Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: There’s a recent report the British government commissioned called The Stern Review. It said as follows: �The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Climate change presents very serious global risks and it demands an urgent global response.� How significant is this report?

GEORGE MONBIOT, AUTHOR: The significance is as follows: That those who have sought to deny that we need to take action on climate change, many of whom have been sponsored by the fossil fuel industry to do that, started off by saying, �Climate change isn’t happening. It’s all a myth. It’s all a conspiracy dreamt up by the UN and a cabal of left-wing, anti-business, anti-American environmentalists.� Then, without ever admitting that they’ve got it wrong, they smoothly moved over to saying, �Okay, climate change is happening, but it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. We’ll be able to grow wine in Scotland, have Mediterranean holidays in Toronto.� And then, without ever admitting that they got that bit wrong, they moved on to saying, �Okay, climate change is happening, and it’s a bad thing, not a good thing, but it would cost far too much to do anything about it. It would cost more to try to prevent than it would cost to adapt to.� And what Stern has done in his review is to show the opposite, that it would cost far more to try to live with climate change than to try to prevent runaway climate change from taking place. My concern with Stern’s report is as following: That this isn’t an economic issue; this is a moral issue. Even if the economic case said, �It doesn’t make sense to be spending money on climate change, because it would cost less to try to live with the effects,� the costs of climate change, the real costs, are not measured in dollars and pounds. The real costs are measured in lives, in human lives and in ecosystems. Immeasurable.

JAY: Stern says there’s still time, and he makes recommendations. Are Stern recommendations enough?

MONBIOT: No. What’s very interesting about the Stern report is that like an awful lot of British government reports, there’s a lot of good sense in the middle sandwiched with bullshit at the top and bottom. If you go to the middle of the report, you’ll see that he says the government’s targets in the United Kingdom are woefully inadequate, and we need to go much, much further. He’s even calling for deeper cuts than the ones that I’m calling for. He’s calling for a 7 percent annual cut, which is even beyond my 90 percent by 2030. But that doesn’t appear in the summary and conclusions at all. It’s simply not there. In the summary, he endorses the government’s proposed cut of 60 percent by 2050, which is an entirely different kettle of fish.

JAY: This goes with something you mention in your book, that some of the people that really know the science compromise the science for what they think is politically achievable.

MONBIOT: There’s a very good example of this, which is in the person of the government’s chief scientist in the United Kingdom, who’s been a brave man in some ways. He stood up to the Bush administration. He wrote a very strong article in Science saying that the Bush administration’s position on climate change was a disgrace. And he took a lot of flak for that. But then he stood up at a conference that I attended and said: I am aiming for stabilizing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million. Now, someone in the audience who knows a lot about this stood up and said: But that’s ridiculous, because at 550 parts per million, we’ve only got a 10 percent chance of avoiding 2 degrees of climate change. And Sir David King said: Sure, but it would be politically unrealistic to call for anything lower. Whereupon this man says: But your job is not to present political reality; your job is to represent scientific reality. You’re not a spin doctor; you’re a scientist, you’re the chief scientist. You’ve got to say what the science says. And he says: Ah, but if I said that, no one would take me seriously. Whereupon this man says: I have ceased to take you seriously.

JAY: I accuse you of the same. If it is as serious as you say, and I believe it is, then how can we do less than declare warlike conditions? How can we do less than have the kind of government intervention that a World War II required and actually hit these targets?

MONBIOT: We can’t. We have to do that. Where’s the controversy? I mean, I completely agree with that as the analysis. We need to go onto an emergency planning footing. And it can be done. I mean, we are asking people for far less than they were asked for at the outbreak of the Second World War. When the Second World War began, people were asked to sacrifice their lives. We’re asking people to sacrifice their holidays in Thailand. It’s not exactly comparable. And on the other side, I mean, the changes we have to make in our lives are by comparison to the changes made in other people’s lives inconsequential. Yeah, we’ll have to cut back on the amount we drive and the amount we fly, and we’ll have to insulate our houses better, and we’ll have buy energy-efficient light bulbs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Sure, there’ll be some disruptive changes. But think about the disruptive changes of the people in Africa: tens of millions of people who will be without food, who will be without homes. They simply do not compare. The sacrifice, which we are being asked to make, is tiny by comparison to the sacrifice, which they will have to make if we don’t act.

JAY: But [inaudible] after reading your book. Are those relatively small sacrifices as you described really enough? And in some ways I would rather personally be told, yeah, it’s a wartime footing, yeah, you may have to make big sacrifices, and get ready.

MONBIOT: You’re in a very small minority. Most people want just the opposite. They want things to be as smooth and as painless as possible. And I have to make this politically feasible. And by �political feasibility� I mean making it as painless as possible. So we just have to sugar the pill. Now, the carbon rationing system is a way of making it fair. It’s also a way of making it politically plausible, because if people see that everybody is subject to the same constraints, then they’re more likely to feel they can participate. It’s also a way of generating tremendous enthusiasm for low-carbon technologies, because if you want to keep using a large amount of energy to keep your lights on and to keep your heating on and all the rest of it, you’re going to want that energy to be as low-carbon as possible, so that you can continue to use it and stay within your carbon ration.

JAY: How do we deal with the elephant in the room of this whole debate? If we can’t get this conversation going in the US�or should I put it more positively? How do we get this conversation going?

MONBIOT: No, you’re quite right. I mean, at the moment, if the US is sitting over there and we’re all going like this: �Oh, Iceland’s doing well. Sweden, yes, it’s good, good what’s happening in Sweden. All seven million people in Sweden are heading in the right direction.� And, yes, of course, we are ignoring it, because it’s almost too terrifying.

[crosstalk]

JAY: �China, but if the predictions are correct, then in a matter of four years China will be the number one producer of carbon emissions.

MONBIOT: But not per capita; not by a very long way.

JAY: Not per capita, but the problem isn’t per capita; the problem is just how much is getting churned out.

MONBIOT: Well, sure, but the solution is per capita. For us to turn to the Chinese and to point the finger at them and say, �They are the problem,� we have to become hypocrites on a scale which is almost unprecedented. I mean, the Chinese at the moment, per capita, produce 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Canadians produce 19, and the Americans 20. The Chinese individually are not the problem. Collectively, they will become the problem.

JAY: And collectively the Americans are certainly now the problem.

MONBIOT: Yes. And let me just tell you the Chinese are not going to move on this unless we show that we’re moving. At the moment, every nation is using every other as its excuse for not taking the necessary action.

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