Monday, November 20, 2006

MONBIOT: A Man for All Climates

Millions of people have come to rely on George Monbiot as a clear-headed investigator into the threats and possible solutions to climate change.

Through his regular columns in Britain's respected Guardian newspaper, his books, and appearances on television and radio, Monbiot has become more than a journalist. He's an activist and a player in the greatest drama unfolding in human history.

This is Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock. I was galvanized by a speech George Monbiot gave to a packed house in Vancouver, Canada, November 15th, 2006. He's someone you need to know.

Monbiot has specialized in travels to uncharted territories. His expose on rainforest destruction in Indonesia got him kicked out of the country. He chronicled the deep Amazon before the rest of us woke up to the global consequences there. Just recently, mass media is realizing that the tragedy of sub-Saharan Africa is fuelled by our own carbon pollution. George was there much earlier, and nearly died from a disease contracted while covering events in East Africa.

Back in the UK, in the 1990's, Monbiot became a leader and focal point for a national struggle against endless road building throughout Britain. At one protest, a road builder pounded a metal spike into his foot. These road battles were relatively successful in re-focusing the government, and the bureaucracy, in the direction of more sustainable transportation.

Now Monbiot is back for the greatest challenge of our time: how to save the ecosphere from human-made global warming. His latest book is called "Heat - How To Stop the Planet Burning."

But it isn't all warnings and gloom. In fact, Monbiot has polled countless scientists and experts to develop a plan to save the planet from the worst scenarios, from mass extinctions and a collapsed economy. We'll try to pack in the best of Monbiot from speeches: the man, and the plan.

One of his key points is the black irony of climate change. It is caused by industrialized nations in the temperate zone. Yet the impacts are worst in the tropics, where less-developed countries are least responsible. While Masai tribes people have no water for their cattle, in North America and Europe, people may enjoy a little warming in the next few years, aside from the terrible storms.

Like a frog about to be boiled in a pot, at first we like the relaxing warm water.

Typically, George begins with results from some of the latest science, one of his roles as climate communicator.

[All clips from Monbiot in Vancouver, November 15, 2006]

"I'm afraid the news is really, pretty grim, and it's not quite that the whole planet will turn into a desert, we are going to see a very severe drying of some of the world's most productive areas. There is an article published in the Journal of Hydrometeorology last month, I'm sure you've all read it, which investigated the big climate change question of whether, across this century we're going to see a net global drying or a net global wetting, as a result of increasing temperatures.

And it's a hot question, because as temperatures rise, the rate of evaporation rises, and that means that the ground dries out, but it also means that - more evaporation, you get more rainfall. And scientists were uncertain what the balance of those two results was likely to be.

This paper, using the latest information, the latest data, the latest computer models, shows pretty unequivocally that it's going to be a severe net drying. And the area of the Earth that subject to extreme drought, rises from the current 3 percent, to 40 percent by the end of the century."

The challenge, he tells us, is to prevent runaway climate change, by keeping temperature rise below two degrees.


"The great majority of scientists now, are not just saying that climate change is happening and it's a serious matter. They are saying that the critical threshold is somewhere around 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels. We're currently at 0.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels and we're probably already committed to about 1.3 to about 1.4, because of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we've already produced. But they say the critical juncture is 2 degrees, and it's critical for a couple of reasons.

One: because of the direct impacts that it is likely to have. I've already mentioned one of them [global drying]. Added to that, we could see the tipping point for the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, each of which could produce 6 or 7 meters of sea level rise - I mean it will take several hundred years for that to happen, but once the process begins it's then very, very hard to stop. The wiping out of all the world's tropical coral reefs. Probably the dying back of the Amazon rainforest, the whole Amazon rainforest from East to West. And several other very severe direct impacts of climate change.

But alongside those direct impacts of man-made climate change, we have the indirect ones, in the form of runaway feed-back. Runaway feedback means climate change causing climate change.

A classic example is the West Siberian peat bog. Not something we have cause to think about very often, but it's something we should have cause to think about from now on. Because the West Siberian peat bog, this expanse of permafrost, contains the equivalent of 73 years of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

And because it's frozen, that methane stays where it is. But as the melting of the permafrost begins, the methane starts to bubble out. When the methane starts to bubble out, global temperatures rise further, more melting of the permafrost. More melting of the permafrost, more methane.

What this effectively means is that if we allow temperatures to rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, three degrees becomes an inevitability. When it gets to three degrees, the 4 degrees becomes an inevitability, and then we really are talking about global catastrophe.

In other words, we allow temperatures to get to 2 degrees, and then it is out of our hands, there is absolutely nothing more we can do about it. Runaway climate change takes place, whether or not we are involved in it. So the critical effort must be to prevent global temperatures from reaching two degrees above pre-industrial levels."

To do it, we need targets - how much must we cut back greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide?


"You find that in order to have a high chance, 70 to 80 percent chance, of preventing temperatures from rising two degrees above pre-industrial levels, we require a global cut of greenhouse gas emissions of 60 percent by 2030.

And if that cut is to be distributed evenly, that is, fairly - if, in other words, everyone is to have the same entitlement to produce carbon dioxide, that means in the rich nations on average: a cut of 90 percent."

The problem, for each of us personally, is that climate change introduces a new morality. Things we learned were good and now also bad, harmful to the Earth.

[Clip - the new climate morality. Explains how actions previously thought good, are now also bad. Example of flying to Sidney for family wedding. How "love can kill the world."]

He doesn't think carbon taxes are the way to go. The result there is the rich can afford to keep on wasting energy, while the poor may have to give up heating their homes or getting to work. Instead, he proposes a carbon rationing system which reminds us of Britain in World War Two. Perhaps this is the real war to save the world.

[Clip: system carbon rationing]

Here are more made in Monbiot solutions, a short selection from a much richer program in his book, "Heat, How to Stop the Planet Burning."

[Clip: Carbon Passive Houses]

And the appliances and gadgets in these houses must be terrifically stingy with carbon energy.

[Clip: Appliances Gadgets]

Monbiot's preferred energy solution is renewables. Here he describes offshore wind, with a new delivery system that takes this power far inland.

[Clip: Offshore Wind]

Then, to support the inevitable continuation of the private car, Monbiot proposes to make them all electric. There is no problem with performance in existing electric car technology. The challenge is to keep them going long distances without waiting for them to re-charge. His answer: replace gasoline filling stations with battery replacement depots. You drive in, a little crane comes out, takes out your old battery, drops in a fully charged one. You don't buy the battery, but lease it. These batteries can be re-charged by energy companies at night, when power demand is low, but supply from sources like offshore wind continue strong.

Sadly, Monbiot finds there is no existing solution to de-carbonize air travel. The only way to get a 90 percent cut in airplane emissions is to fly 90 percent less. Localize your economy, and choose lovers, and develop families, within low-carbon land-travel range. This always draws a gasp from the middle-class audiences who love to travel, especially to get away in winter for holidays.

Is it too great a sacrifice?


"This might seem grotesque, unfair, and onerous, but I would remind you that only a very, very small proportion of the world's people fly. The great majority of people on Earth, including all those that are going to get hit hardest with climate change, have never, and will never, step into an airplane.

And if this seems particularly unfair, it's because that tiny minority who fly almost certainly includes all of you.

But, put this into perspective. The last great global crisis which is in any way comparable to the one that we face with climate change, was the Second World War. And the Allied Powers saw very clearly that if they did not stand up and fight against this great threat to a democratic, or vaguely, or nominally democratic world order - that a catastrophe would ensue. That was a reasonable prediction.

And so, they had to turn to their people and say: We have to stop Hitler, and we have to stop the Japanese, we have to stop the Axis Powers. And we are asking you, millions of you, to sacrifice your lives, in order to stop those people, and in order to stop this global catastrophe from unfolding.

Now I'm saying, alongside many other people, we have to stop runaway climate change, a catastrophe just as great, possibly even greater, than Hitler promised. A catastrophe which has the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people. And I'm not asking you to sacrifice your lives. I'm asking you to sacrifice your holidays in Florida. I'm asking you to sacrifice your monster SUVs which you might drive. I'm asking you to sacrifice a little of the energy you might use for lighting and heating by going to more efficient models.

If we can't bear the thought of that sacrifice, we have become a very soft and selfish people. It's not a big deal. By comparison to what we're up against, by comparison to what climate change threatens, it is not a big sacrifice to ask of people.

It seems onerous because we are in those temperate nations which, in the early years at least, do pretty well out of climate change. It looks good. It feels good. We don't feel the urgent necessity of doing something about it. But let tell you, in Ethiopia they do right now, because in Ethiopia, every year the short rains are failing, and they are failing because of rising sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, and those rising sea surface temperatures are the direct result of what we are doing in countries like this. And already, we are having that impact on them.

If this country was at the latitude of Ethiopia, and my country was at the latitude of Ethiopia, we would have cracked this problem by now. We would have seen those sacrifices as being very, very minor sacrifices indeed."

And this is where Monbiot ends, and your part begins:


"Now what I've done in this talk is very briefly, and in very little detail, to sketch out some of the technological and economic means by which a ninety percent cut in carbon emissions, by 2030, could be achieved. What I've not done, is to demonstrate that it is politically feasible. There is a reason for this, and it's quite deliberate that I've not done this.

The reason that I have not set out to demonstrate that it is politically feasible, is that it is not up to me to do so. It's up to you."


Find out more about George Monbiot at And get his whole program, in the new book "Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning" from Penguin Press.

Music in this podcast is by Shane Philip.

This report is from Radio Ecoshock, the Net's only full-time all environment radio station. Tune in free, and subscribe to our podcast, at