Monbiot, Stern and climate change strategies

In New Left Review, Clive Hamilton writes a review and critique of George Monbiot’s Heat. There are a number of interesting passages. First, he gives this doozy as an indicator of how grave the issue is in the USA:

In recent years wealthy Texans have discovered the joys of sitting in front of a log fire. As it is usually hot in Texas they must turn their air conditioners up so they can enjoy the cosy warmth from their hearths. Using energy simultaneously to heat a house and cool it only seems perverse if you reject George Bush’s conception of the American way of life.

He condenses the policy choice between a carbon tax and carbon trading nicely:

[A] carbon tax and an emissions trading system are very similar, except that the first fixes the price of emissions and allows the market to determine the quantity emitted, while the latter sets the quantity of emissions and allows the market to set the price.

And he compares and contrasts the Monbiot plan and the Stern Review:

One reason for this divergence lies in differing targets. While Monbiot’s goal of 90 per cent cuts by 2030 would limit atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 440 parts per million, Stern considers this to be impossible and sets 550 parts per million as his target. This will require emission cuts of 25 per cent by 2050, including reductions of 60–75 per cent in the power sector. (Stern says that in the longer term, reductions of at least 80 per cent will be needed.) His goal is thus much less ambitious, although still hard to attain. Monbiot feels the need to describe in great detail exactly how and where the cuts should occur. Stern is confident that once a powerful signal is sent to the market, then the market will find a way to carry out the restructuring of the energy economy.

In a companion article, Monbiot responds. First he comments on the choice of a 2 degrees above pre-industrial target (remember we are already a third of the way there, with global average temperatures up about 0.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels):

Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. The permafrost of the West Siberian peat bog, for example, contains 70 billion tonnes of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. If all of it were released, its warming effect would equate to 73 years of current man-made carbon dioxide emissions. The methane that escapes due to melting would accelerate global warming, melting more permafrost, which releases more methane. A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle.

He chides Stern for not acknowledging this as a target:

Sir Nicholas Stern, for example, spells out the dire consequences of two degrees of warming. He then recommends a target for atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases of 550 parts per million, when measured as ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ (CO2e). Stern admits that this concentration would produce ‘at least a 77 per cent chance—and perhaps up to a 99 per cent chance, depending on the climate model used—of a global average temperature rise exceeding 2°C.’ It would also give us a ‘30–70 per cent’ chance of exceeding 3° and ‘a 24 per cent chance that temperatures will exceed 4°C’. In other words, 550ppm CO2e is the wrong target, as Stern must know. uk’ conference, Westminster, 21 September 2005.’, FGCOLOR, ‘#E3E3E3’, BGCOLOR, ‘#000000’)” onmouseout=”nd();”>

He then says that one of the most important choices comes down to one of nuclear power or fossil fuels with carbon sequestration, and explains why he chooses the latter:

Unless we discover a magical new source of fuel, it comes down to an unfortunate choice between nuclear power and burning fossil fuel with capture and storage. … Like most of the world’s people, I would like to see complete multilateral nuclear disarmament. This is almost impossible while fissile materials are still processed for use in nuclear power stations. Eisenhower’s programme for beating the nuclear sword into the nuclear ploughshare has achieved just the opposite.

So I place nuclear power second on my list of preferences. My first choice is the burning of natural gas with carbon capture and storage, and my third the burning of coal with ccs. Hamilton calls carbon capture ‘a political ruse first and foremost’, but the real ruse is to pretend that no ugly technology has to be selected: that a modern economy can be run on carrot juice and wishful thinking. He argues that carbon and storage is ‘likely to be more expensive than existing alternatives’. Which alternatives does he have in mind? If you want to generate large quantities of non-variable, low-carbon electricity, there is only one.

Monbiot then rips Stern’s methodology (this is not in Heat, as the book came out a few months before the Stern Review):

The calculations Stern uses … are nonsensical. On one side of the equation are the costs of preventing climate change, most of which take the form of investments in new technologies and disinvestments from old ones. These are quite easily quantified. On the other side are the costs of climate change. Some of these are financial—food prices could rise, sea walls will need to be built. But most of them are costs which have hitherto been regarded as incalculable: the destruction of ecosystems and human communities; the displacement of people from their homes; disease and death. These are all thrown together by Sir Nicholas with a formula he calls ‘equivalent to a reduction in consumption’, to which he then attaches a price. The global disaster unleashed by a 5–6° rise in temperature is ‘equivalent to a reduction in consumption’ of 5–20 per cent.

In what way is it equivalent? It is true that as people begin to starve they will consume less; when they die they cease to consume altogether. I can accept that a unit of measurement allowing us to compare the human costs of different spending decisions might be necessary. But Stern’s unit—a reduction in consumption—incorporates everything from the price of eggs to the pain of bereavement. He then translates it into a ‘social cost of carbon’, measured in dollars. He has, in other words, put a price on human life. Worse still, he has ensured that this price is lost among the other prices: when we read that the ‘social cost of carbon’ is $30 a tonne, we don’t know—unless we read the whole report—how much of this is made of human lives.

This methodology leads to a disastrous consequence, unintended but surely obvious. Stern’s report shows that the dollar losses from failing to prevent a high degree of global warming outweigh the dollar savings arising from not taking action. It therefore makes economic sense to try to prevent runaway climate change. But what if the result had been different? What if he had discovered that the profits accruing from burning more fossil fuels exceeded the social cost of carbon? We would then find that it makes economic sense to kill people.

Ridiculous as this sounds, it was, in effect, the conclusion of another report commissioned by the uk Treasury, written by the former chief executive of British Airways, Sir Rod Treasury, The Eddington Transport Study, December 2006. ‘, FGCOLOR, ‘#E3E3E3’, BGCOLOR, ‘#000000’)” onmouseout=”nd();”> Asked to advise the government on the links between transport and the uk’s economic growth, Eddington found that even when the costs of climate change, as calculated by Stern, are taken into account, the total costs of expanding the uk’s airports and road networks are lower than the amount of money to be made. Though he never spelt it out in these terms (I can find no evidence in his report that he has even understood the implications), Eddington discovered that it makes economic sense for other people—mostly Africans and Asians—to die in order that we in the developed world can travel more.

Finally, Monbiot defends his preference of equal per-capita emissions entitlements. He notes that:

the European Emissions Trading Scheme is flawed … because it is an act of enclosure. By handing out CO2 emissions permits, free of charge, to the European companies that pollute most, it ensured not only that the polluter was paid, but also that something which belongs to all of us—the right, within the system, to produce a certain amount of carbon dioxide—was given to the corporations.

I favour carbon rationing because it is a much fairer scheme: it allocates an equal entitlement to pollute to all people. One plausible scheme would ration 40 per cent of the national carbon target equally between citizens, purely for buying fuel and electricity. The other 60 per cent would be auctioned to companies for the same purpose, and all allocations would be tradeable. Those who use less than their entitlement can sell the surplus to those who use more. As, by and large, the poor use less energy than the rich, it is likely to result in a redistribution of wealth. Energy taxes, by contrast, hit the poor hardest.


  • While a per-capita carbon trading system is the more fair, I’m worried the cost of setting up and operating such a system would exceed what would be spent on energy conservation. I would be a whole other currency to be traded around and bet on, and everyone in the country would be involved, not just investors and their advisers.

    If set correctly, a carbon tax will have the same effect. I may take a couple years to work out the price elasticity of oil, but it would take just as long to work the kinks out carbon trading.

  • I find myself quite lost amongst the trees when it comes to climate change and economics. Or for that matter the social discourse on it (as I do not see much of the two). Can you believe that in a globe&mail web poll a couple days back that a wide majority of those who voiced their opinion actually view climate change for Canada in a positive light!

    I sit and think on many occasions of the mix between ecology and culture and I wonder how we will move forward. There are some good ideas out there but again as noted with this article I am not sure if one hand knows what the other is doing. In its aid to unleash some kind of market forces into the mix, the commodification process awaits it prey. But like labour, will this be a casualty that will be forced upon something that just will not submit to these notions. Will the commodification process be just another delaying tactic that in the end wastes what precious time we have to implement real change. Is it not a time for some original thinking, not some tired logic that seems rational only to those that believe in invisible hands and other specters.

    For thousands upon thousand of years our fore bearers walked amongst nature with an eye on balance. In less than 500 years we have unleashed some might of productive forces, insatiable and impoverished cultures and growing pop counts that consume the environment with unlimited abandon. The challenges ahead will need much more than rudimentary economics to lead the way. Knowledge, information and democratic enforcement are the keys to attaining this balance. And yes the costs of building the infrastructure of change will be expensive.

    We are riding a wave of innovation and hopefully harnessing these new forces can be helpful in attaining these requisite goals.
    Innovation will be key but it will be the political will that must generate a perfect storm to change the machinations of innovative powers towards focusing our output somewhat away from consumerism towards ecological balance needed.


  • “For thousands upon thousand of years our fore bearers walked amongst nature with an eye on balance.”

    I’m not sure that is true. There is no need to romanticize the past. Even with stone age technology there is evidence that we hunted some species to extinction. We just do things on a larger scale these days.

  • That is such an easy out, romanticizing the past. There was not much romantic about the past, and not much either about the present. However, if you could reach out to a hunter within a hunter gatherer society, which has been done in the modern day, (we are all not capitalists) you would discover that at both a tangible and intangible level, there was more of an awareness with regard to ecological balance. You did not hunt your bead box to extinction. I would also say look at soil erosion, energy consumption (water, transportation, etc) genetics, chemicals and pesticides. I would then also say look at distribution and waste, and then compare it. See this article for further examination of romanticizing. I am not suggesting some earlier time is better. However I am suggesting that a more intuitive understanding of the dynamics between the mode of production and ecology is required and it is needed now.

    Information and knowledge and the data gap that exists must start being filled and the space that informed decisions are supposed to made must be subjected to a more democratic process.

    If you are interested in ecology and hunter gathers or other modes of production here is a link to get your started.

  • Just a quick follow-up on a release today by a respected group of scientists that is fairly critical of the UN sponsored report on climate change. The 29 page report leaves you with the feeling that a lot more urgent action than what is mentioned in Monbiot’s article or for that matter Hamilton’s critique seem fairly tame. I am not one for scare mongering, but for the seemingly anti-capitalists forces that write these reports, as many in the right perceive the case to be, then it would seem that the Goddard space center is run, in the words of our faithful leader Steve, by conspiring international socialists.

    The Earth today stands in imminent peril
    …and nothing short of a planetary rescue will save it from the environmental cataclysm of dangerous climate change. Those are not the words of eco-warriors but the considered opinion of a group of eminent scientists writing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    here is a direct link to the paper

    The Earth today stands in imminent peril
    …and nothing short of a planetary rescue will save it from the environmental cataclysm of dangerous climate change. Those are not the words of eco-warriors but the considered opinion of a group of eminent scientists writing in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.


  • POPULATION – is the main problem. We need to depopulate over this century instead of exponentially expand as it seems we are destined to do. I don’t think that global climate change can be tackled as any source of serious undertaking without looking at the population explosion which is fueling so much of world emissions growth. If we depopulated to 2 billion we could all drive SUV’s on congestion free roads, take cheap flight holidays and would still be polluting less than we are now.

  • Mark, there is something to the population issue but it is more about distribution. The problem is the 1 billion of us who are putting out way to much CO2 not the other 5 billion who are much less than a sustainable output. So we could not really drop to a planet of 2 billion SUV drivers, and besides, how would you get there?

    But population does become a bigger concern if the 5 billion want to live large like the top 1 billion, and even moreso, if there will be another 3 billion on the planet in a few decades time.

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