George Monbiot: "If We Don't Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death"

May 18, 2007


George Monbiot

columnist for the London Guardian. His new book is Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.

The British journalist and environmentalist discusses his new book, "Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning." George Monbiot says global warming is "the great moral issue of the 21st century." [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, every week seems to bring new warnings on the consequences of rising global temperatures caused by human activity. A new report from the British charity Christian Aid predicts global warming will create up to one billion refugees by the year 2050. The World Health Organization recently said it expects deaths and injuries from climate change to more than double in the next 25 years. The yearly death toll linked to weather patterns is forecast to top 300,000 by the year 2030.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared earlier this year the warming of the Earth’s climate system is unequivocal and attributable to human activities. The panel has called for humans to make sweeping cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 50 years to keep global warming in check.

The Bush administration’s stance is well known. President Bush laid out his opposition to the Kyoto Accords in his first State of the Union address in 2001.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Kyoto is in many ways unrealistic. Many countries cannot meet their Kyoto targets. The targets themselves were arbitrary and not based upon science.

AMY GOODMAN: Global warming is being pushed as a major issue for the next month’s gathering of world leaders at the G8 summit in Germany. The Washington Post reported this week the Bush administration is trying to weaken the proposed climate change declaration. U.S. negotiators want to delete a pledge to limit the global temperature rise and cut emissions of greenhouse gas to half 1990 levels. The administration also wants to strike language that designates the U.N. as the appropriate forum for negotiating action on climate change.

Our next guest has done a detailed study into what it would practically take to heed the warnings on climate change and reduce emissions of greenhouse gas. George Monbiot is a widely read columnist for The Guardian of London, a leading British campaigner for the environment. His latest book is called Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. Welcome to Democracy Now!

GEORGE MONBIOT: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you stop the planet from burning?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, for a start, we have to recognize the extraordinary scale of the challenge we face. In order to prevent runaway climate change — in other words, climate change that we can no longer do anything about — we need a cut in greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 60 percent worldwide, which means about 90 percent in the rich nations, by 2030.

And what I’ve done is to look sector by sector at all the parts of the economy to see how that cut could best be made without bringing industrial civilization crashing down. And I think that it can be made. It can be made without a major impact on our quality of life. The technology is there already. The economic potential is there already. What is lacking is the political will.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you mention in your book that even those countries that are supposedly most advanced in this, Britain and some of the other countries in Europe, in terms of their goals, are still way below what they need to be, in terms of national goals, to be anywhere close to achieving a rollback in greenhouse emissions.

GEORGE MONBIOT: That’s correct. And what we see now, even in the most progressive governments as far as climate change is concerned, is that they’re giving up on the key climate change target, which is preventing global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees centigrade, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above a pre-industrial level.

Now, this is a critical target, because if you get beyond that point, that’s when the positive feedback start to begin. That’s when the biosphere, the world’s natural systems, begins to produce far more carbon dioxide, far more methane. It begins to absorb less of the carbon dioxide, which we produce, and that is a point beyond which we can’t do anything more about it. Two degrees of global warming, centigrade, leads automatically to three degrees, because of positive feedbacks. Three degrees leads automatically to four degrees. Once we get to that point, we wash our hands of it. There’s nothing more we can do. So we must not get to that point. That is a critical thing. We can’t allow two degrees centigrade of warming to happen. To have a high chance of preventing that from happening requires a 60 percent global cut in carbon emissions by 2030.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the so-called debate over global warming. Here in the United States, one of the leading opponents of global warming is the Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe. He spoke at a hearing featuring former Vice President Al Gore this past March.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: When I talk about skeptics, I’m talking about scientists who believe that the science is not settled. When I talk about alarmists, I’m saying they’re the ones who think that it is settled, OK? When the debate is balanced, the skeptics win, the alarmists lose.

In New York last week, a major debate took place to maximize — to examine whether this is the goal, whether global warming is a crisis. Prior to the debate, the hand-wringers, the alarmists, your guys in the audience, outnumbered those who didn’t think it was a crisis by two to one. After the debate, it completely reversed. Now, that shift mirrors a larger one taking place in the scientific community.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator James Inhofe. Your response, George Monbiot?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Could you find out what that guy’s on? Because I want some. He’s living in a dream world. And what he has done is what all unscientific critics of climate change do, which is to cherry-pick his data and cherry-pick his experts. He has plucked out of the vast range of scientific studies that tiny handful which might cast some doubt on climate change. He has plucked out of the vast range of climate scientists the tiny handful, most of whom are funded by Exxon and the other fossil fuel companies, which say that it’s not happening. That is the opposite of the scientific process.

The scientific process reviews the science as a whole and looks at all the studies, looks at all the scientists, and says the overwhelming consensus of the climate science is that man-made climate change is taking place, it presents a major threat to life on Earth, and we need to do something about it. To sustain his position, you must blinker yourself to the great majority of what is going on within the scientific community and look at the world like this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, let’s talk about your plan for being able to cut in the industrial countries 90 percent of energy use. How would that occur concretely in, for instance, in the United States or England without, as you say, having a collapse of the economies?

GEORGE MONBIOT: OK, well, let’s take surface transport as an example, and there’s huge potential here. Number one, for boosting the fuel economy of cars five- or tenfold. At the moment in the United States, the average fuel economy of cars is just over 21 miles per gallon. The Model T Ford in 1908 did 25 miles to the gallon. This country has gone backwards in terms of fuel economy. And yet the technological potential is absolutely vast. But you can go even further than that. If we still stick with cars for just a moment —

JUAN GONZALEZ: So by you saying five- to tenfold, you’re talking about a hundred miles to the gallon.

GEORGE MONBIOT: A hundred miles to the gallon, 150 miles to the gallon. It is not difficult, even given current technologies. The potential is right here in front of us. We just need to grasp it.

You can go even further than that. Picture this scenario: the electric car. We all know the electric car works. There’s plenty of models out there. The problem is that you can’t go very far with it without having to plug it in again and wait eight hours for the battery to recharge. But what if you don’t have to do that? What if, instead, you pull into a filling station, you lift up the hood, crane comes over, lifts out the battery, drops in another one, and off you go again? What you do in that situation is to lease your battery from a network of filling stations. You just pay for the electricity, and it takes no more time to change it than it would take to fill up your tank with gas. There, you see the potential.

Even if we stick with cars, before we even look at public transport and the huge capacity there is there for greatly reducing carbon emissions, even if you stick with cars, you see this tremendous potential for cutting by 90 to 95 percent the emissions which we currently produce.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the role of hybrid vehicles, biofuels. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Bush called for more investment into ethanol.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol, using everything from wood chips to grasses to agricultural wastes.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush. George Monbiot?

GEORGE MONBIOT: This is a total disaster, and the reason it is a disaster is twofold. Number one, you set up a competition between feeding people and feeding cars, because you’re producing those crops for biofuel on the same arable land which is currently being used to feed people. That competition will necessarily be won by the car drivers. The reason for that is that, by definition, those who are rich enough to run cars are richer than those who are in danger of dying of starvation. Already, with far less than 1 percent of the world’s transport fuel coming from biofuel, we’ve seen a doubling in the price of corn and a near doubling in the price of wheat. And this is having an impact on people all over the world.

The second reason why it’s a disaster is that much of the new planting of biofuel is taking place on rainforest land or land which had other high carbon crops on it. And what we’re seeing there is a massive impact, not just on biodiversity and on local habitat and environment, but also on climate change. In Malaysia and Indonesia now, the planting of palm oil for the biofuel market is the primary cause of deforestation. And one recent study shows that because you are cutting down tropical forests in order to plant it and draining peaty soils in order to plant it, every barrel of palm oil produces up to 10 times as much carbon dioxide as a barrel of gasoline. Palm oil and most of the biofuels are actually worse for the planet than petroleum.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’re raising another point in this again, is that the impact of global warming is being felt most of all and even the attempts to deal with it are being felt most in the poorest countries, Bangladesh and others, who are already feeling enormous impacts from it, as well.

GEORGE MONBIOT: This is a great paradox and cruelty of climate change, that those countries which are most responsible for it, the rich nations, most of which are in temperate parts of the world, are those which are going to be hit last by it and hit least by it. Countries which are least responsible for it, in Africa, in South Asia, for example, are already being hit by it and will be hammered by climate change.

Ours is primarily a moral responsibility. I’m not just appealing to people’s self-interest here. This is the great moral issue of the 21st century, and if we don’t deal with climate change, we condemn hundreds of millions of people to death. And this is a peculiar moral challenge of it, that it requires a complete reorientation of our moral compass, because things that were previously seen as good or innocent or morally neutral suddenly also turn out to be morally bad. Switching on the lights, taking the kids to school, whatever it might be, these things were good. Nobody had any doubts that it was fine to do all that. Now, well, obviously we need to still switch on the lights, we need to still take the kids to school, but we must do it by means which does not condemn other people to death.

AMY GOODMAN: Condemn people to death, these are strong words. How do they die?

GEORGE MONBIOT: In Ethiopia already, with just — what is it? — 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming, the short rains have been failing year after year now for the past four or five years, and they have been failing because of rising sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean. When the short rains fail, the yields of crops decline. When, in a place like Ethiopia where people are living very close to the edge already, yields of crops decline, people go hungry. People die of malnutrition-related diseases, or they simply die of starvation.

If that is rolled out worldwide, which with roughly four degrees centigrade of warming, which is six-seven degrees Fahrenheit of warming, we could see structural global famine. That means that even in a normal year, normal year’s harvest, there will not be enough food produced to keep everybody in the world well fed. If that happens, the consequences are unimaginable, almost indescribable.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, to the issue of government interference in climate change, earlier this year here in the United States, a House committee released documents that showed hundreds of instances in which a former oil industry lobbyist edited government climate reports to play up uncertainty of a human role in global warming or play down evidence of such a role. The official, Philip Cooney, served as President Bush’s chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Prior to working in the White House, Cooney served as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil lobby based in Washington, D.C. He now works for ExxonMobil.

Cooney was questioned at a House Oversight hearing by Democratic Congressmember Peter Welch.

REP. PETER WELCH: And you have now edited that report to undercut the conclusion on climate warming that was reached by our scientists. Yes or no?

PHILIP COONEY: No. Congressman, I didn’t edit the report. I made recommendations within an established inter-agency review process, and I believed at the time that I made them that I had a foundation for my comments based in the National Academy of Sciences. I’m not being lawyerly. I am reading the direct scientific quotations.

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, you did have a foundation, and it was admirable loyalty to the person who had appointed you to a political position.

AMY GOODMAN: Several government scientists have come forward with allegations of government interference in their work. This is Rick Piltz of formerly the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

RICK PILTZ: It wasn’t just one thing. There were many things. It was an accumulation of things. They would ignore a report. They would edit a report. They would misrepresent a report. They would keep one scientist from talking to the press, but put another one forward. They would take a website down. There were so many different aspects of this that it all just kind of added up.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Piltz, a former U.S. climate scientist here in the United States. George Monbiot?

GEORGE MONBIOT: The Bush administration’s handling of climate change is like Trofim Lysenko’s handling of genetics. I mean, this is a complete clampdown on science, allied to a clampdown on democracy, and the two things often go hand in hand. It has been a story of fraud, of deception, of obfuscation, of lies. And the moment you start getting industry lobbyists with no scientific background — Cooney was a lawyer — to start editing scientific reports, you have stepped into the territory normally occupied by dictatorships.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the prior administration, the Clinton-Gore administration? Al Gore now, of course, is a virtual folk hero of those who support moving forward in a much more broad way on climate change or climate control. What did they do when they were in office?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Have you ever noticed how much better people are at governance once they’re out of office? I mean, with Gore and Clinton, it was just a series of massive missed opportunities. They knew what they had to do, but they just didn’t do it. And it has to be said that Gore’s speech at the Kyoto Conference in 1997 was one of the most disgraceful pieces of international diplomacy I’ve ever come across. George Bush could have made that speech. It was just full of deliberate confusions and evasions and elisions about what needed to be done about climate change.

And I’m afraid to say that the Clinton-Gore administration in some ways did more harm than the Bush administration, because while Bush has gutted the U.S. response to climate change, Gore and Clinton gutted the international response to climate change. They made sure that the Kyoto Protocol was pretty well a dead letter. They destroyed it as an effective instrument. And so, they destroyed it for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, on the issue of a speech you recently gave, where you talked about the axis of evil: George Bush, John Howard of Australia, and Stephen Harper of Canada.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, the axis of evil on climate change. These guys have got together to make sure that there is no effective international action now taken on climate change. OK, there wasn’t any being taken anyway, partly because of the U.S. gutting of the Kyoto Protocol before, but —

AMY GOODMAN: How did Gore and Clinton gut it?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, they — I mean, it has to be said that, of course, they were being pushed very hard by Congress and by powerful industrial interests, so I can’t blame them entirely for what happened. But they introduced all these caveats and clauses and these get-out clauses, things like the clean development mechanism, which said you don’t have to change your carbon emissions at home, you just pay somebody else to do it. And they played up to the other nations which didn’t want to make serious commitments, and they made sure that even if Kyoto were to be implemented fully, which is not being implemented fully, it wouldn’t make any really significant difference to cutting carbon emissions. They knew that you had to go much, much further than Kyoto went, if we were to have that cut. And knowing that, they didn’t push it in the direction it needed to be going. In fact, they held it back.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about China. Clearly, the Chinese take a position: Hey, you folks in the industrial world have to first get your house in order before you tell us about getting our house in order. But on the other hand, China right now is the manufacturing center for the industrial world, in essence, in terms of the amount of increased industrialization going on there. What’s going to happen and what do you think needs to happen in terms of negotiations with China over climate change?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, the first thing I’d say is, before we point the finger at China, just bear in mind that the average emissions of carbon dioxide per person in China are 2.7 tons per year; in the United States, they are 20 tons per year. So it would be the height of hypocrisy to say it’s those damn Chinese who are responsible for this problem.

So saying, China is rapidly emerging as an enormous emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s rising very fast, and it will overtake the United States probably in November this year as the world’s primary emitter. So there’s no question that it needs to be brought into an international mechanism to cut those greenhouse gas emissions and that it has to be brought in as an equal, not as a country which is told what to do by other countries, but as an equal partner in the development of a foundation for cutting climate change, which is actually going to work.

The first thing that needs to happen if that is to take place is for the rich nations, which have already enjoyed the benefits of the massive use of fossil fuels, to show that they are serious about cutting their contribution to carbon emissions. Otherwise, China just turns around and says, "Well, you’ve had your fun. What about us? Why can’t we have ours?" And it’s absolutely essential that what is done now is that we break this perfect circle of finger pointing, where the North Americans point to China and say, "We can’t do anything. It’s those guys over there who are causing the problem," and China points to North America and says, "We can’t do anything, either. It’s those guys who are causing the problem." That’s what they’re both saying at the moment, and we need to break that. And we can only break that through international leadership shown by the United States, by Europe, by the other developed regions of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, what has to happen at the G8 meeting in Germany?

GEORGE MONBIOT: We have to establish there a target for cutting carbon emissions, which actually reflects what the science says, rather than what the politics say. It doesn’t matter what the politicians say about what can and can’t be done. The atmosphere doesn’t care about that. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, it’s not concerned. It’s a collection of gases. And if all they’re going to do is add to that gas by spouting off a lot of hot air, it’s not going to deal with the problem. They have to look at what the scientists are saying about the cut which is required, and they have to then establish that as their target: by 2030, a 60 percent global cut.

AMY GOODMAN: If Americans care, what are three things they can do right now?

GEORGE MONBIOT: The first thing is to see yourself primarily as a citizen, not as a consumer. We’re not going to solve this problem simply by consuming better. We have to solve it through political lobbying. We have to solve it through demanding that our governments set the right targets and then implement those targets.

The second thing is to concentrate on particular areas which are of special interest to you. So we need dedicated campaigns on transport. We need dedicated campaigns on making houses more energy efficient. We need dedicated campaigns on reducing the amount of airport space given over to airplanes, so that we actually cut the amount of aviation. That, I’m afraid, is an essential if we’re going to deal with climate change.

It’s moves like that which will make all the difference. And it has to happen here. Until the United States enters this race, until the United States gets serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the world is stuck. We just cannot move on. This is the economic and the technological, indeed, an the political powerhouse of the world, and when the U.S. steps in, things will happen very quickly indeed.

Look at what happened when the United States joined the Second World War: It turned the whole economy around on a dime. Within 90 days, under pressure from the U.S. government, your motor manufacturers were turning out fighter planes, having never looked at a fighter plane before, never designed one, never tested one, never prototyped one, anything, they were turning out fighter planes. They turned the whole thing around. That’s because of the economic and technological dynamism that the United States has. That was in 1941. Think of what you could do now. Think of how you could turn this issue around.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, I want to thank you very much for being with us. George Monbiot, columnist for the London Guardian. His new book is Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.