Three visions of how to save our planet

Like many Americans, my scientific education was woefully limited. I don’t recall much from high school biology class except slinging slimy frog parts at my friends during disection. Chemistry and physics were taught by a jolly man who seemed psycologically incapable of teaching anything except how to make ice-cream and mixing vinegar and baking soda to pop corks off a bottle. In college, I struggled through a year of beginning physics, and then patted myself on the back for doing better than most of my fellow social studies majors.

Although I am as scientifically illiterate as the next American, I am not able willing to let myself be deluded and deceived about global climate change like the majority of Americans. Perhaps it arises from my activist stance against the interests of powerful corporations and own reading of history replete with environmental destruction. My studies have predisposed me to read the work of people who struggle against great injustices and seemingly insoluble situations.

I might not have my antenas atuned to scientific literature, but over the last 5 years, the campaign against greenhouse emissions has come to the fore in activist circles and the alternative press. The little snippets and snatches I heard caused me to grow increasingly alarmed about the future survival of life on the planet. So unlike most Americans, I decided to educate myself on the issue. I read all the books in the wrong order and I still can’t explain many of the basic scientific concepts underpinning the issue, but I thought that it would be enlightening to share my experiences in educating myself on the issue.

I don’t read the British press, but George Monbiot’s articles in The Guardian get circled by enough of the American alternative media, that I eventually stumbled onto one of his columns. One column led to another and soon I became a devoted reader of his web site. The moment I got back the States, I ordered his book Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. I would have done better to read this book last after acquiring a better understanding of the underlying science, but the little that Monbiot provides in Chapter 2 was so alarming, that it made me profoundly question the future of most of the life on our planet. What Monbiot reveals in chapter 3 about the purposeful misinformation campaigns of Exxon, the Western Fuels Association, and ilk made me want to rage at their devious underhandedness and filled me with utter disgust about the gullibility of my fellow Americans and the jackasses they elect.

I profoundly respect Monbiot not only for his understanding of science, but also because of his clear-headed understanding of our society and the forces which drive it. Monbiot is no ivory-tower academic, but rather an environmental and social justice activist who writes some of the most incisive and lucid newpaper columns in the Western World. He has no illusions about the forces we face and the kind of radical bottom-up activism which is needed to save our planet—Monbiot makes it clear that we face an uphill battle to stop our planet from burning and he also lays out in emphatic terms what are the dire consequences if we don’t choose to radically engage as citizens.

Chapter 2 of Heat makes for such depressing reading that a sane person would question the wisdom of propogating our species, while chapter 3 is so enraging, that it makes even an avowed pacifist want to pull a Columbine at the next Exxon board meeting. Monbiot disects and illucidates the problem in skillful prose, but what generates towering passions of anger and rage on the part of the reader are simply the unvarnished truths which Monbiot lays forth about the science and the lobbying against that science.

Every time I engage global warming deniers in a conversation, I want to shove their noses in chapter 3 and ask how they feel being made patsies by the likes of Exxon. However, the purpose of Monbiot’s book isn’t about exposing the deniers and spin machines or even to explain the basic science and its predictions, rather that is simply background material to steel the resolve of British activists who are the intended audience of Monbiot’s book. The rest of the book is a map of what can be done in Great Britian to cut its CO2 emissions by 90% by 2050, which is what Monbiot believes to be necessary to save the biosphere. Monbiot explains what can be done with the tecnology available today to transform Great Britian to a green economy in a number of diverse sectors, such as retailing, transportation, and housing. Along the way, Monbiot examines with hard-nosed pragmatism what can be realistically done in the near and medium term in each sector. His recommendations are not always what I expected and they certainly shatter many of my previous illusions, but they are always doable and they filled me with a burgeoning hope that maybe we can avoid the post-apolyptic future of the climate models and even make a better society for ourselves. Although I wonder if a couple of the solutions envisioned by Monbiot are truly the best of the available options, I emerged from the book fully energized with a vision of the specific policies for which we should be fighting. Most importantly, I was filled with hope that we truly could save our species and have a better future for our grandchildren.

The second book I read was by James Hansen, the famous NASA scientist whose calls to reduce greenhouse gases have generated both news and controversy for the last 3 decades. Hansen is arguably the top climatologist in the world, but unlike many fellow scientists, Hansen has decided to become what he terms a “witness”–someone who is compeled to speak out publically by the knowledge he bares.

Unlike the other two books I have read about Global Warning, Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren is not written by a skilled stylist of the written word. Like Hansen’s witnessing, one feels that Hansen has been compelled to write it because it is too important not to be told. It is a strange mishmash of complicated graphs intermixed with folksy comments to explain the science in layman terms and recounts of Hansen’s painful dealings with two-faced government officials, suppression of science, public speaking engagements and activist campaigns. The book was clearly a struggle for Hansen to write, and not just because the science is too complicated to facily explain to a non-scientific audience. Rather, the odd jumping between painful recounting of his struggle to alert the world and his forced explanations of the science is simply jaring. Yet, as I worked my way through Hansen’s discordant book—often rereading the sections on the science—I was better able to grasp what climatologists are arguing about and how damning the science truly is for our future.

When I started reading Tim Flannery’s book The Weathermakers, I realized that it should have been first on my list, since it filled in many of the missing gaps in my understanding about global climate change and its consequences. Flannery is not just a deft popularizer of science, but he is also a first class biologist and paleontogist who has the unique ability to explain the heart-felt tragedy of loosing obscure species. Despite only being 4 years old, Flannery’s science is already out-dated, since he is arguing for a target of 450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, whereas many in the scientific community today is echoing Hansen’s call for a target of 350ppm of CO2, still Flannery does a much better job than Hansen of explaining the basic science and helping a lay audience understand what is at stake. The book reads extremely smoothly, despite the shocking nature of the content and my copy had evidently been used by a previous owner as a university textbook for a class, as it was filled with the underlining and marginalia of an undergrad student.

Despite their wildly differing styles, all 3 of these books are explicit calls to action, written to spur the public to save the planet. Each undertakes that task with a differing method. Flannery principally wants to explain the science, whereas Monbiot wants principally to explain how we can solve the problem. Hansen, has an even more complicated goal of explaining the science, providing testimony of his personal struggle and informing the public who policies must be adopted—all within 300 pages. For all of the writers, scientific dispassion is difficult and all are spurred to write out of personal experience. Flannery recounts his personal tragedy of hiking up a valley in Papua New Guinea to find that most of the endegoneous species he had previously studied had disappeared due to climate change. Monbiot talks of bouncing his toddler son on his knee while Hansen fills the book with photos of his grandchildren. Both Hansen and Monbiot know that the fight is risky, but both exhort us to engage even though we might fail, because failing to try will surely doom our descendants to an unimaginable future.

Given the fact that all three writers urge us to engage, both the terms of that engagement and the specific policies they advocate are surprisingly different. Of the three, Flannery is the least radical in approach. Although he does note that others have criticized the Kyoto Protocol and carbon trading schemes, he doesn’t explore those criticisms and basically advocates that the world needs to abide by the terms of Kyoto and make similar treaties in the future to achieve a 70% cut in emissions by 2050.

Hansen’s science is the most dire of the 3 books, but in many ways his solution is the simplest. He wants to implement a rising “fee-and-dividend” which taxes the carbon content of coal, oil and natural gas at the mine or well. Since this tax will raise the prices of all goods, he advocates redistributing 100% of the collected funds back to the legal residents in monthly checks. That way everyone has an incentive to be as carbon efficient as possible, while not harming the people who have the least income to adjust to the higher prices. Hansen’s proposal should appeal to conservatives, since it uses the free market to incentivize the transition to a low-carbon economy and it requires less government intervention and regulation than many other solutions. From an economic perspective, Hansen’s solution makes the most sense, but it will require tremendous mobilization on the part of climate activists to implement his proposed fee-and-dividend.

Monbiot’s book proposes the most radical solutions, since he believes that a 90% cut in emissions in all major areas of the economy is necessary. He examines how major sectors of a modern industrial society like Great Britain can be transformed. He demands that environmentalists abandon their wishful thinking and take a hard-nosed look at what solutions are technically and economically feasible. He also insists that solutions fit with the high-tech, modern society that people have become accustomed to enjoying, or it will be rejected by most people. Monbiot finds feasible solutions for most major areas such as energy, retailing, transportation, construction, although a few industries such as aviation which do not have a low-carbon solution will have to be severely curtailed. Monbiot shows that we already have the technology and knowledge at hand to solve climate change, but he offers few suggestions for how to mobilize the political will or financial resources to implement his proposed solutions.


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