conspiracy Of Silence
On Climate Change
By Ashwin Gambhir
09 February, 2007
Heat: How to stop the planet burning; by George Monbiot
304 pages; ISBN 9780713999235; 28 Sep 2006; published by Allen Lane
"The laws of Congress and the laws of physics have grown increasingly
divergent, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield." -
Bill McKibben on Climate Change.
What is the common thread between
the changing Indian monsoon pattern, the rapidly retreating Himalayan
glaciers, the gobbling up of certain Sunderban islands and some coastal
Orissa villages by the rising sea levels and the complete shutting down
of apple growing in lower regions of Himachal Pradesh due to lack of
snow. CLIMATE CHANGE; and it is here to stay, if we don't do something
about it very urgently. Till recently, people talked about climate change
as something manifesting in the future while some went to the extent
as doubting the whole science of climate change. No longer! The discomforting
manifestations of climate change are readily visible (for those who
will not turn a blind eye to realities staring us in the face) and are
only predicted to get worse.
So is there any hope of
reversing this situation or has humanity walked too far down the road?
George Monbiot argues in his latest book, HEAT, that there is still
a chance to salvage the situation, provided we act urgently and decisively
towards a common goal. The goal is clearly laid down: a 90% reduction
in green house gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. The first chapter of the
book summarizes most of the extensive research on climate change till
date and it takes a strong heart to go through all of the findings in
chapter one. I had to abruptly put down the book many times while reading
this chapter to deal with my anger, frustration and increasing despair
at the possible future that I would be a part of. At the end of chapter
one I was convinced of the saying, "truth is stranger than fiction".
Not even the best fiction writers could have dreamt of this future.
But it does not have to be this way. He also clears up the common confusion
with regard to numbers related to the atmospheric concentrations of
GHGs. While current CO2 levels stand at roughly 380 ppm, CO2 eq levels
stand at nearly 430 ppm. These numbers are wrongly used interchangeably
by many people. The more important number is the CO2 eq one. Chapter
two unfolds in great detail the forces that are working towards preventing
any kind of action to combat climate change. In spite of the greatest
consensus on the subject of climate change within the scientific community,
the mass media controlled by big economic interests have managed to
instill doubt in the minds of the common person. Reading chapter two
of HEAT will erase all doubt.
The book further elaborates
that without a global capping of GHG emissions and a subsequent egalitarian
rationing system between all countries of the world there is no hope
to avoid climate destruction. The author also comes down heavily on
GHG emission trading schemes which in themselves will lead to nothing.
Further he brilliantly exposes the lies of most governments and economists
who argue that the cost of avoiding climate change is too high. He shows
that there is no dearth of funds in the rich industrialized world, only
a lack of will. He exposes the sham of cost benefit analyses studies
which value a life lost in the poor nations at $ 150,000 and that of
a life lost in the rich nations at $ 1.5 million. In this regard David
Wasdell, a leading researcher in climate change makes a good analogy
between today's situation and the Apollo 13 mission. From the moment
the ground control heard, "Houston, we have a problem", everything
changed. Survival of the three astronauts on board took total priority.
"Failure is not an option" were the words of Gene Kranz, the
Apollo 13 mission controller. The whole team gave it their best, knowing
that chances of success were slim. No one stopped at the time to consider
a cost benefit analysis of getting the astronauts home safely. The world
is in a similar position today with trying to avoid climate destruction.
The next seven chapters
detail out how this 90% reduction is possible across various sectors.
Monbiot begins with addressing the changes required in the housing sector
with regard to energy and material use. He then moves on to the electricity
sector, assessing the possible future technologies with regard to higher
efficiencies, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), nuclear energy and renewables.
While talking of energy efficiency he does not fail to talk about the
khazzoom-Brookes postulate (which suggests that on a macro level energy
use increases with increased energy efficiency) and the rebound effect
(which suggests that on a micro-level energy use does not decrease as
much as was expected with increased efficiency). Energy efficiency is
not the same as energy reduction. Energy sufficiency and not mere energy
efficiency (which in reality is financial efficiency) is the need for
While he critically looks
into all the benefits and problems with regard to renewables, he is
a bit generous and optimistic when it comes to future technologies like
CCS and solar photovoltaics. One of the most important points that comes
out of the book is that, no one has seriously researched into the question
of the extent of renewables any grid can accomodate. Can we have a 50%
or a 80% or even a 100 % renewably powered grid? Another good feature
of the book is that it takes cognizance of the growing literature on
'peak oil' unlike most books on climate change. However I find that
the author does not look into the issue of availability of resources
(mainly oil, gas, coal, steel etc and their dependence on each other)
as critically as one would hope.
From electricity the book
moves to the transport sector, which I found to have one of the most
promising and implementable options for the near future. The most important
message for this sector is: Stop building more roads and expanding airport
capacities. Monbiot looks at the story of Bio-fuels and Coal to Liquids
(CTL) (which today are being strongly promoted) in totality and says
in no uncertain terms that they would be a disaster for GHG emission
reductions. However as far as aviation is concerned, if one is seriously
committed to reducing emissions by 90%, then there is no techno-fix
available. Reducing air travel is the only option.
Unfortunately most parts
of chapter four to ten are written mainly from an UK perspective. While
it would be a near impossible task to chalk out a detailed emission
reduction programme for the whole world, one would have liked at least
one chapter on possible generic emission reduction strategies for the
rest of the world. One would have also liked to read more on agriculture
and the touchy topic of population.
The book lays down a path
for the future backed by a clear rationale which makes good reading.
The author neither minces his words nor does he omit inconvenient facts
and references for the sake of making his arguments more convincing.
While reality is hard to deal with, it is better dealt with head on
than brushing it under the carpet and hoping for the best. This book
is possibly the best one on the subject of action needed to combat climate
change and helps one in quickly getting over the initial phases of anger,
denial and frustration and leads to much needed action.
While his suggestions for
the future definitely imply major emission reductions for all industrialized
nations and many of the countries (like India and China) which today
have no mandatory emission reductions, he does not comment on the present
political impasse on this issue. As he himself acknowledges, "I
have not demonstrated that it (necessary GHG emission reductions) is
politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me
to do so. It is up to you."
So what should be our next
step? Cut down consumption mercilessly and don't wait in vain for techno-fixes,
rather seriously start looking into lifestyle changes. However while
all individual efforts to reduce emissions are laudable and should be
encouraged, they unfortunately are not enough. As Joseph Tainter explains
in 'Collapse of complex societies', ""Economic Underdevelopment"
in order to "live in balance" will not work because the "competition
of peer polity" groups would dissipate those using less."
However while the above is certainly true the following quote from Margaret
Mead is also not without basis. 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing
that ever has.' In conclusion, don't wait for others to act. Begin with
reducing your emissions and get political, for this problem cannot be
tackled only on an individual level. Government policy will have to
be the driving force. In Gandhi's words "Be the change that you
wish to see in the world."
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