fly in a fiery chariot burning bright; he flies between countries on a tour all around Europe going to various capitals as a tourist. He’s able to summon fresh fruit from the southern hemisphere in the winter, grapes from India, and he’s able to perform extraordinary miracles of transformation. In other words, he’s able to do all the things that fossil fuels have allowed us to do now. And indeed, Mephistopheles, the devil’s servant, is in my reading of this story, if we are to use this story as a metaphor, he is fossil fuel. The period of twenty-four years, during which Faustus can live in all voluptuousness, is about half the true period in which fossil fuels have allowed us to do just that. And the flames of hell, well, I think you can probably work that out for yourself.
Sonali: So, I want to spend just a little bit of time on the issues at hand regarding the scientific consensus and then what you call the denial industry, and then spend the bulk of our interview on your solutions. The denial industry, as you call it, has been remarkably effective in the United States, perhaps more so than anywhere else. Can you tell us the role in particular that Exxon-Mobil has played along with Phillip-Morris in the denial industry?
Monbiot: Well, this is a very interesting story. In Al Gore’s film, and in a lot of the other discourse about climate change that you come across, there’s often the analogy made between these paid servants of the fossil fuel companies denying that climate change is taking place and the paid servants of the tobacco companies denying that there are health effects from smoking or from second-hand smoke. But what I discovered was that it’s not an analogy, it’s a homology; it is actually the same people, that the most prominent climate change deniers were ten or fifteen years before almost all of them working for the tobacco companies doing the same thing for them. But not just that, but that it was Phillip-Morris who set up the most effective campaigns against taking action on climate change. Now this might seem very strange, what on earth was a tobacco company doing campaigning against action on climate change and trying to create doubt in the public mind that climate change was taking place. Well, it goes as follows that in 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency published this big report on environmental tobacco smoke, second-hand smoking, and the massive health dangers caused by it, and Phillip-Morris realized that this could lead to a ban on smoking in public places and the work place and many other places, which would have a big impact on their sales. So they set up an astroturf campaign, a fake grassroots campaign to try to prevent such legislation from being passed, but they realized that if they only campaigned on cigarette smoke people would instantly trace it back to the tobacco companies, and say well this is obviously just a front group for big tobacco. So they created, so to speak, a smoke-screen, and they said don’t just campaign on tobacco, campaign on other regulatory issues as well. Global warming was top of their list. Bio-technology, nuclear power, cell phones, pesticides; they were also on the list. So they set up this group called the Advancement for Sound Science Coalition which was a classic fake citizens group, citizen’s coalition, which was nothing of the kind. It was entirely financed, entirely set up by Phillip-Morris; and they said, right the core business is to campaign on tobacco, but you don’t tell people that, you campaign primarily on issues like global warming. And they did, and they were very successful in casting doubt in the public mind that global warming was taking place, and subsequently, that same campaign went on to take money from Exxon-Mobil and from other organizations, to say that climate change wasn’t happening, but it was Phillip-Morris which set it up.
Sonali: So a lot of this so-called sound science, I gather, you found spread out throughout the internet that is really muddying the waters on global warming.
Monbiot: Well, this is what they’re paid to do. These are hired-hands, they’re hacks; many of them work for organizations which describe themselves as think-tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation. They’re not think-tanks, they’re public relations agencies, they’re lobby groups, who work for several different corporations at the same time; and this idea that they’re academic institutions of some kind is just total nonsense. They are paid to start with a conclusion, and then discover arguments to justify that conclusion. So they are the opposite to what they call themselves; they call themselves climate skeptics, but a skeptic is a seeker after truth, someone who tries to get to the truth of the matter. These people are exactly the opposite; they are trying to divert people from the truth of the matter by saying, right, what our clients want is the following argument – they want people persuaded that man-made climate change is not taking place. We will therefore find a way of doing that. They’re not interested in where the truth lies; they’re interested in making money. And, my golly, they have made an awful lot of money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve seen some of the accounts of organizations run by Steve Molloy who publishes a website, junkscience.com. He has made hundreds of thousands of dollars from Phillip-Morris and Exxon and others. He’s done very very well for himself out of this. But if it becomes too late to tackle runaway climate change, he above all other people will have been responsible for that, and will have the deaths of many millions of people on his conscience.
Sonali: How do you arrive at the goal that you advocate in your book, a very very serious goal of ninety percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2030? That’s a lot of reduction in a very short amount on time.
Monbiot: Yes. I haven’t pulled this figure out of the hat. This is the result of looking at what the science says about climate change and what it’s likely to do. Now the key figure, which I want you to bear in mind, is this: 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 2 degrees Centigrade. That is the amount of warming beyond which we start getting into serious trouble, and the serious trouble consists in positive feedback. In other words, climate change causing more climate change. I’ll give you a couple of examples of how this happens. Tropical forests are often close to their physiological limits. A slight increase in temperature leads to the deaths of trees; with about two degrees of warming, Centigrade that is, the Amazon Forest as a whole could die back. Now trees are basically sticks of wet carbon, as they die that carbon oxidizes to create carbon dioxide. We see an enormous pulse of carbon dioxide coming from the deaths of tropical forests with two degrees Centigrade of warming. Similarly, with increased warming the metabolic rate of bacteria in the soil increases, (…), producing more carbon dioxide. That’s just two of many examples of positive feedback, of climate change creating more climate change. Now two degrees Centigrade is a critical time because that means that an awful lot of those positive feedback mechanisms start to kick in. That means that two degrees leads inexorably to three degrees, three degrees leads inexorably to four degrees, and the problem is out of our hands. We have to prevent the temperature rise from reaching that point, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 2 degrees Centigrade. In order to do that, and to stand a high chance of doing that, we need a global cut of sixty percent by 2030. And if everyone is said to have an equal entitlement to produce greenhouse gases that means in the richest nations, they’ll have to be a cut of roughly ninety percent by 2030.
Sonali: Let’s talk about solutions which is the bulk of your book. You come up with some very interesting ideas, the first of which is the idea of rationing, and essentially you talk about creating a separate, or maybe a separate system of rationing perhaps one that we’re not as familiar with when we think of the word rationing, we think of food, but you’re talking about rationing carbon. How does that work?
Monbiot: Yeah, well the key task here is to find ways of making that ninety percent cut which are a compatible with industrial civilization and b fair because if they’re not fair people are not going to buy it. And the only system which seems to work in that regard is carbon rationing. What you do is you decide on the trajectory for reducing your carbon emissions between now and 2030. You’ve got to get to a ninety percent cut by 2030, so every year you’ve got to bring it down by an amount which is compatible with that ninety percent cut. You then say that trajectory sets the level for the whole nation as to how much carbon dioxide we as a nation can produce. About sixty percent of that carbon dioxide is produced by government and by corporations, and so you can auction of carbon allocations to them; they have to buy it, and the price they pay reflects the competition for those allocations. And so, they could end up paying a lot of money for those carbon allocations. The rest of it – which is the carbon that we use directly ourselves when we buy electricity, when we buy heating fuel, and when we buy gasoline for our cars – that forms our carbon ration, that forty percent of all the carbon which the economy uses, which we use directly, that’s divided equally amongst all the people in the nation; everyone gets an equal share of it. You then have a carbon credit card or a carbon account with a carbon number, and whenever you buy gasoline, or buy electricity, or buy heating fuel, as well as handing over money for it, you would hand over part of your carbon ration. If you use up your carbon ration before the end of the year, you have to buy surplus from somebody who’s not using up their ration. And this is quite a radical scheme because it does two things. First of all, it makes people aware with every decision they take about the carbon implications for that, the climate change implications of it. And so, it puts that into the front of people’s minds. But secondly, it stimulates a tremendous incentive to buy environmentally friendly technologies and replace your current technologies with them. For example, you’re going to want to keep your lights on in your home without using up all your carbon ration, so you’re going to replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents or with LED’s or with some much more energy efficient light bulb than the one you’re using at the moment. You’re also going to seek to buy electricity from someone who’s producing it from renewable sources rather than from fossil fuels, so it kicks off a whole sequence of desirable outcomes because you are forced all the time to think about your carbon consumption.
Sonali: This sounds a bit like the emissions trading scheme that the Bush administration and other countries have basically signed on to.
Monbiot: Well, yes we have already in Europe an emissions trading scheme which has been working for a few years now, it was set up a few years ago at any rate, and it does have similarities to that. The difference is that outrageously the entitlement to use or produce carbon dioxide was given free of charge to big corporations, and not just any old big corporations, but the ones who had caused the most pollution in the past. So the polluter got paid. The biggest polluters got the biggest allocation, and it was an allocation which belonged to the public domain, and they were just given it. They didn’t have to pay anything; they didn’t have to do anything; and it now turns out that they were given far too much, so they’ve been able to sell that allocation to other people, and last year they made a billion pounds, nearly two billion dollars just by selling this allocation which was given to them. It’s absolutely outrageous, and the polluters must pay. And the more they pollute, the more they should pay for their carbon allocations.
Sonali: George the carbon rationing system then that individuals would use that you suggest, is this going to be enough to create this reduction of ninety percent of carbon emissions by 2030?
Monbiot: Not by itself. It contributes to it, but at the same time there is a desperate need for government action to help us to cut our emissions because by ourselves even with the market power which carbon rationing creates, we can’t change the countries infrastructure. We might say to ourselves, right, I’m going to stop driving my car, I’m going to take the bus or the train instead, but if there aren’t any busses and there aren’t any trains, you’re stuck. You might want to say I want to buy low carbon electricity, but if there isn’t any, you’re stuck. So the government must move in and say, right, to the electricity suppliers, you’ve got to start producing low carbon electricity. It’s got to create the infrastructure which allows us to travel by public transport. It has to be a concerted effort here between government, market forces, and individual action. All of those have got to come together.
Sonali: So say we live in a world where carbon rationing does get instituted, where the government steps in to really put in a plan to make all our homes energy efficient, it seems to me we’re still probably going to be very short of reaching the ninety percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
Monbiot: Yes, it can’t be done in just one sector, and it can’t be done half-heartedly in any sector. What I’ve done is to look at every major sector of the economy. I’ve looked at our homes, I’ve looked at our heating, I’ve looked at our electricity supply, I’ve looked at surface transport, I’ve looked at aviation; and what I have sought to do is to demonstrate how in every one of those sectors, we can make a ninety percent cut without bringing industrial civilization crashing down. So, for example, in our homes we have energy efficiency pushed to the maximum, but with the recognition that it can only go about thirty or forty percent of the way. Number one because our housing stock, most of it is relatively old and not very efficient, and there’s a limit to how well you can retrofit old houses – you can make new houses very efficient indeed – but when you’re retrofitting old houses you don’t get very far. And number two, you’re not going to persuade people to get rid of their computers and their televisions and all their other gadgets and gizmos, their washing machines, their dishwashers, and the rest of it. If you say to people that’s what you’ve got to do, you’re going to lose this politically. We have to take people with us, and so we can’t say to them it’s the end of your electronic gadgets. So we have to recognize that energy efficiency, while it’s entirely desirable, is limited in its scope for action in our homes and in our offices. So that means that we then have de-carbonize our heating and electricity supplies, and with electricity for example my work suggests that we could produce about fifty percent of the electricity on the grid form renewable sources, and in particular I favor very large scale off-shore wind generation. The thing about offshore is that you get more wind. With every hundred kilometers from the coast, wind speeds rise by one meter per second, so the further out you are – as long as the water is shallow enough to plant your wind turbines – the more wind you get the more power you generate. And there’s a potential when you’re a very long way offshore, right out on the continental shelf, there’s a potential to start building truly enormous turbines. We’re talking about ten megawatt turbines, hundreds of yards across – real monsters, sort of proper giants for Don Quixote to joust at. And I would like to see that coupled with major investments in solar farms in desert regions, and also with carbon capture and storage from fossil fuel burning plants because you can’t do it all through renewable energy unfortunately. Otherwise, the grid just crashes every time the wind drops. You have to have some balancing power, and your options are fairly limited as to what that balancing power can be. But what I show is that through these different mechanisms, you can get an eighty-five to ninety percent cut in the total carbon produced by your electricity generating network.
Sonali: Let’s talk a bit about a few of these methods. The issue that you talk in your book particularly about carbon capture was very intriguing to me. What exactly does carbon capture mean? How can you escaping carbon dioxide and store it somewhere?
Monbiot: Well, it sounds like science fiction, but all the steps are already in operation in different parts of the world they’re not all necessarily used at the same time, but there’s no major technological breakthrough required. The technology exists. The technology exists to remove carbon dioxide from the exhausts of power stations through something A means scrubbing; it’s a very long-established and well-tried technology. It operates in quite a few places around the world. Then to pipe that carbon dioxide away, and then to bury it in geological formations a long way underground. It becomes a super-critical fluid at about eight-hundred meters underground which means that it’s much easier to inject into porous rocks – old gas aquifers, for example, and salt aquifers way way underground. And the science suggests that it stays there; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that there is a ninety-nine percent chance that it stays underground for over one thousand years which is enough to buy us a bit of time. So while it sounds crazy and it sounds like science fiction, it is actually plausible. I don’t like it; aesthetically I object to it and I don’t like the idea of just burying our waste, but if it’s safe – and it does seem to be safe – and if it’s stable – and it does seem to be stable – then I think unfortunately it’s one of the only options we’ve got.
Sonali: So you said buying ourselves time, basically we would be buying ourselves maybe say a thousand years. Would we also not, at some point, run out of space and volume to store all this carbon?
Monbiot: Well, we’d probably be buying ourselves millions of years because, I mean it’s a ninety-nine percent chance that it stays under for a thousand years – or ninety-nine point something. There’s also a high chance that It’ll stay underground for a million years. There is a possibility that we would run out of space, but there are huge huge possibilities in saline aquifers under the sea bed, and some estimates suggests that it runs to many hundreds years of carbon dioxide output. I would like to emphasize two things though. One is that we cannot use this as an excuse to just carry on with business as usual; we should not just use this as an excuse to just keep producing as much electricity as we’re producing at the moment because apart from anything else, that electricity production has an enormous cost at other stages of production. So, for example, if those power stations are burning coal, well we know what appalling damage coal does when it’s mined. Look at what’s happening in the Appalachian Mountains with mountaintop removal, it’s like moonscape. It’s just horrendous what they’re doing there. And secondly, I’d like to emphasize that this can only be done for power generation – for generation of electricity. It doesn’t solve transport emissions, it doesn’t solve heating emissions, it doesn’t solve aviation emissions, it doesn’t solve anything else. It can only be used to remove emissions from power stations making electricity.
Sonali: Let’s talk a little bit about renewable sources of energy. You mentioned that wind turbines are the way that you’re leaning, but you mention in your book that one of the things you learned about the way in which our electricity grids work is that they need a very stable source of energy, and that if you have surges in energy it can put out the power grid. If you have enormous amounts of wind at one point, or for example if the wind even dies down. So how do you make up for that in this idea of wind turbines?
Monbiot: Right, the problem with electricity is that it’s unlike most of the other commodities that we buy in that rather than buying them and stockpiling them and selling them when they’re required, electricity can’t be cheaply stored on a large scale except in a very few limited circumstances, and that means that it has to be produced at the very moment of demand, in the very quantity that the demand comes in. If you get the quantity wrong, you get voltage and frequency fluctuations, and that will crash all the countries computers. If you get it wildly wrong, it’ll lead to a blackout, and blackout’s are not politically feasible. If we want this program to work politically, then it’s got to involve no blackouts. So you have this particular problem with these intermittent sources of power generation. For example, in the northern United States, the peak of electricity demand is going to be roughly five to seven on a winter’s evening when people come home from work, they turn on the lights, they turn on the television, they turn on the power showers, and there’s this huge surge in demand. Now you can’t just switch the wind on to meet that demand, you can’t switch the wave on, you can’t switch the sun on – in fact the sun won’t be shining at that time – and so you’ve got to manage that grid very very carefully to work out how best you can introduce a maximum of renewable electricity without bringing it crashing down. And what that involves is, first of all, you build your renewable power stations – your wind farms, your solar farms – as far apart geographically as you can, and the reason for that is that if the wind stops blowing in one place, it’s likely still to be blowing in another place. So you make it much more reliable by that means. It also means if you’re producing solar power on one side of the country – as the sun goes down there – you can still be producing solar power on the other side of the country. You keep your power points as far apart as you possibly can in order to make renewable power more reliable, but it also means that you have to have other forms of power generation there too.
Sonali: Does this approach translate into what you refer to as the energy internet, where you have different sources of energy being produced all over the world, even by individuals?
Monbiot: Well, there’s several different ways of looking at what the energy internet could be. The way it’s normally used is people talking about having local grids, and they’re generating all their electricity locally. And this is a very popular idea with environmentalists, not least because environmentalists hate electricity pylons, I hate electricity pylons. It’s a disaster in terms of dealing with climate change, and the reason for that is you can rely very little on renewable sources because of course if you’re generating locally, you don’t have that diversity of supply that I was talking about. When the wind drops in one place, and you’re only generating locally, you lose all your wind power. If the sun goes down, you lose all your solar power. And generally, most people live in places which aren’t that windy. Chicago would be pretty good to live in if you want to generate your electricity from wind, but many places in the United States aren’t. People have chosen not to live on the top of mountains, have chosen to live in relatively sheltered places, and you don’t get that much environmental energy, that much ambient energy, from cities. The places where the wind blows strongest, or indeed where the sun beats down hardest, are generally deserts, they’re generally mountaintops, they’re generally great empty plains; they’re not where people live, so we have to draw the electricity from elsewhere and that means unfortunately we have to stick with the electricity pylon lines. I hate them. Everybody hates them. They’re hideous; they’re a real eyesore on the landscape, but I don’t see any way around it. I’m sorry to say. But that being said, the more integrated the grids are, and the wider the range across which they draw their electricity, the more stable they will be. And so, you can think of a much bigger electricity internet, and in Europe I’m calling for a European super-grid, where all the national grids are joined up, but also joined up under the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahara; and the Sahara is a tremendous potential source of energy because not only is it a desert, it means there are very few clouds, you have very strong solar radiation, so you can build very effective and cheap solar farms, but it also runs from east to west, and the great thing about a desert that goes form east to west is that as the sun’s going down at one end of it, it’s close to rising on the other end. And the Sahara could give us about fifteen hours of solid electricity generation, which could supply much of Europe.
Sonali: So talking about energy sources, let’s discuss one of the most controversial sources of energy, particularly among activists and environmentalists, and that’s the issue of nuclear energy. You didn’t just dismiss nuclear energy as a source of energy in your book. Why?
Monbiot: Simply because our options are so limited. In Europe, we have rather more options than you have here because we still have reasonable supplies of natural gas, but in North America your supplies of natural gas are running down. Where is your non-intermittent power going to come from given that, as I’ve said, the maximum penetration of renewable power will be about fifty percent? Where is the rest going to come from? And I’m sorry to say that in North America, it comes down to two very unpleasant choices – and I wouldn’t really want to be in your shoes in choosing between them. One is the C word, a very nasty word, four letters beginning with a C – it’s coal. And the other one is nuclear power. Now the problem with coal, that we’ve already touched on, is vast open cast mining and landscape destruction, even if you have carbon capture and storage, which means that it doesn’t cause much climate change, it still causes an awful lot of environmental damage. The problem with nuclear power is this, it’s not so much waste storage – I believe that can be done, it’s been done very badly so far, it’s been corrupt, I mean what’s happened at Yucca Mountain is just appalling, but it could in principle be done safely – the problem is nuclear proliferation. Now Eisenhower, in his famous Atoms for Peace speech, talked of beating the nuclear sword into the nuclear ploughshare, and he talked of an arrangement with other countries whereby if they promised not to produce nuclear weapons, they could have nuclear power. Well, it was just wild over-optimism and wishful thinking because what’s actually happened is that every nation since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, which has acquired or sought to acquire nuclear weapons – we’re talking about Israel, India Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, South Africa – has done so by diverting nuclear material from their civil nuclear programs. That means that, if like me, you want to see an eventual end to nuclear weapons around the world, you also have to envisage and eventual end to nuclear power around the world.
Sonali: I want to go back to the issue of the storage of nuclear waste. You said it could be done more efficiently, but at some point will we not run out of space to store nuclear waste, and who wants to live anywhere near a nuclear waste site, no matter how hard you convince them that it’s going to be safe?
Monbiot: Well, yes those are two different and very interesting questions. Now, the reason that I think it can be done in theory is that I read the technical report produced by Posivo, which is the Finnish nuclear authority which is by far the most advanced country as far as dealing with this nuclear waste issue is concerned; and it’s a vast report and they go into enormous detail, and they do seem to have considered these questions very carefully. And they found that if you borough very deep underground, it’s a long long way underground, into granite which has a very low percolation rate, and then you encase nuclear waste in lead cores surrounded by copper, put it all the way down these shafts, backfill with a kind of clay called benzonite, it’s good for several million years. It’s not going to come out, and so in principle it can be done wherever you a have a deep, dry granite formation, and there are plenty of those around the world. In practice, of course, we’ve often seen appalling fraud and mismanagement on the part of the nuclear industry, and a classic example is Yucca Mountain which was meant to be a dry repository. Turns out to have much higher water percolation rates then the authorities let on, and it took a whistleblower to show that that was the case. Actually the water percolation rates had been forged. So you have this situation where you can do it in principle, people will use the theory of what can be obtained to cut corners and create the impression that all is well, and behind that impression all sorts of bad stuff can happen. But I see that if it’s properly monitored, if the corruption of the nuclear industry is dealt with, that could be handled. Whether or not anybody wants to live in that area is another matter, but the question I’d ask you is, do you want to live next to a coal burning power station either? And of course people don’t, and we’re going to have to make that very hard and very nasty choice. And it’s not a choice I want to have to make, it’s not a choice I would choose to make, but that is being thrust on us by the extraordinary demands of climate change.
Sonali: Let’s talk about aviation which it looks like we’re not going to be able to get around. As someone who has close family members spread out all over the globe, I have to say I was disappointed when I read your assessment that there’s just nothing that can be done to get around aviation in terms of global warming. We’re just going to have to take fewer flights. Why?
Monbiot: Yes, aviation unlike all the other subject areas that I looked at in the book, is subject to very strict technological restraints. There are very few ways of doing it. There are very few ways of lifting an airplane into the air and keeping it there, so that it doesn’t fall out of the sky. When you look at what the alternatives are to flying in an airplane – aside from airships which has got a lot of potential actually and could cut emissions by between eighty-five and ninety percent, but are slow and very hard to schedule, strict timetables because of headwinds and all the rest of it – if you’re looking at jetliners or airliners of any kind, you find that the alternatives which have been put forward are actually even more damaging than flying in a jetliner fueled by kerosene. Hydrogen is far worse for the environment if it’s used in airplanes than kerosene is. Biofuels are a disaster for other reasons. You’re basically stuck with the current mode of aviation. You can switch from jet engines to propeller planes, and you get about a forty percent savings by that means. They’re quite a lot slower, but you could that. But a forty percent savings isn’t nearly enough; we’re talking about a ninety percent saving here in every sector. That’s what we require. If you don’t have a ninety percent saving in one sector, it means you’re going to have to have a ninety-five percent saving in another sector, and that’s just not going to be feasible – ninety percent’s about the limit of what we can reach – and unfortunately the only option here is to cut back on the number of flights we take, and cut back dramatically on them. Now this is particularly hard for people in your position because you have what I call a lot of love miles. What that means is there are an awful lot of miles between you and the people you love, and you can only redeem those love miles by traveling to see them. And the weird conclusion which this leads me to is that the planet could be destroyed by love. Now we’ve known for a long time that the planet could be destroyed by hate and greed and fear – we’ve always been aware of that – but climate strange invites this very strange morality. It tells us that there are far more moral considerations than those which we have been ready to consider up till now. It tells us that it’s not enough just to carry on being friendly and nice and kind to people around us. We have radically to challenge the way that we live if we are not to be responsible for other peoples deaths, and given that climate change has the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people, and given that we’re the biggest polluters, we could all end up with blood on our hands by just going about what seems to be entirely innocent business. It’s a massive and very perplexing moral issue because it challenges everything we have up until now considered to be morally neutral behavior, and it’s particularly challenging when it comes to the issue of love miles. Of course you have to see your family, but unfortunately I think you’re going to have to see your family members less than you probably do today.
Sonali: Maybe I can convince my parents to move here.
Monbiot: Well that would be the ideal thing, but then of course they’d want to go back to where they’ve come from in order to see their relatives and I don’t know if it fixes it.
Sonali: George let’s talk a little bit about some interesting controversies around the issue of global warming that we’ve seen in recent days on the left, some place we might not expect to see it. A few weeks ago, the well-known writer, Alexander Cockburn, who is one of the editors of Counterpunch wrote an article that I think surprised everyone – certainly I was surprised – called “From Papal Indulgences to Carbon Credits: Is Global Warming a Sin?” And in that article, he basically asserts that the human carbon footprint is of zero consequence.
Monbiot: It’s really crazy stuff, and it’s very sad really because I’ve had a great deal of respect for Alexander, an awful lot of people on the left have respect for Alexander and he’s blown a lot of it. For the past three weeks, I have had a challenge issued to him to provide his references for the so-called scientific claims that he made in that article. He has not met that challenge; he has not provided his references, and I think I know why. It’s because there aren’t any. Now those of us who have degrees in science know that for a claim to carry scientific weight, it has to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Alexander has based all his claims on a conversation he had in 2001 with a man he met on a boat. This man isn’t even a climate scientist; he trained once as a meteorologist many many years ago. He did a degree in meteorology; he is scarcely better qualified than you or I to dismiss the entire canon of climate science, but for some reason Alexander Cockburn has just jumped on this, and says it’s not happening because this man says so. And he obviously doesn’t understand anything of science; he hasn’t responded to any of the critiques made of the claims that he’s put out, and some very serious critiques indeed – you can read them on realclimate.org – where climate scientists have assessed what he’s saying, and said it’s just complete nonsense. You can read my critique on Zmag.org, where I’ve been challenging Alexander to a debate, and challenging to produce his references, and he’s failed to do so. And the way in which he’s turned his back on the requirements that he produces his references and that he engage with his critics, but at the same time continues to say there’s not a problem, don’t worry about it, suggests that he’s been completely irresponsible on this issue.
Sonali: And again, those website are realclimate.org and then you can read the initial article by Alexander Cockburn and George Monbiot’s response at Zmag.org. Now your book has been out in Britain and in Europe, what sort of response has it received, and did you have any trouble publishing it here in the US?
Monbiot: Well, yes I did have big trouble publishing it in the US. Until South End Press picked it up, we just couldn’t get anyone to take it. And it’s very odd because just over the border in Canada, for example, it’s been on the bestseller list for thirty weeks now, and it’s just been very hard to get traction here. And I think that US publishers are underestimating the American people because what I’ve found being here is that people are far more ready to here this message than the publishers thought they were, and that they are much more interested in the issue of climate change than they were a year ago, and much more ready to take action, and much more willing to hear what they need to do to take that action, and what real action consists of. There’s a perception that people in the United States are completely uninterested in their impact on the rest of the world, and of course sure there are still some people who are like that but that’s doesn’t explain the people that I meet are very passionate about this issue indeed, and there are more and more of them coming forward everyday now. I think we’re on the verge of a great transformation in the United States. I think that we’re on the verge of seeing a very swift political change on this issue which will put enormous pressure on your politicians.
Sonali: You’re very optimistic. Even in your book, you are quite optimistic about turning this whole, what seems like a juggernaut, toward global warming and the destruction of the planet, turning it around. What keeps you going?
Monbiot: Well, I suppose it’s pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. What really keeps me going is seeing what people have achieved in the past on other issues, and it’s often been the case that people have been faced with an absolute brick wall of public and political intransigence and indifference, and yet have worn through. And we can all think of many campaigns whether it’s emancipation and civil rights, for example, whether it’s enfranchisement in Europe, where people didn’t have the vote and no one was going to give them the vote, but it happened eventually, whether it’s environmental initiatives like the Montreal Protocol stopping ozone depleting chemicals which seemed at first to be impossible and then it became possible. History shows us again and again, that however bleak and desperate a situation looks, it can be rescued if there’s sufficient political will and effective campaigning by the people who care about it. And what we are seeing in several countries now is a remarkably swift gathering of steam behind the issue of climate change as people suddenly wake up. People talk about long processes of public education, but I don’t think it’s going to be a long process in this case. I think that there’s almost a critical mass issue going on where people having been somnolent about it before and really switched off, suddenly switch on to it because they already know about it. It’s not that we have to go around saying to people climate change is taking place, it’s caused by fossil fuels, the fossil fuels are the things that we burn in our cars and in our homes and in the rest of it. People know that stuff; they’ve known it for a long time, but they’ve shut their ears to it. They’ve still heard it. They can’t shut it out, but they’ve pretended not to hear it. All it takes is for that critical mass to be reached, and suddenly people who’ve long known this stuff will feel themselves obliged to act. And it’s up to all of us who are already switched on to it, to accelerate that process as much as possible by starting up climate action networks, by starting campaigning, by being much better citizens on the issue of climate change.
Special thanks to Daniel Kolendowicz for transcribing this interview