Feb. 21, 2008

Monbiot's Heat

I haven't blogged for a couple of months, I've been staying mostly away from the internet for the winter. I may start putting up the odd thing now and again.

Previously I've written about the climate crisis and expressed something close to hopelessness. I've just read something that gives me at least some small hope. This is George Monbiot's "Heat." If you want a very accessible over-view of the technical issues involved, you couldn't do better than that. I heartily recommend it. Monbiot is brutally realistic, very rigourous (he actually crunches the numbers for you) and even writes with a verve and flair that keeps you engaged, no mean feat given the technical nature of the subject matter.

Mr. Monbiot's programme in the book is an ambitious one. He starts by doing the math about just how much we need to cut carbon emissions and how soon if we are going to stabilize the climate. Granted, there is always some guesswork involved in this field where the scientific details, if not the big picture, are still being worked out. But he makes a solid case for some quite startling numbers. We need, says Mr. Monbiot, to cut planetary carbon emissions by 80% before 2030. What's more, this translates into a 90% cut in the industrial countries.

Mr. Monbiot spends the bulk of the book showing how Britain, where he resides, could do this. He covers all major areas of the economy; transport, aviation, housing and so forth. Although he uses the example of Britain, most of what he says could be applied, with some changes, to any industrial country. (Or are we post-industrial already?)

I learnt some surprising things in this book; cement is a huge producer of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing for instance. (Who knew?) Micro-power like home windmills is highly over-rated. (It only looks good if you believe the manufacturer's hype). Monbiot disagrees with my other eco-guru, Lovelock, in a couple of places. Notably, he is not an advocate for nuclear energy.

In the course of the book, Mr. Monbiot surprisingly lays out a plan that could just do it, a plan that is both technically and economically possible. He also does it in a way that incorporates social justice; carbon emissions should be rationed not taxed. Futhermore, he manages to do it without scaling back the lifestyle of the rich nations as much as I would have thought necessary. He tries, whenever possible, to preserve our standard of living. He does this, I am pretty sure, not out of a sympathy with consumerism, but to make the scheme as palatable as possible to the broad masses. Where necessary, though, he can suggest quite severe changes; most notably in aviation. He says long distance jet travel simply cannot be made green. People in the future, if there is to be one, must simply travel less and travel more slowly. I would think we could and should actually cut a lot more out of our lifestyles, but I appreciate Monbiot's realism.

I would like to address the issue of voluntarism. I don't see how we can possibly stop runaway climate change that way. It's the old problem of the "tragedy of the commons." If one person lives in voluntary simplicity, it makes absolutely no difference to the problem. Granted, as one comment to this blog notes, it may set an example. But imagine if fifty percent of the public voluntarily gave up automobile travel. (An impossible number) What would happen? The price of gas would go down due to low demand, and those who didn't care would simply drive more and drive bigger cars.

No, the only action that can work is political (and Monbiot makes the same point.) The problem is way too big for each individual to deal with as they think best. The very least that must happen is a strict system of rationing for all goods that produce carbon emissions.

British Columbia has just introduced a budget said to be the greenest in North America, which includes a gradually escalating carbon tax. This is better than nothing, quite a bit better, but the problem with a tax is that the poor will suffer while the rich will continue to squander. (The budget isn't perfect, it still includes subsidies to the oil and gas industry, an insane policy)

I said earlier that Monbiot's scheme, worked out in meticulous detail, is workable both economically and technically. But is it workable politically? I remain pessimistic on that front. The public may make green mouth noises, but when it comes down to a reduction in their standard of living, such as giving up winter holidays in the Caribbean, the middle classes will not vote for anyone proposing something like Monbiot's plan in Heat. By the time things get so bad that people are willing to face tough decisions, it may be too late. Greed and ignorance strike again.


Robert said...

As I attempt to look at the climate change issue with equanimity and the Buddhist goal of knowing things as they really are, I find that the situation is horribly complex and that the more I read, the less I feel that I know what's going on or what to do about it. For example, take the issue of methane burped out by cattle. Vegans tell me that eating meat is bad because all burping cows emit methane that exceeds the greenhouse effect of all of the CO2 emitted by cars. (I think this is still being studied, but for now lets just accept this as fact.) Well, it turns out that something like half of the burping "cows" in the world are plow animals. At various points people have discouraged people from replacing their plow animals with gasoline-powered farm equipment, but the previous figures seem to suggest that modern farm equipment might be better than plow animals when it comes to greenhouse gas, which is totally counterintuitive.

I've also read purely economic studies that just try to weigh the economic impact reducing CO2 emissions. (This does matter because people with less money are less willing to give money to developing countries that need aid to fight malaria, etc.) Supposedly we have something like 5 million people on the globe who die every year due to poverty-related problems like malaria, unsanitary water, etc, whereas some estimate I found says that about 200,000 more people will die every every year from these causes due to increase in global temperature. Many of the 5 million deaths can be prevented by economic development. For example, supposedly malaria is effectively eliminated in any country with a per capita GDP of above $3000/year. However trying to stop global warming to save 200,000 deaths/year might prevent the economic development that could save many more than 200,000 people. Of course, things are more complex than this because temperature change will also change ecosystems and have other effects, so it's difficult to weigh the exact costs on either side.

Then there are people claiming that the effects of CO2 are exaggerated, that it's really solar activity that matters most. Some claim sea level will rise by 20 feet, some say 20cm. Some say every continent on earth except for Antarctica will be uninhabitable. Some say CO2 is good because it increases crop yields, assuming enough nitrogen in the soil. If you're a anthropogenic global warming skeptic then you're a "holocaust denier," and supposedly grant money isn't being given to scientists who want to conduct studies that might challenge the commonly accepted theories, introducing bias even among the scientific community.

Unfortunately I can come up with good reasons why anthropogenic global warming is convenient for certain groups on both the sides of believers and skeptics, so I'm not convinced anyone is unbiased. Then I'm disturbed that nobody seems to be working on adaptation strategies, since I think it's pretty unlikely that we're going to get enough people on the planet to cut their carbon emissions significanty. So warming, if that's what's happening, seems inevitable to me regardless of what it's caused by, and I don't know why people don't seem to be planning for the worst.

In any case, the more I read the more confused I am. Nobody seems to have the complete picture, for example climatologists tend to have a "we just have to do something!" attitude rather than a cost/benefit sort of attitude while economists have poor or nonexistent estimates of costs. Then we have extremists who refuse to make any trade offs like using nuclear power to replace coal/gas.

I've pretty much gotten to where I'm just tired of reading about it.

Paul said...

"But is it workable politically?"

That's the question all right. What we're doing to the environment and the rate at which we're doing it is cause for real concern.

So far, all I see in the US is the usual small percent of seriously concerned and reasonably well informed people and the mass marketing of "going green." People feel great because they buy local produce and less bottled water, imagining that consumer buying habits and not concerted worldwide governmental action will reign in the consequences of relentless short-sighted corporate greed.

Tor Hershman said...

No past lives, no future lives, just guaranteed oblivion
who could ask for less?

Stay on groovin' safari,

Robert said...

I think you guys are overreacting a bit. I suspect this is one of these areas where the vast majority won't be willing to incur significant costs until they're sure of what they're dealing with, and we can't expect much else. Call that greed, but there's nothing you can do about it. That's the way the world is. It's better to worry about your own greed, or lack thereof, than that of others. Same for hatred and delusion. In fact, hatred arising for those who won't do as you would like is a danger.

Dhamma81 said...

"It's better to worry about your own greed, or lack thereof, than that of others. Same for hatred and delusion. In fact, hatred arising for those who won't do as you would like is a danger."

That's true Robert. The world is the way it is and there is not a whole lot we can do about it except to take care of ourselves. If we are lucky then perhaps others will try to emulate us if we are living, practicing correctly. I agree with Ajahn Punnadhammo, I'm also pessimistic about politics and how they can get things done. You can't force people into buying into your personal vision for the world, and even if you tried to, what good would it do? I suppose we have an obligation as citizens of this planet to do what we can but in the end I feel that taking care of our own greed, hatred and delusion is more important then trying to win people over to our views about society, politics, climate change etc. Of course, there will be those that disagree but that's the way it is isn't it?

Robert Stone said...

Inspired by thoughts about politics and Dhamma, I've started a new blog called Political Buddhism to express my thoughts. Please let me know what you think.