Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning by George Monbiot

This is an outstanding book for anyone who is concerned about climate change.

Monbiot is a an acclaimed columnist for the UK’s Guardian.  His website, www.monbiot.com, is listed by Yahoo as the most used web site outside of the US.  And he hits hard and with frankness.

He makes a compelling case for an urgent need for us to reduce our carbon emissions, and by 90%.  His assessment of the science indicates that this needs to be accomplished by 2030.  And he makes a strong case that starting now is essential.  It was a balmy 13 degrees up here on the Peninsula today.  The record for Nov 26 is 13.9 degrees.  (13 degrees is 55 F for any American readers).  The “normal” high, if there is such a thing anymore, is supposed to be 3.6 degrees.

He bluntly makes the moral case.  Turning on a light using electricity made from fossil fuels kills.  Driving a car kills.  Because rising sea levels will swamp Pacific atoll nations, and deltas like Bangladesh.  Or maybe the Mississippi (oh, yeah, that’s already happened).  It will cause droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, leading to famine.

And he bluntly talks of the science, and uncertainties about the effect of warmer temperatures on ocean circulation.  We are engaging in a Faustian pact, and he makes liberal use of this 15th century story.  We are selling our souls to the devil for short term pleasure today.

Chapter 2 is the most compelling chapter, that had new information for me.  The title is the “Denial Industry”, and it uncovers and reports on the many connections between the tobacco lobby, and parts of the fossil fuel lobby.  Exxon was a leader in sponsoring this nefarious group, along with coal producers in the US.  They came out with pseudo science pieces, from psuedo scientists, that questioned the validity of global warming.  And it was just enough to cause uncertainty in the media, and in certain politicians, resulting in inaction.  It worked for tobacco for a few decades.  But then it fell apart with amazing swiftness.

When I first joined the workforce in 1980, smoking was allowed in the workplace.  Our company was one of the first to make a “smoking room”.  It moved the nastiness to one part of the building.  Then we were one of the first to make smokers go outside, years before by-laws required it.  Now you can’t smoke under an awning on a bar patio.

The same collapse will occur with the Denial Industry.  And then action on climate change will become rapid and institutionalized.  I wouldn’t want to own stocks in coal mines or coal buring utilities when that happens.

He spends several chapters describing how we can indeed reduce emissions by 90%, using the UK as his model.  Carbon sequestration is a big part of his plan.  He also talks of hydrogen combustion as central.  But he is convinced that a 90% reduction is not only achievable, but that it can be done without a dramatic change in lifestyle.  He believes that a 90% reduction can occur with a doubling in our cost of energy.  If we did achieve a 90% reduction in energy consumption, and the price only doubled, we would still be saving!

I am not fully convinced he has found the only path to such reductions.  And of course different jurisdictions will have different options.  I think he underestimates the potential of renewable energy, especially ground source heat, solar thermal, and wind.  He correctly points out that biomass is limited, but certainly that is more likely the case in the UK than Ontario.  Biofuels may we be a greater part of Ontario’s solutions.  He believes that we can reduce electricity consumption by 1/3 by conservation.  I agree with him – this seems to be technically possible with today’s technologies.  But of course a large effort is required to get there.  I am not fully convinced that carbon sequestration is the answer, but would like to see us try it on some large commercial plants.

He is convinced that 90% reductions are possible, and by 2030.  And he has proposals that seem plausible in almost all sectors.  But he has concerns about one sector.  And that is air travel.  Air travel is no less efficient than travel by car on kg of CO2 emissions per kilometer.  But you go much further.  Not many of us will drive 5000 km for a 2 day conference, but we might fly.  And as the third world develops, and people in the third world seek western travel standards, air travel will grow.  He laments the fact that we simply may have to ration and reduce our air travel.

This book is a must read for anyone concerned about climate change.  The science of the case is compelling.  The moal imperative is clearly explained.  The exposing of the duplicity of the denial industry is astonishing.  And while you may have different solutions, the ones he proposes are creative, and valid.  And a picture of an endpoint, that is still a satisfactory place to live, is clearly drawn.

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