Friday, November 10, 2006


A New Narrative

It is significant that Sir Nicholas Stern has
presented the dangers of climate change, in terms of an “economic”
threat to the world. It is more usual to see the workings of the
economic system as a challenge to the resource-base of the planet. This
dexterous turnabout manages to preserve the primordial importance of
the economy over the conditions that sustain life itself. There are
good reasons for this volte-face.

The present ecological
crisis – the threat of climate change, pollution of the elements
indispensable for life, resource-depletion and loss of biodiversity –
is itself a consequence of efforts to resolve earlier economic
conflict. In the early industrial era, the most intractable issue was
the alienation of an impoverished labouring class, which grew out of a
wasting peasantry to serve the factory system. The enduring poverty and
exploitation of these people seemed inevitable, destined to remain
forever deprived of the most elementary necessities of survival.

question that preoccupied ruling elites was the reconciliation of the
working class to a society from which it seemed permanently estranged.
This took on greater urgency as the 19th century advanced, workers
learned to combine and organise, and the struggle between capital and
labour defined itself more clearly. The potential power of the workers
made wealth and privilege fearful, an anxiety increased by the writings
of Karl Marx, the organisation of political parties under the influence
of his sulphurous revolutionary prophecies, and aggravated subsequently
by revolution in Russia in 1917 and in China just over 30 years later.

the survival of capitalism depended on attaching its people more
securely to itself, and on its ability to lure them from the
temptations of socialism. This it did very effectively indeed, by the
creation, not only of the welfare state, but even more significantly,
of the consumer society, which overwhelmed the people with the riches
it showered upon them in an avalanche of rewards, prizes, offers and
free gifts – the very opposite of the impoverishment without end
forecast by Marx.

Of course, this required an abusive
exploitation of resources, the effects of which were not, at the time,
foreseen: in the economic calculus, the treasures of the planet were
merely “raw materials”, a factor of production, just as labour had
been, until labour threatened to revolt.

Now it is the
“raw materials”, the natural world itself, which is in revolt against
an industrial system that threatens to return the planet to chapter one
of Genesis, when “the earth was waste and void, and darkness was upon
the face of the deep.”

The response to the internal
problems of industrialism led directly to the appearance of an external
contradiction of even greater magnitude: it is now a question not of
reconciling a refractory and potentially subversive people, but of
reconciling the planet itself to the system which weighs with such
fateful violence upon it.

This also shows that the victory
of capitalism over socialism, following with the downfall of the Soviet
Union 15 years ago, far from being the ultimate triumph it was made out
to be, was merely a temporary distraction from the menace to the world
of a competitive struggle between two aspects of the same system. It
was not just a crisis of socialism, but of industrialism itself.

the collapse of communism the only system left in contention, instead
of reflecting on its purpose and direction, and modifying its values,
swiftly sought to occupy the space evacuated by its vanquished rival.
So spectacular has the wealth been arising from this exuberant
expansion, that almost no country in the world has failed to follow the
same version of wealth, progress and development.

In the
process, intensified resource-use, contamination by 40,000 or so
chemicals in the global environment, the effects on climate, the
consequences of the uninhibited extension of global capital, now
threaten the world beyond anything previously wrought by human activity
upon earth.

That the beneficiaries of this process have
become addicted to its continuation into perpetuity only intensifies
the danger. Democracy has come to mean the ability of governments to
sustain the voracious system that knows nothing of limits, since it
promises infinite economic growth in a finite world. It is predicated
upon the limitless dilation of appetite in a world whose limits were
officially recognised at least 30 years ago – first by the limits to
growth of the club of Rome in 1972, then by the North-South Brandt
Commission in 1983, the Brundlandt report in 1987 and the South
Commission in 1990.

It is common wisdom that no government
can expect to be elected if it fails to guarantee the rising income
which alone ensures continuity of the only version of freedom now on
offer – that freedom to go on consuming like there is no tomorrow,
surely the most self-fulfilling prophecy ever formulated by the
reckless accountants of the calculus of permanent growth and expansion.

way of life which embodies exorbitance, waste and excess now bears down
upon a perishing resource base; and with the demands of the “Asian
giants”, India, China and the rest, no alternative path has been
crafted to the well-beaten track of their mentors. Yet they are now
expected to bypass the very processes whereby the west became rich, and
which it still preaches to the rest of the world.

What a
savage paradox, that a way of life, conceived to ensure social peace
when first established, should engender conflict, violence and
resource-wars, now that it has spread to the whole planet.

is not the salvaging of the social and economic system that should be
at the heart of the current emergency, but a reassurance that the
resource base upon which all systems depend will be conserved, so that
it may provide a secure sufficiency for all humanity for an indefinite

This cannot be assured by horror stories about the
monetary cost, by technological fixes, by faith in conquering other
worlds, by belief in the redemptive capacity of science, or the
ingenuity of humanity to promote limitlessness in a bounded world. It
requires an alternative and convincing story of survival, an energising
myth that will inspire collective action, a narrative that tells of a
different kind of emancipation; just as capitalism once promised
undreamed of wealth that would cure the ancient human scourge of
poverty, and as Marx told the workers to unite since they had nothing
to lose but their chains. These old myths have served their purpose,
and no longer carry a plausible guarantee of liberation. This age
awaits its empowering ideology, its renewal of hope, its fable of

It is not the know-alls, experts, scientists,
or the brains swimming in the aimless circularity of high-powered
thinktanks that will rescue us. It is, however, just conceivable, that
a modest myth, which speaks of a joyful frugality, an austere delight
in the rediscovery of the riches of human resourcefulness allied to
restraint in the use of material resources, might do so. But that would
require an act of faith to transcend former ideologies of hope, which
have been reduced by events into the gloomiest counsels of despair.
This is, of course, scarcely the province of bureaucrats, however
worthy. It belongs to the transforming power of faith in ourselves to
rise to the urgency of what now stares us in the face.

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Too Little, Too Late?

If someone had told me, just six months ago,
that the UK government would be sponsoring a major report which – in
Tony Blair’s words – “demolishes the last remaining argument for
inaction on climate change”, I would have refused to believe it. Yet,
so it came to pass with the publication of the Stern report. In
accepting the report’s findings, the government achieved several things
at once. First, it regained ground lost to the Tories and countered
David Cameron’s dog-sled photo opportunity in the Arctic. Second, it
suggested that Gordon Brown – as the man who commissioned Lord Stern
and who introduced several proposals at the report’s launch – would be
a prime minister who “gets it” on climate.

Last, and most
usefully, the government has helped environmentalists tear down the
last bastion of climate-change denial: economics. For several years the
Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg has generated unwarranted press
attention with his gatherings of famous economists who have declared
that climate change is too expensive to tackle and that we would be
better off spending the money elsewhere.

Now, Nicholas
Stern has ridden out in full armour and slain the Lomborgian dragon.
His 700-page report entirely demolishes that last ditch of
climate-change denial – that the world “cannot afford” to cut
fossil-fuel emissions. Stern points out that the potential cost comes
in at roughly 1 per cent of global GDP, a tiny price to pay for averting the greatest crisis ever to face human civilisation.

in itself is cause for celebration: after years of deliberation and the
submission of thousands of pages of evidence, Stern has come to
essentially the same conclusion as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace:
that “we can grow and be green”. And this draws the sting from
objections made by renegade rich countries such as Australia and the
United States, whose governments persist in claiming, absurdly, that
even making tiny Kyoto-style cuts would bankrupt them. I have some
objections to a purely economic approach to climate change. How do you
assign a monetary value to the disappearance of the polar bear, for
example? How do you put a price on people losing their livelihoods, and
their lives, to droughts, floods and food shortages? But the forthright
approach of the Stern report makes it, in many ways, more radical than
numerous papers put out recently by environmental groups.

Stern challenge

also implicitly throws down a challenge to the British government with
regard to its own policies, a challenge that the government must
respond to urgently if it is to avoid charges of hypocrisy. First, it
should make the bold stroke of cancelling the entire £12bn roads
programme: the last thing we need now is to be spending billions on
catering for motorists when pitiful amounts of cash are being spent on
helping households use less energy and generate their own power. Next,
as I argued two weeks ago in these pages, David Mili band must embrace
carbon rationing with enthusiasm and announce a strategy for national

Crucially, the government must commit
itself to a clearer framework for the next stage of international
negotiations: as Stern points out, the UK’s carbon emissions are only 2
per cent of the global total and an equitable agreement based on
contraction and convergence is the only way to bring in China, India
and other developing nations.

Nicholas Stern’s report
could be a step change in British politics. As always, there is a
catch, and it is a grave one: Stern’s 1 per cent price tag would not
actually save us from the worst effects of global warming.
Specifically, his figure refers to the estimated cost of stabilising
atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels at 500-550 parts per million (ppm).
We are currently at 430ppm. Stabilising in the 500-550ppm range would
require global emissions to peak in the next ten to 20 years, and then
fall by between 1 and 3 per cent a year.

However, the
European Union and many environmental groups believe that global
warming must never exceed 2°C. That danger threshold, according to the
latest science, is the line beyond which global warming could run
rapidly out of control because of “positive feedbacks” – the collapse
of the Amazon rainforest or the release of methane from melting
permafrost in Siberia. But, according to Stern’s own figures, his
550ppm stabilisation target gives us only a 10 per cent chance of
keeping temperature increases below 2°, and a 50-50 chance of passing
3°. This is rather like playing Russian roulette with four out of the
five chambers loaded – the odds are not just silly, but suicidal. Stern
dismisses the target of 450ppm, which is much more likely to keep us
within the magic 2° threshold, as “almost out of reach, given that we
are likely to reach this level within ten years”.

Yet what choice do we have but to grasp at this straw? It might cost much more than 1 per cent of GDP,
but the earth does not strike bargains: we have to reach the targets
that are set by the planet, or else go out of business. Two degrees is
that target, and yes, we have less than ten years to act.

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Climate Change Action

George Monbiot


It is a testament to the power of money that Nicholas Stern’s report should have swung the argument for drastic action, even before anyone has finished reading it. He appears to have demonstrated what many of us suspected: that it would cost much less to prevent runaway climate change than to seek to live with it. Useful as this finding is, I hope it doesn’t mean that the debate will now concentrate on money. The principal costs of climate change will be measured in lives, not pounds. As Stern reminded us yesterday, there would be a moral imperative to seek to prevent mass death even if the economic case did not stack up.

But at least almost everyone now agrees that we must act, if not at the necessary speed. If we’re to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2C (3.6F) above preindustrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The greater part of the cut has to be made at the beginning of this period. To see why, picture two graphs with time on the horizontal axis and the rate of emissions plotted vertically. On one graph the line falls like a ski jump: a steep drop followed by a shallow tail. On the other it falls like the trajectory of a bullet. The area under each line represents the total volume of greenhouse gases produced in that period. They fall to the same point by the same date, but far more gases have been produced in the second case, making runaway climate change more likely.

So how do we do it without bringing civilisation crashing down? Here is a plan for drastic but affordable action that the government could take. It goes much further than the proposals discussed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown yesterday, for the reason that this is what the science demands.

1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions based on the latest science. The government is using outdated figures, aiming for a 60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough. Timescale: immediately.

2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski-jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota. This accounts for about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce. The remainder is auctioned off to companies. It’s a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the EU’s emissions trading scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies. Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.

3. Introduce a new set of building regulations, with three objectives. A. Imposing strict energy-efficiency requirements on all major refurbishments (costing £3,000 or more). Timescale: in force by June 2007. B. Obliging landlords to bring their houses up to high energy-efficiency standards before they can rent them out. Timescale: to cover all new rentals from January 2008. C. Ensuring that all new homes in the UK are built to the German Passivhaus standard (which requires no heating system). Timescale: in force by 2012.

4. Ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and other wasteful and unnecessary technologies. Introduce a stiff “feebate” system for all electronic goods sold in the UK, with the least efficient taxed heavily and the most efficient receiving tax discounts. Every year the standards in each category rise. Timescale: fully implemented by November 2007.

5. Redeploy money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.

6. Promote the development of a new national coach network. City-centre coach stations are shut down and moved to motorway junctions. Urban public transport networks are extended to meet them. The coaches travel on dedicated lanes and never leave the motorways. Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90% of emissions. It is self-financing, through the sale of the land now used for coach stations. Timescale: commences in 2008; completed by 2020.

7. Oblige all chains of filling stations to supply leasable electric car batteries. This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt; a crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore wind farms. Timescale: fully operational by 2011.

8. Abandon the road-building and road-widening programme, and spend the money on tackling climate change. The government has earmarked £11.4bn for road expansion. It claims to be allocating just £545m a year to “spending policies that tackle climate change”. Timescale: immediately.

9. Freeze and then reduce UK airport capacity. While capacity remains high there will be constant upward pressure on any scheme the government introduces to limit flights. We need a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030. Timescale: immediately.

10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco’s “state of the art” energy-saving store at Diss in Norfolk has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%. Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car – delivery vehicles use 70% less fuel. Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.

These timescales might seem extraordinarily ambitious. They are, by contrast to the current glacial pace of change. But when the US entered the second world war it turned the economy around on a sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start. And that was 65 years ago. If we want this to happen, we can make it happen. It will require more economic intervention than we are used to, and some pretty brutal emergency planning policies (with little time or scope for objections). But if you believe that these are worse than mass death then there is something wrong with your value system.

Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century. There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it’s happening and that its results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.

George Monbiot’s latest book is Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning.

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