Environment: Trading in Destruction

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Andrew Stone speaks to acclaimed environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot about the threat posed by global warming.

There have been a number of reports in recent weeks on the effects of global warming, including the report from the international conference in Exeter on climate change. What do they add to our knowledge about the scale of the problem?

Well, they reinforce what we were already aware of - that there's an urgent existential problem, in other words, one that threatens the continued existence of human beings on the planet. They have provided some quite specific predictions of what might happen by particular dates, and what the scale of the crisis is that we need to avoid.

There seems to be a grim irony - shown very graphically by some of these timelines - that many of the poorest parts of the world, which have been the least responsible for climate change, are likely to suffer the worst effects.

That's absolutely correct. Indeed, there's a new paper that's been presented at Exeter which shows that Africa is going to suffer most. Africa is the least responsible for carbon emissions. It is profoundly ironic. I think we would take climate change much more seriously if it was the rich world that was going to be hit hardest. But this is an issue of profound global injustice in that we have the pleasure - and cause the problem - and they primarily suffer from it.

Tony Blair's giving a high profile to the issue during the G8 presidency. What do you think the government agenda is on climate change - and what should it be?

If the government was judged on its rhetoric it would come top in the international league, but when it's judged on its actions it does rather less well. Blair is constantly urging the world to take climate change seriously and we must thank him for that. But if his message is to have any credibility he has to show that Britain is taking climate change seriously, and so far he has failed to do so. In particular, if we look at the planned expansion of airports and road traffic in Britain we see that, far from improving, our environmental performance has been deteriorating rapidly under Blair's premiership.

It seems that he's living off borrowed political capital from industrial changes that took place in the early 1990s.

Yes. The reason why Britain is able to meet its Kyoto targets is the switch from coal-fired power generation to gas-fired power generation, which was nothing to do with Blair's policies and was nothing to do with environmental concerns. It came about for political and economic reasons. So he's able to say that Britain is doing well because we are going to meet our Kyoto targets, but when you look at the policy changes that have taken place while Blair has been prime minister, you see that Britain has done far worse than it would have done if an environmental approach had been taken.

You mention the Kyoto climate change treaty. It finally came into force last month, but it falls a long way short of the emission reductions recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its defenders argue that it is nonetheless an important first step. What do you think?

I think it's true that there has to be a forum for discussion and a framework for negotiation at that level. It is also completely correct, as you say, that Kyoto goes nowhere near far enough towards the cuts that we need to see. If we're going to have a serious impact on this problem we're really talking about 80 percent cuts within 20 years, rather than 5 percent cuts by 2012.

So we have to see change of an order of magnitude much greater than that which is envisaged at the moment. That means more than rhetoric, more than hot air, more than the sort of public relations campaign that we've seen so far from the government. It means massive and concrete action to change the way in which our economies are organised.

What kind of action do you see being necessary?

We have to make it easier and cheaper for people to do the right thing than for them to do the wrong thing. At the moment the cheap and easy option is to engage in the most reckless and destructive economic activities. It's cheaper, for instance, to get on an aeroplane than to get on a train. It's far easier to get in your car to go to the supermarket than to walk to a shop round the corner.

We really have to reverse those economic prescriptions. We have to switch away from the fossil fuel economy towards an economy based on new technology. We have to see a massive increase in energy efficiency, not just efficiency per appliance - in other words, more efficient cars, more efficient fridges - but also total economic efficiency, where people don't have to travel so far, where people have homes that are much better insulated and they don't have to use nearly so much energy in order to heat them.

The emissions trading system is an important part of Kyoto. Can it ever be equitable or just to buy the right to pollute?

Under the current system absolutely not. The problem we have is that the quotas have been awarded to corporations, and the corporations - which have caused the biggest emissions in the past - have been granted the biggest quotas. So those who are most responsible for the crime benefit most from that crime. This seems to be profoundly contrary to natural justice.

I think a quota system would be fair if it was done on a global per capita basis. In other words, if everybody all around the world had an equal carbon quota, so that those who used less than their quota could be financially rewarded for using less, there would be some justice in it. Then, in my way, it could be a viable part of the contraction and convergence model. But to hand these quotas out to corporations, so that they can treat them as any other commodity, and make money twice from climate change - first from causing the problem, and then from trading the problem - is profoundly wrong.

Absolutely. And Britain's the first country to introduce this domestically.

Simply because it creates a new market for corporations. It provides a new opportunity for capital.

Why do you think the lunatic fringe of climate change sceptics get so much media attention?

I think there are two reasons. First of all, because the media is controlled by large corporations that have an economic interest in denying that there's a problem with the economic model that they benefit from.

Secondly, whether we acknowledge it to ourselves or not, many of us want to believe them. We want to believe them because we can't face the consequences of accepting what the scientists are saying - in other words, that everything has to change if we are to deal with this humanity-threatening problem.

James Lovelock, a leading environmental theoretician, has suggested nuclear power as the alternative to everything changing. How should we respond?

He has proposed nuclear power as the lesser of two evils. He says that global warming threatens to kill hundreds of millions or billions of people - and he's quite right in that - whereas nuclear accidents and nuclear discharges might only kill thousands of people. He's asking us to choose between two forms of mass death and to choose the lesser one. That would be a rational position if our choice consisted only of those alternatives. But in fact there is a third choice, which is not to choose mass death at all, but to choose an entirely safe means of generating energy through such technologies as solar and wind, which as far as I'm aware kill no one, and to invest massively in energy efficiency, which also kills no one.

I think he has an enthusiasm for nuclear power that is a hangover from the time when he was a young man, when people were extremely excited about the prospects offered by nuclear energy. They believed that it would generate electricity too cheap to meter and that everyone would have a nuclear reactor in their car. As we know now, those promises have not materialised, but people of Lovelock's generation still haven't abandoned their optimism about nuclear power.

Some people argue that there's an intrinsic conflict between science and technology on the one hand and concern for the environment and ecology on the other. What do you think about that?

What the issue of climate change shows is that it's the environmentalists who are on the side of science, and the corporations and the so called 'sceptics' - in other words, the people the corporations employ - who are trying to deny the science. Environmentalism has always been science based. It has publicised the science that shows that we have a number of environmental problems and not all of that science has always been resistant to disproof. But that's in the nature of science. Science is something that you constantly try to disprove. But so far climate science has very robustly resisted disproof, and those who warn about the impact of climate change are on the side of the great scientific majority.

And practically, what can the global justice movement do about climate change?

We have to mobilise on the sort of scale on which we mobilised before the Iraq war - but not just for a few months, on a permanent basis. We have to remind people constantly of the scale and the nature of the crisis that we face, while at the same time devising innovative means of prompting people to change the way they think and the way they live. That requires a lot of creativity and the sort of collective genius that our movement is very good at. I'm really delighted that we're beginning to see the kind of climate marches that are essential if we're going to draw people's attention to the problem.


Equity for Survival

'Contraction and convergence' (C&C) is a framework devised by the Global Commons Institute (GCI) to limit greenhouse gas emissions and so minimise human-induced climate change. 'Contraction' refers to total emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, and 'convergence' the equalisation of emissions per person globally.

First proposed in 1996, C&C is based on the principle of 'equity for survival' - that developed countries will have to make the most drastic social and industrial changes to prevent runaway global warming.

The chart tracks the 0.7°C average surface temperature rise that has occurred since the industrial revolution. This clearly mirrors the rise in carbon emissions; atmospheric concentrations have increased from 280 parts per million to around 380 ppm today (bottom left).

The C&C model has been applied to various carbon budgets - the later the date of convergence between countries and the slower the rate of contraction, the greater the concentrations of CO2 we can expect. This relatively ambitious model, converging in 2030, would still see CO2 concentrations reach 450ppm, higher than the Earth has experienced for millions of years, and a best case scenario of a further 1°C rise.

However, even this will require a transformation of humanity's relationship to the environment that goes far beyond the Kyoto treaty.


For more on C&C go to www.gci.org.uk/briefing/ICE.pdf.

A detailed pdf image can be zoom-viewed at www.gci.org.uk/images/C&C_Bubbles.pdf.

Thanks to Aubrey Meyer of GCI for his assistance.