The Call for Draconian Cuts

One of the criticisms of Al Gore’s message on climate change is that he exaggerates the imminence of the threat—implying, for instance, that sea levels may rise more quickly than scientists feel comfortable saying. But a few people think Gore is actually sugarcoating the catastrophe predictions.

Most prominently, the renowned British scientist James Lovelock thinks that the world is already approaching a tipping point, beyond which temperature rise will run out of control and major ecosystems will collapse. The dying Amazon rainforest would begin releasing carbon, making things even hotter. The permafrost would melt, releasing carbon and causing sea levels to rise. Environmental writer George Monbiot has taken Lovelock’s pessimism and come up with a plan in "Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning" (South End Press). To avoid hitting the "critical threshold," he says, the world’s total carbon emissions must be reduced to 60 percent below current levels by 2030—a target that would require the developed world to reduce emissions by 90 percent (to compensate for growth in China, India and other developing countries). Monbiot’s plan: each nation would be allocated a carbon limit based on urban population and each individual an annual carbon allowance. Governments, meanwhile, would redesign transport systems, generate renewable electricity, build energy-saving homes and offices, and update the old ones. Appliances would be "smart" enough to know when to turn themselves off. And his most radical idea: airline travel would have to be scrapped. Monbiot spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jessica Bennett on what needs to be done. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Where do you come up with this 90 percent figure?
George Monbiot:
It’s not an exact science. But the probability suggests that if you have more than 450 parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you are likely to have 2 degrees of climate change. In order to prevent that, we need a per capita cut of 60 percent worldwide. And if that cut is to be distributed fairly, in which everyone has equal entitlement to produce greenhouse gases, that means roughly a 90 percent cut in the rich nations.

What will happen if we don’t achieve that?
Hurricane Katrina was a glimpse of a possible future. It’s what our world could become if we don’t change. And if we do not drastically cut our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will see that nightmare come true again and again.

But how much would all of this cost, and who would pay for it?
My rough estimate is about a 50 percent increase in energy costs. That would come partly from consumers, who would pay more for their gasoline, electricity and heating fuel, and partly from governments.

What about cost in the way of lost economic opportunities?
This is much harder to quantify. [The estimate of Nicholas Stern, former World Bank head, in a report last year for the U.K. government], for a much less ambitious target, was 1 percent of GDP. But I can only guess.

Don’t you think suggesting we virtually eliminate air travel is unrealistic? What’s the alternative?
There are lots of ways of engaging with people that don’t require business travel. For instance, a video link is when you go into a studio close to home with a television camera and a microphone and you can talk to a room full of people [anywhere in the world]. It’s very much as if you were there. Now there’s another initiative that allows you legally to sign documents from the other side of the world.

What about leisure travel?
It is becoming morally unacceptable now to fly to go on holiday. The carbon emissions per passenger mile are roughly the same from a plane as they are in a car, but while in a car you might travel 10,000 miles in a year, in a plane you travel 10,000 miles in a day. So individually, by taking a flight, you are doing more damage than you could possibly do by any other means, and your luxury is depriving other people of their necessities.

Have you given up flying?
The only reason for which I will fly is to campaign on climate change. I’ve stopped flying for holidays and for any other business.

Do you think driving is morally unacceptable as well?
In the U.K., 40 percent of all our journeys by car are less than two miles long. If you are relatively fit and able, you can make a two-mile journey by bicycle in 10 minutes. And by doing so, you not only cut your carbon emissions, you can get quite fit.

So you must think Al Gore is completely immoral, in light of the revelations about his personal energy use.
One of the things I was struck by in his film was that he seemed to be proud of the amount of flying he’d done to go talk about "An Inconvenient Truth." I was amazed that he didn’t seem to see any contradiction between his message and his way of promulgating it. I think it was a good thing that he flew abroad; I think that was justifiable. But I think he should have acknowledged it in the program. And I was disappointed to hear about his own personal energy use. At the same time, I think he has contributed as much to this issue as all other environmental campaigners put together.

What do you realistically think you can accomplish?
Already in Germany, we’re seeing a massive program of energy efficiency in homes that is surprisingly cheap and could easily be rolled out in every rich nation on earth. So something like that you could see happening with very little political difficulty. Cutting down the size of airports is more difficult, I admit. And it can’t happen unless a very big popular campaign demands that it happens.

Have any politicians signed on to your plan?
They haven’t admitted it, but quite a few governments are beginning to do the sort of things I’ve been calling for. In the U.K., for instance, we now have the first legally binding unilateral set of laws in the world which say the government must cut carbon emissions by a certain amount (60 percent) by a certain date (2050) or it can be prosecuted in court.

But haven’t you said that’s too little too late?
It doesn’t go nearly far enough, but at least it creates a framework.

Have we reached the tipping point already?
Not quite, but we’re getting close.

If that’s the case, where are the mass demonstrations? Are we all in denial?
Beyond a certain level, we just stop our ears and shut our eyes in order not to hear the message that things have got to change. We want to believe we can carry on as usual.

But why should I sacrifice when the rest of the world is whizzing by me in SUVs?
This is why we desperately need government action. For 18 years I’ve gone without a car, and I realize that all I’ve done is clear space on the roads for someone to drive a less-efficient vehicle than I would have driven. We have to have a framework of government action to make our individual actions meaningful.

How close are we to that?
It depends which country you’re talking about. In the U.K., a lot closer than in the U.S. In Germany, about the same as in the U.K. In Sweden, quite a lot better.

How optimistic are you that the world will take you seriously?
It’s pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.