Read an Excerpt
Two things prompted me to write this book. The first was something that happened in May 2005, in a lecture hall in London. I had given a talk about climate change, during which I had argued that there was little chance of preventing runaway warming unless greenhouse gases were cut by 80%[ref]. One of the questions stumped me.
“When you get your 80% cut, what will this country look like?”.
I hadn’t thought about it. Nor could I think of a good reason why I hadn’t thought about it. But a few rows from the front sat one of the environmentalists I admire and fear most, a man called Mayer Hillman. I admire him because he says what he believes to be true and doesn’t care about the consequences. I fear him because his life is a mirror in which the rest of us see our hypocrisy.
“That’s such an easy question I’ll ask Mayer to answer it.”
He stood up. He is 75, but looks about 50, perhaps because he goes everywhere by bicycle. He is small and thin and fit-looking, and he throws his chest out and holds his arms back when he speaks, as if standing to attention. He was smiling. I could see he was going to say something outrageous.
“A very poor third-world country.”
At about the same time I was reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday. The hero, Henry Perowne, comes home from a game of squash and steps into the shower.
“When this civilisation falls, when the Romans, whoever they are this time round, have finally left and the new dark ages begin, this will be one of the first luxuries to go. The old folk crouching by their peat fires will tell their disbelievinggrandchildren of standing naked mid-winter under jet streams of hot clean water, of lozenges of scented soaps and of viscous amber and vermilion liquids they rubbed into their hair to make it glossy and more voluminous than it really was, and of thick white towels as big as togas, waiting on warming racks.”
Was it my responsibility to campaign for an end to all this? To truncate the luxuries Perowne celebrates and which I - like all middle-class people in the rich world – now take for granted?
There are aspects of this civilisation I regret. I hate the lies and the political corruption, the inequality, the export of injustice, the military adventures, the roads, the noise, the waste. But in the rich nations most people, most of the time, live as all prior generations have dreamt of living. Most of us have a choice of work. We have time for leisure, and endless diversions with which to fill it. We may vote for any number of indistinguishable men in suits. We may think and say what we want, and though we might not be heeded, nor are we jailed for it. We may travel where we will. We may indulge ourselves “up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics.” We are, if we choose to be, well-nourished. Women – some women at any rate – have been released from domestic servitude. We expect effective healthcare. Our children are educated. We are warm, secure, replete, at peace.
For the first three million years of the history of the genus Homo, we lived according to circumstance. Our lives were ruled by the vicissitudes of ecology. We existed, as all animals do, in fear of hunger, predation, weather and disease.
For the following few thousand years, after we had grasped the rudiments of agriculture and crop storage, we enjoyed greater food security, and soon destroyed most of our non-human predators. But our lives were ruled by the sword and the spear. The primary struggle was for land. We needed it not just to grow our crops but also to provide power – grazing for our horses and bullocks, wood for our fires.
Then we discovered the potential of fossil fuels, and everything changed. No longer were we constrained by the need to live on ambient energy; we could support ourselves by means of the sunlight stored over the preceding 350 million years. The new sources of power permitted the economy to grow – to grow sufficiently to absorb some of the people expelled by the previous era’s land disputes. Fossil fuels helped both industry and cities to expand, which in turn helped the workers to organise and to force the despots to loosen their grip.
Fossil fuels helped us fight wars of a horror never contemplated before, but they also reduced the need for war. For the first time in human history, indeed for the first time in biological history, there was a surplus of available energy. We could survive without having to fight someone for the energy we needed. Our freedoms, our comforts, our prosperity are all the products of fossil fuel, whose combustion is also responsible for climate change. Ours are the most fortunate generations that have ever lived. Ours might also be the most fortunate generations that ever will. We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe.
Oh, those distant, sunny days of May 2005, when we believed we could solve this problem with a mere 80% cut! After my talk a man called Colin Forrest wrote to me. I had failed, he explained, to take account of the latest science. He sent me a paper he had written whose argument (which I will explain at greater length in the next chapter) I could not fault.
If carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels reaches a certain concentration in the atmosphere – 430 parts per million parts of air – the likely result is two degrees of warming. Two degrees centigrade is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it. This means that 2° inevitably leads to 3°. This in turn triggers further collapses, releasing more carbon and pushing the temperature 4-5° above pre-industrial levels: a point at which the survival of certain human populations is called into question. Beyond 2° of warming, in other words, climate change is out of our hands: there is nothing we can do to prevent it from accelarating. The only means, Forrest argues, by which we can be fairly certain that the temperature does not rise to this point is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2030. This is the task whose feasibility Heat attempts to demonstrate.
So is this a manifesto for the destruction of civilisation? Am I attempting to reduce our lives to those of “a very poor third world country”? No. This book seeks to devise the least painful means possible of achieving this preposterous cut. It attempts to reconcile our demand for comfort, prosperity and peace with the restraint required to prevent us from destroying the comfort, prosperity and peace of other people. And though I began the search for these solutions in the spirit of profound pessimism, I now believe it can be done.
Heat is both a manifesto for action and a thought experiment. Its experimental subject is a medium-sized industrial nation: the United Kingdom. It seeks to show how a modern economy can be de-carbonised while remaining a modern economy. Though the proposals in this book will need to be adjusted in countries with different climates and of greater size, I believe the model is generally applicable: if the necessary cut can be made here, it can be made by similar means almost anywhere.I concentrate on the rich nations for this reason: until we have demonstrated that we are serious about cutting our own emissions, we are in no position to preach restraint to the poorer countries. The rich world’s most common excuse for inaction can be expressed in one word: China. It is true that China’s emissions per person have been rising by around 2% a year. But they are still small by comparison to our own. A citizen of China produces, on average, 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. A citizen of the United Kingdom emits 9.5, and of the United States, 20.0. To blame the Chinese for the problem, and to claim that their rapacious appetites render our efforts futile is not just hypocritical. It is, I believe, another manifestation of our ancient hysteria about the Yellow Peril. After looking at what the impacts of unrestrained climate change might be, and at why we have been so slow to respond to the threat, I begin my search for solutions within my own home. I show how years of terrible building, feeble regulations and political cowardice have left us with houses scarcely able to perform their principle function, which is keeping the weather out. I look at the means by which our existing homes could be redeemed and better ones could be built, and discover what the physical and economic limits of energy efficiency might be.
I would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past 40 years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time.
What is the point of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks? By refusing to own a car, I have simply given up my road space to someone who drives a hungrier model than I would have bought. Why pay for double-glazing when the supermarkets are heating the pavement with the hot air blowers above their doors? Why bother installing an energy-efficient lightbulb when a man in Lanarkshire boasts of attaching 1.2 million Christmas lights to his house? (Mr Danny Meikle told journalists that he needs two industrial meters to measure the electricity he uses. One year his display melted the power cable supplying his village. The name of the village - which proves, I think, that there is a God - is Coalburn.) ….