Stop taking it out of the ground
Sunday, December 16, 2007
About ten thousand delegates from more than 180 nations are meeting in Bali to attempt to extend the Kyoto Protocol Global Warming Pact beyond 2012. Opposition from the United States, Canada, and Japan is likely to stand in the way of any attempts to include emission reduction targets in a “road map” for future global warming talks. The US said a proposal for wealthy nations to reduce emissions by 25-40% by 2020, was “totally unrealistic” and “unhelpful”. Meanwhile climate change activists in cities around the world held rallies and demonstrations on Saturday December 8th to urge leaders at the Bali conference to take action against global warming.
George Monbiot is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper and author “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.” In Heat, Monbiot advocates a goal of ninety percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2030 in order to save the planet.
Kolhatkar: Is it true that even the most drastic cuts being recommended at the table in Bali are not realistic, not based on current science and just not going to be good enough to save the planet?
Monbiot: That’s right. If you look at the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it shows that if we’re going to avoid 2 degrees Celsius, that’s 3.6 degrees Farenheit of warming, above pre-industrial levels – and that’s really the critical cutoff point; we have to avoid that level of warming – then we need a global cut of 85% of carbon emissions by 2050. Now, a global cut of 85% means that in the rich nations the cut has to be a lot higher if it’s going to be distributed equally, if everybody’s going to produce the same amount of carbon dioxide. And that means that in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, we’re talking about the high 90s. My calculation suggests 98.3% in the U.S. corresponds to an 85% cut worldwide. So, we’re really talking about a complete de-carbonization of the global economy if we’re to have a high chance of preventing 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
Kolhatkar: Why is it that even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is looking at science that seems to be out of date?
Monbiot: One of the really frightening things that we’re discovering about climate change is that the events are overtaking the science and as quickly as people can research the events, the events move on. For example at the moment, we have a rate of growth in carbon emissions which outstrips even the IPCC’s worst case scenario. So, when the panel says we’ve got this very high case where there would be a great deal of emissions – and we call that the A1F1 case – we’re actually finding that right now it’s worse than that.
But we’re also seeing that there are various effects called “feedbacks” which the panel hasn’t yet taken into account - it intends to do so in the future - but they greatly accelerate climate change. A positive feedback is a process that accelerates itself and there are several of these which take place as far as climate change is concerned. For example, when the oceans get warmer, less carbon dioxide can be absorbed in the water. It’s just like a bottle of Coca-Cola – as you warm it up, the carbon dioxide outgasses because it’s a simple physical property of water that it can hold less gas when it warms up. As that takes place, that carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere and makes the oceans even warmer and so less carbon dioxide is absorbed by them and thus the process goes on. It’s these feedbacks that the IPCC admits have not yet been taken into account when calculating the necessary cut. Taken into account, the cut could be even worse.
Kolhatkar: Given the real numbers, the Kyoto Protocol and its call for cuts of about 5% of carbon emissions below 1990 levels in the next 5 years, sound ludicrous now.
Monbiot: It’s a complete joke, to be honest. And, not only are the numbers completely out of scale by more than an order of magnitude with the necessary cut, but not even that cut is being achieved! Not even the 5% is being achieved! The Kyoto Protocol has failed. And, I hate to say this but it’s failed because primarily of the position taken by the U.S. delegation during the negotiations in 1997. And, I hate to say this even more but that delegation was led by Al Gore. And what Gore negotiated was the institutional failure of the Kyoto Protocol. And he undermined it primarily by creating some different standards for different nations. He was talking about the U.S. making a cut against what it would otherwise have produced, rather than a cut from the carbon levels which were already taking place, which is a whole different ballgame. And he also said there’s got to be emissions trading - we’ve got to be able to buy cuts from other nations and that’s been incredibly destructive to the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol.
Kolhatkar: And, ironically this week Al Gore accepted the Nobel Peace Prize along with the IPCC. Gore is in Bali right now taking what seems to be a different position than 1997. Is he actually backing the science that you quote or are his numbers also an underestimate?
Monbiot: They’re still too low but there’s no question that Al Gore, in common with almost every other leader, makes an awful lot better job of governance when he’s out of office. Just like Clinton, just like Tony Blair on this other side of the Atlantic - they say all the right things when they can no longer influence the outcome. And, I’m sorry if I sound cynical, you know. I don’t mean to pour cold water on his prize and all the rest of it. I think he’s done some great stuff since he’s been out of office but I also want people to remember what happened when he was in office and he sunk the Kyoto Protocol.
Kolhatkar: What do you think about the discussions between finance ministers during this Bali Climate Conference to have an exchange of green technology and a trade in green goods? Developing nations are calling on rich nations to share the technology that they say they require in order to cut carbon emissions.
Monbiot: Well, fine, but I’ve had a horrible revelation over the past few days and it’s something which has gradually been building up in my consciousness and it suddenly hit home as I researched the figures, which is that while there are plenty of schemes for sharing technologies and for introducing alternative technologies and, indeed, for encouraging consumers to reduce their demand for fossil fuels and all the rest of it, as far as I can discover, nowhere on earth, in no nation is there a scheme for reducing the supply of fossil fuels. You can say what you like about demand but if you’re still digging the stuff out of the ground - the coal and the oil and the gas – it’s going to get burned! There’s no other reason it’s taken out of the ground. They don’t get it out of the ground as a hobby. It’s going to get burned!
Kolhatkar: Now, aren’t we to assume that the supply will simply follow the demand?
Monbiot: Well, the demand will follow the supply if the supply is there, because we will use what energy is available to us. But, unless you have a plan for reducing supply, your plans for reducing demands are a complete waste of time. They’re just not going to materialize.
Kolhatkar: What about the assertion by the United States and other nations that global warming reduction has to be somehow consistent with their national economies? This is the main U.S, line, that the reason they won’t accept these cuts is that it would impact the economy of the U.S.
Monbiot: Let’s look at the big picture here. At current rates of growth, roughly 3% of the global level, the size of the economy doubles every 23 years. It’s an exponential function and this means that in the 92 years between now and the end of the century, it increases by 16 times the level of economic activity. Now, a very interesting series of equations published recently on this side of the Atlantic prove that that level of economic activity effectively equates into resource use. And, that a doubling in the level of activity doubles the amount of resources that human beings have ever used. What that means is that in the next 23 years between now and 2030, we will use as many economic resources as humanity has used since it first stood on two legs – over 3 million years or so. And this is simply unsustainable! We cannot sustain that rate of growth. Even 3% is way beyond the levels of sustainability. By the end of the century, we will have used 16 times the resources that humanity has used since it first stood on two legs. There is not 16 times that level of resources on earth. They do not exist. Far from allowing the rates of economic growth to dominate our policy on climate change, our policy on climate change should dominate rates of economic growth.
Kolhatkar: What about the United States saying that it would come up with its own plan to cut global warming gasses by mid-2008? Any ideas on what that might look like?
Monbiot: Yes, I have a pretty good idea of what it would look like. It will be entirely voluntary. It would probably have to do with the carbon intensity of the economy. This is the formula that George Bush keeps using which is that we will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of economic productivity rather than reduce it in absolute terms (which is what we need to do), and it will be completely useless. The only way we’re going to crack this problem is through international agreement and everybody setting the same standards for themselves. So, in other words, a binding international agreement.
Kolhatkar: This past Saturday was declared a global day of action on climate change and there were rallies and demonstrations in cities around the world. Do you feel that that sort of protest is increasing in intensity fast enough?
Monbiot: No, not fast enough. And, by itself, it doesn’t go far enough. A group of us preceded that protest on Wednesday when we went down to a large open-cast coal mine which is being built here in South Wales. We occupied that mine and we sat on the excavating equipment and we stopped it from operating for the day. And that’s what I want to see a lot more of. This is the only way in which we’re really going to register our protest is to get in front of the mining equipment and to stop this fossil fuel from being extracted. Unless we do so, we are doomed to runaway climate change. We cannot prevent it without stopping that fossil fuel from coming out of the ground. Some of us are now prepared to risk arrest and imprisonment in order to do that. It’s got to that level of desperation and a group of us decided that we’re going to keep doing this until we can no longer do it, in other words, probably until we’re all in prison.
Kolhatkar: Is this an organized group or is it just individuals?
Monbiot: No, it’s self-organized. In this case, we simply put out a call – this is where we’re going to be, this is what we’re going to do, here’s the date – and anyone can set up their own group amongst people they trust and come down and join us. And, it worked very well and that’s what we want to see a lot more of.
Kolhatkar: Here in the United States, there were demonstrations but they were not very widely reported. It was not something that necessarily distracted most Americans from their holiday shopping. But based on what you and most other people paying attention to the environment say, it’s really here in the United States that there needs to be the most action.
Monbiot: Yes, it really is. And the U.S. sets the pace for everybody else. It’s also the case that the United States is the place where things happen. When you want something to happen, and when the government in the U.S. is prepared to allow it to happen, it can happen very, very quickly there because you remain the technological and the economic powerhouse. You remain the place where things can switch.
We saw this most clearly when the United States entered the 2nd World War. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was this extraordinary economic and technological transformation which took place not within decades, not within years, not within months, within days! It was quite phenomenal! Now, this is what won the war for the allied cause. It was the turnaround in the United States. And, we saw for example, a largely civilian economy switched over to a military economy within 90 days. The whole process really took place within 90 days. General Motors, which never looked at a piece of military technology before then, suddenly became a military technology company. It turned out a fighter bomber within 90 days of having been given the instructions to do so. It designed, it prototyped, it tested and then it was working at full commercial operation turning out fighter bombers. Now, that was in 1942. This was in the days before just in time production and modular delivery and all the rest of it. This was in the days when industry and manufacturing was quite primitive compared to today. We could turn the whole global economy around within a month if we wanted to now. All that is lacking is the political will.
Kolhatkar: In this final week of the Bali Climate Conference, if most nations who are attending, minus, of course, the U.S. and perhaps Canada and Japan, do turn out a document that has more drastic cuts than the Kyoto Protocol, even if it is not going to save the planet, I’m assuming you’ll think that it’s a step in the right direction? Are you hopeful, at least, that the people are coming together at such a large scale to discuss this issue on an international level?
Monbiot: Well, I suppose it’s what Gramsci says: it’s the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will. I keep hoping but I’m not hearing the right signals coming from governments at the moment and I’m hearing an awful lot of “greenwash”, an awful lot of discussion aimed at assuaging public opinion, but very little aimed at actually dealing with the problem. By greenwash, I mean environmental whitewash. That’s a term used to denote an impression of action without creating any action and so far that’s all we have seen from these negotiations and it needs to go a heck of a lot further and faster than that.
This interview aired on Monday December 10th on Uprising, www.uprisingradio.org. Special thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing the interview. Uprising is hosted and produced by Sonali Kolhatkar. Assistant Producer is Gabriel San Roman.