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The 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 the future.

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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