Taking the Monbiot Challenge: The Global Emergency of Climate Change

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A number of books have on climate change hit the shelves over the past year, but perhaps the most important of the recent titles on this subject is George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (Random House, 2006). Monbiot, a widely read columnist with the UK Guardian, delivers a clear and stark message.

By Derrick O’Keefe

In recent months, all the major players in Canadian electoral politics have become “environmentalists.” Stephane Dion, the new Liberal leader, has a dog named Kyoto and has apparently made global warming his pet cause; even Stephen Harper has appointed a new Environment Minister, John Baird, who has repeatedly if vaguely vowed to “do more” on the climate change file.

Indeed, as Canada experiences its weirdest winter in recent memory – with a series of unheard-of wind storms battering the West Coast, and unusually warm weather almost everywhere else – the political environment would seem to be changing as rapidly as the physical one. Pundits are working overtime speculating about who will capture the new “green centre” amongst an electorate alarmed at both the already visible and the potential impact of global warming.

This treatment of climate change as just a new factor in the electoral horse race, of course, misses the real point entirely. What needs to be discussed are the more fundamental issues, including: Who is responsible for our current predicament and the government’s shameful inaction? What economic and political interests have obstructed meaningful measures to curb emissions? What technological and legislative solutions are needed? And, finally, what social forces can be mobilized to confront this critical challenge to humanity?

A number of books have hit the shelves over the past year, helping to begin to take up these questions. And of course Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth has brought the ABCs of global warming to a wider public than ever before.

But perhaps the most important of the recent titles on this subject is George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (Random House, 2006). Monbiot, a widely read columnist with the UK Guardian, delivers a clear and stark message: The industrialized world must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by the year 2030; if this sort of drastic reduction is not made, world temperatures will rise to a point where “runaway climate change” will be beyond our ability to curtail, and unspeakable disintegration of human civilization inevitable.

In a special preface to the Canadian edition, Monbiot makes clear that with regards to climate change, this country’s government is among the worst rogue regimes in the world. This damning indictment applies to the former Liberal government as well, which saw emissions rise over its decade-plus in power. (Dion’s dog, incidentally, was acquired within the past year, and wasn’t around when his master was Minister of the Environment). A sample of Monbiot’s unsparing assessment on this front suffices to illustrate the author’s take on Ottawa’s efforts:

Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Harper and your environment minister, Rona Ambrose, Canada’s global reputation is now beginning to catch up with its performance. When they say that Canada cannot reach its Kyoto targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they mean that they do not intend to try. Their surrender within the first few months in office is an astonishing instance of political cowardice…The Liberals waited until 2005 before publishing their plan for tackling climate change. They talked a better line than Harper, but presided over just as much environmental destruction.

Monbiot’s Heat dissects the “denial industry” that has obstructed action on global warming for at least two decades. Following the money, it is revealed that the oil and gas industry bankrolled a network of think tanks and mercenary scientists to sow “uncertainty” and delay real action. Exxon-Mobil is exposed, unsurprisingly, as a prime backer of this network.

The remainder of Heat is a hardheaded sector-by-sector analysis of how a developed economy could be transformed to drastically reduce carbon emissions, while maintaining as high as possible a standard of living. Monbiot has more than done his homework, and his examination of all the pertinent technological questions is instructive, not to mention totally unsentimental, weighing the pros and cons of all energy alternatives, including nuclear power (which he ranks second to last, to coal from open-cast mines, as a potential energy source).

There is one consistent theme running throughout Heat that annoys. The author repeatedly directs his pitch in moral terms to an assumed comfortable middle class audience. This tends to imply an equality of responsibility for climate change to all readers, erasing enormous divisions of power, wealth and differences in degree of control over the political and economic system. In a nutshell, issues of class are obscured by this approach. So, for instance, Monbiot casts the social movement needed to confront climate change as one that must fight for “austerity.”

Surely it is more useful and accurate to describe the goal as social and environmental justice. Achieving this will, it is true, demand measures to enforce austerity for the rich, and especially for the super-rich elites of the western world. These, of course, are the elites and corporate interests that have supported right-wing governments throughout the world, and that have imposed austerity on the poor and working classes, while preventing substantive efforts to reduce emissions. Monbiot spells out the international inequity at the heart of the global warming issue – the primary victims will be those in the poor countries who have contributed the least to the problem – but comes up short in terms of describing the class divisions, and the inherent challenge to them that real efforts to minimize climate change necessitates, within the industrialized world itself.

To take on climate change, we will have to name those who are most responsible. Following from this, we also need to see this issue as inextricable from global capitalism; the most prescient commentators have for some time placed ecology at the centre of the still preliminary international discussion of building “21st century socialism.”

To meet “Monbiot’s challenge,” reducing emissions by 90% by 2030, will require something so far beyond the mass marketing and cynical maneuvering that passes for political discussion in Canada that we will scarcely recognize it. It is a generational challenge with an inter-generational moral imperative, and it will require a dynamic collective effort – a social movement unlike anything we have ever seen.

In Canada, some of the young activists taking the lead in the anti-war movement are also well ahead of the curve on global warming. In several cities, the last round of marches to bring the troops home from Afghanistan included “green contingents.” Sporting slogans like “Fight climate change, not war” and “Out of Kandahar, into Kyoto,” they were showing the way forward for all of us.

In order to really change the political landscape of Canada, and not just the politicians’ talking points, many more will have to follow suit. Monbiot’s challenge may seem daunting and hard to fathom, but the price of not meeting it may be disaster on a truly unimaginable scale.

From 7 Oaks Magazine, January 14, 2007